How to Use the Right Tools to Beat Procrastination

Part 2: Apps for improving willpower

George Halachev
May 26, 2017 · 12 min read

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Table of Contents
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Apps for Improving Willpower:
Applying Willpower
Replenishing Willpower
Beating Decision Fatigue
Blocking External Distractions

In the first part of this series, we focused on how be aware of the main cause for procrastination: the inability to deal with the negative emotions that arise from facing a hard task. Staying aware is only the first step. If we want to beat procrastination, we have to learn how to deal with the negative emotions and take action anyway.

Taking action despite not feeling like it is a matter of applying willpower. We do something that is good in the long term even if it doesn’t feel great in the moment. For example, we don’t feel like exercising today, but we do it anyway because we know it’s good for our long-term health.

Since we’re wired for instant gratification, it’s a constant temptation to do the easy tasks and delay the difficult ones, even if that choice is detrimental in the long run. Learning how to use our willpower to overcome that temptation is critical to beating procrastination.

In this article, we will focus on tools that help us to:

  1. Apply willpower
  2. Replenish willpower
  3. Remove willpower drains
  4. Increase willpower capacity

Lots of apps and tools can help with these challenges, and some are more effective than others. In each case below, I’ve chosen the best one based on feedback I’ve seen from my clients and using it myself.

There are also many strategies we can use for each category. For example, to replenish willpower, we have to let our mind and body fully relax. We can do that by taking a walk, meditating, stretching, doing yoga, etc. I’ve chosen the most effective method — power naps—for you to begin with.

Applying Willpower

You know the procrastination impulse that comes just before we start working on a hard task? It’s a burst of negative emotions, followed by excuses and rationalizations. It’s the moment when we want to watch YouTube or play a game. This is the moment when the real work to beat procrastination starts. This is the moment when we have to apply our willpower, ignore all excuses, and just start.

As Tim Pychyl says, “just start” is not equal to Nike’s slogan, “just do it.” It means to just get started with the first little piece. Start by laying the first brick. As soon as we start doing some real work, the internal resistance drops significantly, and doing the work becomes much easier.

However, overcoming the start is not the only challenge. After working for a while, we get hit by the second procrastination impulse. It often happens when we get to a roadblock — something that is necessary to continue making progress but not easy to get through. Examples include:

  • We don’t have all the info we need and have to do some research.
  • One of our tools is not working properly, and we have to fix it.
  • We have to make an uncomfortable phone call.

Those are cases where we have to use our willpower, stay strong, and keep going with the task. These are critical points where we have to apply our willpower.

Tool: Forest

Price: $1.99| Platforms: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Chrome

Forest is an app that helps you fend off procrastination impulses and stay on track despite the difficulty. It works much like a pomodoro timer: You set the duration for focused work and hit start. Your goals are to stay fully focused on the task while the timer is running and ignore all procrastination impulses.

This app is better than others because it combines four important elements: the pomodoro timer, time tracking, and positive and negative reinforcement. Most other apps offer just one or two of these elements.

Forest uses the visual metaphor of planting a seed that grows with time. The seed needs a certain amount of time to grow into a full tree, just like planting a task in your to-do list needs a certain amount of time and focus to be completed.

If you break your focus by opening another app or a procrastination website while the timer is running, your tree will die. But if you stay focused during the entire period, you will have a full-grown tree in your garden. As you complete more focused periods, the more your garden will grow—reflecting real work that you are getting done.

The default task time is 25 minutes, but you can set a period from 10 to 120 minutes. If your task is extra difficult, set the timer to 10 to 15 minutes max. It’s much easier to overcome procrastination impulses when you commit to a shorter period of time.

The idea here is to train your focus progressively. Set a timer for just outside your comfort zone, but not too far that it triggers procrastination impulses.

When you’re done working, you’re rewarded with a great visual representation of your focus: a beautiful garden and statistics of your quality work time.

The statistics can motivate you to do more work, but be careful to log only the real work. The busy work and easy tasks don’t count.

When you use the app on mobile, your tree will grow as long as the app is open. If you minimize it, Forest recognizes that as a procrastination activity and gives you a warning and a few seconds to get back on track. If you don’t, your beautiful tree will die.

If you use the app in Chrome, it will distinguish between procrastination and real work by using a website blacklist.

