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A Simple Algorithm for Beating Procrastination

There’s something you know you need to do, but you can’t get yourself to actually do it. Despite how important the task is, you just don’t feel compelled to take action. We’ve all been there. Here are three things that I, and my readers, often procrastinate:

  • Writing or finishing other tedious work tasks
  • Paying bills or completing paperwork
  • Having difficult conversations with friends, family or colleagues

I discovered an interesting approach for beating procrastination while listening to “Beat Your Genes,” a podcast about psychology and finding happiness. In episode 39, the co-host, Dr. Doug Lisle, an evolutionary psychologist, shares how to stop procrastinating by being aware of the living conditions of our ancestors, how our brains have adapted to account for those conditions, and how to update your decision making “algorithm” to account for the living conditions in modern society.

Sometimes procrastination is a good strategy

Dr. Lisle posits that procrastinating is not necessarily indicative of a character flaw or moral shortcoming. Rather, it’s an adaptive strategy that was quite effective for our ancestors, and can even be effective today.

Dr. Lisle discusses why procrastinating on paying back debt may have been an effective strategy for our ancestors. In pre-civilized times, there was more significant risk that your lender would die before he was able to collect on the debt that you owe him. Therefore, it wouldn’t make sense to pay back your debt before you needed to. Rather, procrastinating was a better strategy because there was a chance that you may never need to pay back your debt, which would save you time, energy and money.

However, in modern times, there is significantly less risk that your lender will spontaneously die or disappear. In other words, you’re gonna have to do that thing that you don’t want to do! Yet, we haven’t updated our algorithms to account for the new conditions.

We need to update this algorithm in part because waiting to do the work until closer to the due dates means that your time will be monopolized and you won’t be able to pursue more promising opportunities. For example, if writing your term paper will take twenty hours, and you wait until two days before it’s due, you will have to spend most of those to days on your paper. So if a new opportunity comes up, such as an invitation to an important event, you won’t have the time to seize it.

You can prevent yourself from procrastinating on an important task by understanding the algorithm your brain uses to make decisions about whether or not to procrastinate on a task, and updating the variables within it to account for modern times.

Update your algorithm

Your brain runs a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether it should procrastinate on a given task or complete it.

If there’s a high probability that you won’t need to complete the task, it makes sense to procrastinate. For example, if your friend often flakes on you at the last minute, it makes sense not to buy him an expensive concert ticket until the last minute. However, if you overestimate the probability that you won’t need to complete the task, you won’t be motivated to complete it until the last minute.

Thus, the key to crushing procrastination is to properly determine the probability that you will need to complete the task.

In making this calculation, be aware that your algorithm will lead you astray when it’s driven by your adaptive brain — the brain that accounts for pre-civilized times rather than modern times. It’s critical that you calculate your probabilities based on modern times.

Once you’ve updated your algorithm, determine the best course of action.

If there’s a low probability that you’ll need to complete a given task, or if there’s a chance the probability will change based on upcoming events, procrastinating may be your best strategy.

If there’s a high probability that you’re going need to complete the task, complete that task sooner rather than later. Completing the task sooner will enable you to take advantage of new opportunities that may arise between now and the due date, reduce your stress levels, and potentially improve the quality of your work.

Beat your procrastinating genes

Don’t beat yourself up too much about your tendency to procrastinate. It’s natural. Procrastination was often an effective strategy for our ancestors.

To overcome procrastination, be aware of how our brains have evolved and how that can lead us astray, and update your algorithm to account for modern times.

Listen to episode number 39 of the “Beat Your Genes” podcast here.


Two more things…