The Procrastination Paradox
Getting motivated is tough, and it’s much easier to procrastinate a task we need to do over something we want or like to do. This problem of procrastination isn't unique to our modern time either. It’s been so prevalent in human society that the ancient Greek philosophers developed a word for it, it's called Akrasia. Akrasia is the state of acting against our better judgment. It is when we do one thing even though we know we should do something else. It is what prevents us from following through on what we set out to do like our deadlines, goals, or plans.
Why Do We Procrastinate
The truth is that we're fighting an uphill battle. As it turns out, the urge to procrastinate is a current you vs future you problem. We tend to care more about our current selves than our future selves. This is especially true if the results of the behavior are not immediate. When we think about the future, we want to make choices that lead to long-term benefits like eating better for our health. But when in the present, we make choices that lead to short-term benefits like having a donut in the morning. Behavioral economists refer to this concept as time inconsistency. Time inconsistency deals with the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards higher than future rewards.
It’s easy for our brains to see the benefits and value of long-term goals, like losing weight, starting a new hobby, or finishing a deadline early. The future is all in our minds though, and when the time comes to skip the donut and have the salad or grab the guitar to start learning music in favor of watching tv, we are more likely to prioritize the action with immediate gratifications. In the moment, our brain is only thinking about instant gratification. The paradox is that our brain values long-term benefits when it thinks about them in the future, but it prefers immediate gratification in the present moment. How can we win when our mind seemingly sabotages our long term goals for immediate gratification?
The best way to beat procrastination is to have your current self act in the best interest of your future self. There are lots of different ways to do this, but here are several that seem to work best.
Plan your actions. Commit to a choice in the present that affects your future and binds you to it. It takes willpower out of the equation and forces you to act. Automate life as much as you can with regards to the goal you want to accomplish, and remove procrastination triggers from your environment. It is much easier to make good choices if you are surrounded by better choices. If you’re on a diet, buy smaller plates, avoid the central isles of the grocery store, don’t keep junk around the house, don’t go out to eat at fast food restaurants, etc. Commit to your weight loss goal by having a plan, and don’t give yourself a choice to settle for the immediate gratification of sweets or junk food.
Set intentions. Schedule your task. You are more likely to follow up on something if you have the intention laid out in detail. “I will lift weights, on Tuesday at 6 pm.”
Make it easy to get started. The hardest part of any goal or behavior is usually the start. It’s harder to get started than it is to finish. Exercise comes to mind. Waking up to go on a jog is much harder than finishing the jog. Focus all your effort and energy on starting first and foremost. Don’t worry about the outcome until you can show up regularly. Find a routine that helps you start as easily as possible. You can also increase the cost of procrastination to help force you into action by:
Setting a public deadline on our behavior (posted results every other Monday).
Placing a bet on our behavior (cash for every time you miss).
Making a physical consequence for our behavior (push-ups or laps for not showing up).
Make the rewards of long term behavior more immediate. Visualize the benefits your future self will enjoy as a result of your goals. Procrastination happens because our minds tend to favor immediate gratification, so by visualizing the future benefits, we make the results more immediate.