TPP #13: How to Overcome Procrastination

“I know what I need to do, I just can’t get started”. This is the reality for a lot of people out there. Perhaps you know the feeling?

Having received literally hundreds of emails from people who have signed up for my 7-Day Productivity Plan, procrastination is one of the most common problems people face when it comes to personal productivity. Often we know what needs to be done, but making a start on a task can seem unexciting and things like Netflix or the Playstation can highjack our attention.

In this post I’d like to talk about what causes procrastination and outline some tactics you can use right now for overcoming this problem. If you have any questions or stories to share, please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear how you deal with procrastination.


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WHAT CAUSES PROCRASTINATION?

It’s important to first examine what causes this problem of procrastination. I recently wrote a blog post on Productivityist.com where I looked at the psychology of procrastination and how it relates to different types of motivation.

In summary, procrastination is caused by a lack of motivation and a system that enables you to organise your work.

Lack of motivation

Motivation is the opposite of procrastination as it is the fuel that allows you to execute and actually do the things you want to do. Motivation is is made up of smaller components and can be written in the following formula:

Motivation = expectancy x value / (1 + impulsiveness x delay)

(developed by Piers Steel and Cornelius J. König)

In order to overcome procrastination, you must find ways to manipulate each of these variables. You must:

  • Believe that you can do the work (expectancy).
  • Identify a reward that can be had from doing the work (value).
  • Reduce your sensitivity to postpone doing the work (impulsiveness).
  • Become less influenced by the amount of time you have to do the work (delay).

We’ll look at how you can manipulate these variables below.

Lack of systems

Your motivation serves as your “why”. It’s your reason for doing the work and gives you a sense of purpose. The system you create helps you to structure how you’re going to do the work. It helps you organise your workload so that you can manage each of the variables discussed above.

Without a system it’s much harder to plan when you’re going to do what, where and when. It’s harder to prioritise your work and focus on the things that are more important or urgent. Your system is what enables you to be more efficient with how you use your time.

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HOW TO OVERCOME PROCRASTINATION

Okay, so now that we’ve looked at what causes procrastination, how can you overcome it?

1. Care about your work

I recently wrote about the importance of caring about your work. In my opinion, loving what you do is one of the biggest contributors to increased productivity. When you care about what you’re doing and can derive real meaning from the work you’re going to have a lot more motivation to get started on a task.

Imagine you're at the beach and someone you love is drowning and really needs your help. Are you going to take a while to act and go to help them? Probably not. It’s more likely that you’ll stop what you’re doing and try to save them straight away.

The takeaway here is to make sure that you work on things you care about. Remind yourself of how the work you do impacts other people. For me, I really care about helping people to be more productive. How does your work (either personal projects or your day job) benefit others?

When the value you derive from something is increased you become far less likely to delay. You see how the variables of motivation work with one another?

2. Set clear and actionable goals

When you care about your work and love what you do, the next step is to set clear and actionable goals. These goals help you to identify when you’re being productive and focusing on the right jobs compared to being active without making progress towards your goal.

SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) in particular allow you to set an agenda around your work. When you set SMART goals you’re forced to specify what you’re going to do, by when and how your progress will be measured. This allows you to make better decisions around what to focus on so you can be more effective and make better quality progress towards your goals.

This has an impact on the expectations you have around your goals. When you make them SMART they feel more achievable and it becomes much easier to start on a piece of work.

3. Schedule time to work on your goals

When you schedule time to do things, you’re making a promise to yourself in your calendar that you’re going to work on a specific task at a given time. When this time comes around you’re far less likely to be impulsive or delay as you’ve made this mental commitment to yourself.

The more you use your calendar like this and the more you maintain this habit, the stronger this power gets. You become more and more respectful of your time and you’ll get to the point where what’s in your calendar is treated as sacred.

4. Create stakes

Another great way to overcome procrastination is to create stakes (consequences) around your work. These can be either good or bad. Because the goals you created before are generally going to be positive, it’s more fun to make stakes negative.

For example, if you have a goal to create a basic website within the next 4 weeks, ask your friend to make a bet with you where if you fail you have to give them a sum of money for a charity of their choosing.

This consequence has the effect of creating negative value. In other words, instead of decreasing value to zero where there’s no point in doing something, there’s actually a downside to not doing something. As a result you’re more likely to make a start on a task as you don’t want to get caught out.

5. Enjoy the journey

Finally, remember to enjoy the journey. Remind yourself of the fun that can be had from working on things you care about and reaching a goal that matters.

It’s very easy to look at a big goal you’ve created for yourself and to feel overwhelmed by this. Instead of focusing on the endgame, just enjoy the process of chipping away at a task and use each day to make a little more progress. Before you know it, you’ll be smashing your goals and will wonder where the time went.

I like to keep a weekly journal to help with this process so I can celebrate the achievements I’ve made on a weekly basis. Remembering where you’ve come from and what you’ve achieved is a great way of keeping momentum high. This helps you avoid procrastination all together.

YOUR TURN!

Next time you face this challenge of procrastination and can’t get started on a task, remind yourself of these steps you can take. Why not save this article to Evernote and tag it with “procrastination” so you can come back to it if you need to.

What other tips do you have for overcoming procrastination? Tell me in the comments below!

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  • Umberto Percoco

    Hi Paul, I really enjoy your posts and find them very valuable. I have a small observation about this one. I think the formula should say
    Motivation = expectancy x value/(1 + impulsiveness x delay)
    Another aspect is that, this formula is very qualitative, because it is not possible to give numbers to the parameters involved, I don’t understand why 1+ …
    Do you undertsand it? if yes, Could you please explain it to me?

    • Hi Umberto, thanks for the feedback. Great observation. I’m not that sure about the “1”. The formula was developed by Piers Steel and Cornelius Konig who have a couple of books and papers on the topic. So I am assuming they have identified a quantitative way of measuring these variables in order to generate a numerical result.

      • Umberto Percoco

        Paul, this is interesting and I would really like to dig into it. I’ ll look for the papers you have mentioned above.

  • Hi Paul. Great post. This is one of your best podcasts yet. I think a) because it spoke to something I struggle with, and b) because your episodes are getting better and better. On your point about scheduling work in a calendar, I’d add that you will also benefit from the notification that pops up on your phone, tablet or monitor, that prompts you to get started. Anyway.mgreat post. Thanks.

    • Thanks Ryan! That’s ironic, this episode was really “off the cuff” and I was a little worried. Glad the content was valuable 😀

  • DJEB

    “Set clear and actionable goals”

    Yeah, I’m toast if I don’t do this. I might have a productive day without it, but I rarely have an unproductive day when what I need to do is unclear.

    • Yeah that’s a really good way of putting it. Sometimes setting goals isn’t about being more productive, it’s about avoiding procrastination and unproductiveness (which I guess is the same as being more productive anyway)!

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