You can blacklist all the websites that you use for procrastination. If you open one of these websites while the timer is running, you will get an overlay with the Forest timer instead. You’ll kill your tree if you continue to the procrastination website.

Replenishing Willpower

Willpower is a limited resource: We only have so much of it every day. Willpower is like fuel in a car — we have a limited capacity. In the morning, we wake up fully refreshed with a full tank. As we go through our day and use our willpower, it gradually runs out.

There are times when we should stop and replenish instead of trying to push through the resistance and inevitably procrastinate.

However, it’s important to recognize if the need for a break is real or just another procrastination impulse. The fake need for a break usually arises after you hit a difficulty in your project. You’ll feel guilty because subconsciously you know you’re cheating. Another sign that the need is fake is that you’ll do one of the procrastination activities, like watching YouTube or going on social media, instead of really relaxing.

The real break happens after you have laid some bricks and resisted a few procrastination impulses. Taking a break after making real progress will recharge you, and you won’t feel guilty.

If you want to replenish your willpower, the break can’t be a procrastination activity like watching YouTube. For a real break, you have to let your mind and body fully relax.

Tool: Pzizz

Price: Free ($9.99 for Premium) | Platforms: iOS, Android

As we said, there are many ways to recharge willpower, like light exercise or stretching, but the best way by far is sleep.

Taking a 20-minute nap is ideal. It gives your mind and body a chance to completely switch off and fully relax, but it’s still a reasonable break duration, so you don’t feel guilty or groggy. And even if you don’t fall asleep during the 20 minutes, the break will still recharge your willpower.

Pzizz is one of the best tools designed to help you get a great power nap. It combines some of the most effective scientific methods to make the nap more effective — psychoacoustics, binaural beats, neurolinguistic programming (NLP), and hypnosis. So even if you’re not naturally a good napper, Pzizz has you covered.

Pzizz comes with a very simple interface — just pick the duration of your desired nap and hit go. Once the timer starts running, Pzizz plays soothing music tracks (Dreamscapes) that are scientifically optimized for sleep. When you rate the music and quality of each nap, the algorithm gradually adjusts to provide the best possible Dreamscape for you.

Since the music is computationally generated, it’s different every time and won’t lose its effectiveness from your mind getting used to it.

The app also provides optional voiceover based on principles from psychoacoustics, hypnosis, and NLP. Similar to guided meditation, the voiceover helps to calm your mind and body.

Just like the music, the voiceover sequences are different every time so your mind will not get bored with them.

The Dreamscapes include four different sections:

  1. Introduction: Captures your attention enough to calm your mind.
  2. Falling Asleep: Draws you deeper into sleep.
  3. Sleeping: Keeps you asleep.
  4. Waking: Three minutes to gently wake you up.

The methods in Pzizz are based on real science and research. If you’re interested, you can read more about it on the company’s blog.

Beating Decision Fatigue

Another aspect of having enough willpower to deal with procrastination is making sure we aren’t wasting it. We need to protect our fuel and use it only for the things that count.

A lot of things are draining our willpower every day, like emotional distress, conflicts with people, or irrational fears. Another huge willpower drain is making decisions. That’s fine for important decisions, but when we start wasting our willpower for insignificant everyday decisions, it becomes very ineffective.

Compared to fixing your social conflicts, stress levels or irrational fears, taking care of the insignificant daily decisions is much easier, but it will free up just as much willpower as the others.

Each little decision that you make will eat a little bit of your willpower:

  • What to wear that day.
  • Which route to take to the office.
  • What to have for lunch.
  • Which restaurant to go to for dinner.

A cool thing we can do to save that willpower is to routinize as many of those small daily decisions as we can. For example, create a meal plan for the whole week so you don’t have to decide each day what to eat. Make a shopping list with everything you need and go to the grocery store just once a week.

Barack Obama used this principle by choosing suits in only two colors: black and gray. Considering how many decisions a president has to make each day, I bet eliminating those small things helped him preserve his willpower for the important decisions.

Tool: Routinist

Price: Free ($8.99 for Premium) | Platform: iOS

Routinist helps you build your morning/bedtime routines and automate insignificant decisions so you can save your willpower.

