The Real Reason You Procrastinate and How to Stop.

The Simplest Solutions are Often the Best.

Jake Wilder
Jul 5, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

“Procrastination,” Christopher Parker said, “is like a credit card; it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.” Procrastination is one of those things that we all know to avoid, yet somehow find ourselves doing regardless.

Like many of life’s frustrations, we usually know what we should do, we just don’t do it. Procrastination’s a prime example. We fully know that we should be taking on certain challenges, yet we can’t bring ourselves to do it. Instead, we focus our time and energy on other things, telling ourselves that we’ll get back to those critical efforts soon. Why? Why do we continue to act against our own best interest?

One common thought is laziness. Maybe procrastinators are just lazy bums who’d rather goof off watching YouTube than do real work. Except this tends to fall apart when you look at most procrastinators. They tend to be hard workers. And often the work they do while procrastinating is just as difficult as what they’re trying to avoid.

They‘re working hard. They’re just working on the wrong things.

Because we rarely procrastinate to avoid hard work. Instead, we procrastinate to avoid negative emotions. We procrastinate on work that’s ambiguous or in areas where we don’t know how to start. We procrastinate on efforts that bring a risk of failure.

If it’s clear and straightforward, there’s no reason to procrastinate. But if you’re unsure over what to do, it’s easy to put it off. And if the outcome is uncertain, or if it’ll result in external judgment, it’s easy to rationalize a delay.

Creative work’s ripe for procrastination. As is anything new or unconventional. Which brings us to the most insidious part of procrastination — it attacks our biggest opportunities for success. It doesn’t target hard work, but risk. And since our biggest goals often carry a substantial risk with them, we avoid tackling them today, instead telling ourselves that we’ll get to them tomorrow.

That’s the thing about procrastination, we don’t tell ourselves that we’ll never accomplish our goals; we just say that we’re not going to do them right now. And the cycle continues. Unless, of course, we decide to do something about it.

If I gave you the choice between $100 today and $110 tomorrow, which would you choose? What if the choice was between $100 a month from now or $110 in a month and one day?

Both options present the same situation — wait an extra day and get an extra $10. Yet in the first option, many people choose to take the smaller amount immediately. Whereas in the second choice, they’re happy to wait an extra day for the larger payout.

Same choice, but different results. Because contrary to rationality, we make different decisions when dealing with immediate consequence than we would for long-term ones. If we’re thinking about the future, we’re more likely to make a rational choice. But as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm our long-term best interest.

This present bias, our tendency to overvalue immediate rewards at the expense of long-term goals, represents a constant internal battle that we all face each day — the battle between our want-self and our should-self. The want-self focuses on what we want to do. It loves the immediate consequences. Our should-self knows what we should be doing. It recognizes the long-term consequences and tries to encourage smart decisions.

The want-self tells you to eat the junk food, hit the snooze button, and spend your morning scrolling through random Wikipedia pages instead of doing your work. Your should-self knows what you should do. It knows that you’ll feel better if you wake up and exercise. It’s just not as strong as the want-self. So in the moment of decision, the should-self loses out.

The should-self is there screaming at you to do the right thing. Yet the want-self’s in charge and it doesn’t much care about the long-term.

Procrastination’s a prime example of this battle. We procrastinate to avoid negative emotions. The should-self recognizes the importance of tackling them head on. But the want-self isn’t too interested in dealing with them right now. So in that moment, the want-self wins out. And we avoid taking that action we all know we need to take.

It’s not a question of motivation or willpower. Your want-self is stronger.

But while the want-self is stronger, your should-self is smarter. So the path to victory doesn’t lie through willpower alone, but through helping our should-self outmaneuver the want-self.

When we procrastinate, we rarely put something off forever. We just put it off until tomorrow.

We all have the grandest intentions for tomorrow. Today, we’re not too interested in doing that work we’d like to avoid. But tomorrow’s a different story. As the Spanish proverb says, “Tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week.”

Today is the domain of the want-self. Tomorrow belongs to the should-self.

If you know this — and you do because I just told you — then you can take advantage of this distinction. Let your should-self set tomorrow’s agenda instead of leaving it to a battle in the morning.

James Clear’s written about the Ivy Lee method to enhance your productivity. As the story goes, the president of Bethlehem Steel, Charles M. Schwab, was looking for a way to increase the productivity of his company in the early 1900s. When he brought in the famed productivity consultant Ivy Lee, Lee explained his simple daily routine for peak productivity:

1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six things.

2. Prioritize those six items in order of importance.

3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.

4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

5. Repeat this process every working day.

Having practiced the Ivy Lee method for some time now, I can attest to its benefits. It’s simple enough to follow. It forces prioritizations and constraints. And it reduces the friction of starting a new task.

But the best aspect is that it takes control away from the want-self and gives it to your should-self. It encourages you to sign yourself up for those difficult actions that you know you need to handle.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work in hand,” said Alexander Graham Bell. “The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” And while anyone who’s sat out for too long without sun block may would disagree with his second statement, the ability to focus our efforts on one piece of work at a time is often the difference between success and failure.

Having a set of priorities is a good start. However, I’ve also found that for me, and perhaps other skilled procrastinators, it’s not enough.

It’s great to have six items that will drive your success for the day. But this is only half of the equation. There are also the sacrifices that you need to make in pursuit of these actions.

Our want-self likes to ignore the reality of these trade-offs. It tries to tell us that we can do it all. Reality, unfortunately, is there to remind us that we can’t.

It’s easy to fall into this trap. Trade-offs involve things that we want. If not, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice and there wouldn’t be any problem.

Confront these decisions head-on and recognize that in order to accomplish anything of substance, there’s bound to be a sacrifice that comes with it. In order to do the items on your list, what are you not going to do? What trade-offs are you willing to make?

Combine your six priorities with six trade-offs. For each day, you should have a to-do list and a to-don’t list. What actions are you currently doing that limit your ability to focus on your biggest goals? What tasks do you fall into while procrastinating? And are you willing to stop doing these to accomplish your other priorities?

The simple of action clarifying your priorities forces you to make conscious decisions with how you’ll spend your time. And you’re in a much better position to make sure you’ll be happy with it.

Anna Deavere Smith described procrastination as “active avoidance” to show that it’s not a process derived of laziness or inactivity, it’s an active choice that we make. We choose to avoid taking on our biggest goals and in turn, we choose to avoid fully living our lives. Which is the true danger of procrastination — not that we won’t get enough done at work or make as much money — but that we’ll avoid taking on those responsibilities that we live to do.

The true danger of procrastination is that it puts us in that perpetual seesaw between busyness and delay, until we’ve gone through our life and failed to take on those challenges which give us true meaning. There’s no better time to stop that seesaw than now. There’s no better time to begin focusing on the major challenges that we’ve been putting off, regardless of the amount of risk they bring. As Seneca warned us all over two millennia ago,

“We all sorely complain of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. Our lives are either spent in doing nothing at all, or in doing nothing to the purpose, or in doing nothing that we ought to do. We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.”

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