Let’s face it: Building habits is difficult. If it were easy, you wouldn’t be reading this. You can’t just think of a healthy routine and implement it in one day. To be successful, you need to do some careful advance planning.

You need to write down all the healthy routines you want to automate as well as the unhealthy ones that you want to stop. You also have to calculate how much time each takes to make sure it’s realistically achievable. Doing all that work manually can be tedious. That’s where Routinize comes in to make your life easier.

It offers a list of hundreds of morning and evening actions that you can add to your routine. Having the complete list to pick from ensures that you’re not forgetting anything important when making your plan.

You can choose activities like exercise, taking your meds, drinking water, walking the dog, or tidying up. If an activity can be turned into a routine, it’s in there. The app even has beautiful little icons for each action. The more of these mundane daily activities you turn into a routine, the more willpower you free up.

The process to create your routine begins with defining two boundaries: the “go time” and the amount of sleep you need. The “go time” is the time you leave for work in the morning. By choosing those two boundaries, you define how much total time you have for all actions, and you can make a realistic plan.

Here is an example of my current morning routine:

I set my “go time” as 8 a.m. and the sleep amount to eight hours. After defining those boundaries, I add my morning and evening activities with the approximate duration for each. The app automatically calculates the total time for the morning and bedtime routines and lets me know when I have to go to bed so I can get enough sleep and finish everything on time.

Of course, when you’re in planning mode, the duration for each activity is just a guess. That’s why Routinist has a tracker mode: a timer that records the exact duration for each activity as you’re doing it.

When you start your morning routine, hit the checkmark for the first activity. The timer automatically starts. When you’re done with the first, mark it as complete and continue through the list, checking off tasks one by one. When you’re done with the entire routine, you will have a better idea of how much time you need for each activity.

Not all of your routines will be daily. That’s why you have the option to create a different routine for each day. On the weekend, for example, you can add a few extra weekly routines, like do my budget, go to the bank, car wash, vacuum, etc.

After you do the routine for a few weeks you will notice that it starts to become automatic. All these decisions that used to take willpower will be automatic and you can put that willpower to better use.

Blocking External Distractions

The procrastination impulses are bad enough, but when you add external distractions, doing real work becomes impossible. Imagine that you just spent a lot of willpower getting started on a hard task, and then your phone rings. All that willpower is gone.

When I work on something difficult and I’m likely to procrastinate, I try to create a complete distraction blackout. I power off the phone, unplug the internet, and put on headphones so nobody around can distract me.

That works pretty well, but sometimes you have to be online for the work you’re doing. In that case, unplugging the internet doesn’t work.

Tool: Freedom

Price: $17.40 Per Year or $71.40 Lifetime | Platforms: Mac, Windows, iPhone/iPad, Chrome (Coming Soon: Firefox, Safari)

Freedom is an app that blocks distracting websites. It’s a great way to be able to do your online work yet avoid the clutter. It’s a bit pricey considering that you can find similar apps for free, but the advantage is that it blocks access on all your connected devices.

The app allows you to create a list of the websites where you frequently procrastinate. It also has a convenient “Block All Websites” button to easily and completely turn off the internet.

Once you have created your list of procrastination websites, all you have to do is set a duration for the block and hit start. The selected websites will be blocked until the timer runs out or you cancel the session.

Freedom also includes a “locked mode,” which means once you block access for a set amount of time, there is no going back — you’re locked out. It’s a great option if you’re low on willpower and want to overcome procrastination impulses. It’s a way of helping your future self stay on track.

Since Freedom is not available on Android, a good option for those devices is the Offtime app.

The more you use these tools and improve each area separately, the more you will improve control over your actions and decisions. It’s much like the legs of a stool: The stronger its legs, the more stable it will be. As you keep improving your willpower, you’ll notice that you’ll improve your ability to overcome procrastination.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Terrie Schweitzer

The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination
The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination
The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination

About this Collection

The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination

Time is precious. Still, it sometimes seems to be the one resource we’re willing to give away for free. Here, psychologists and social scientists reveal the whys and hows behind procrastination. Each story features science-backed steps you can take to get your calendar back under control.

Time is precious. Still, it sometimes seems to be the one resource we’re willing to give away for free. Here, psychologists and social scientists reveal the whys and hows behind procrastination. Each story features science-backed steps you can take to get your calendar back under control.

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