How to Beat Procrastination

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27 min read

Does that sound familiar? You know you should be doing something important, something that benefits your life or helps you avoid a lot of trouble in the future. Maybe this task is difficult, but you know you could get it done if you would just focus on it for a while. But instead you spend your time aimlessly surfing the web, scrolling through Facebook, playing games, cleaning the house or doing anything else just to avoid the task that you know you should be doing. You are procrastinating.

A few minutes ago I wasn’t feeling like continuing this post. I would much rather binge-watch suggested videos on Youtube. There is an infinite amount of content I would like to watch right now. Funny stuff, sad stuff, exciting stuff, scary stuff. And it’s so much easier than trying to figure out how English grammar works and how to structure this blog post without losing my train of thought. But when I look a few months or years into the future, I know that building my website and Youtube channel, writing things, learning things, reflecting about and sharing things will develop me much more than watching “The 10 Scariest Resident Evil Mutations” on Youtube. But if you are like me, that doesn’t really help. We already know that it would be better for our future to get important stuff done. But if we “just don’t feel like it”, it can seem impossible. It’s like saying “just cheer up” to a depressed person. That’s just not how it works.

Procrastination is not laziness, it’s our brain’s strategy to cope with negative emotions like anxiety and frustration. We prioritize feeling good now over feeling good in the future, even if we know that it will cause damage. Our minds are not built to give a lot of weight to rewards that lay in the distant future, because in the history of evolution, life has always been extremely dangerous and often very short. Until not long ago, doing something scary meant the possibility of death. Making mistakes meant almost certainly death. Not focusing on short term pleasure meant probably starving. Not releasing sexual energy immediately meant maybe never having children. Waiting, planning and pondering about everything that could go wrong meant surviving. It was always just about making it to tomorrow, the distant future barely mattered. Our brains simply haven’t had time to adopt to an era where a lot of us live into their 80s and beyond, well fed, fairly safe and gifted with the possibilities and freedom to realize most of our wildest dreams. Instead our brains are still hardwired to avoid everything that is uncomfortable and uncertain and instead search for instant gratification. But this strategy is not timely anymore, because we have to pay the price for it later. If we want to grow as a person and live a long and fulfilled life, we repeatedly have to do unpleasant, boring and difficult tasks in order to improve our future.

The bad news is, you will almost never feel like doing something difficult. Sure, you might have some temporary bursts of motivation here and there and momentarily feel like you could change the world, especially after watching something inspirational, but this high never lasts very long. Just search for “motivation” on Youtube and you will find an endless amount of videos with the ever-same combination of inspirational speakers screaming into your ear while energizing background music is playing and someone on the screen is doing sports or looking very rich. And these videos get 100s of thousand or even millions of views within a couple months. The high number of views already shows how ineffective these videos are, because if they would work, people would be busy doing productive things instead of watching this stuff over and over again. Their effect starts evaporating the moment you close the video.

Waiting until you are motivated to do something important will not lead you anywhere. But the good news is, motivation very often follows action. Have you ever put something off for days, but when you finally started, it wasn’t nearly as bad as you thought or you even enjoyed it? But even if was boring, you probably felt much better after you had it off your chest. Overall it feels good to be productive and to make steps towards your goals.

Ingrain this into your mind: First you take action, then you feel like it. Not the other way around. It’s like jumping into ice water. You can’t get yourself used to the coldness by standing outside of the pool waiting and pondering about it. You have to jump in, endure the sharp pain for a moment and then realize a few minutes later that it’s not that bad and that you kinda like it.

Ok, so now that we know that we have to “just start”, what’s the next step? How do we become someone that “just starts”? With willpower?

Willpower can help you do things that you don’t feel like doing, but you can’t rely on it alone. The research behind willpower suggests that it works like a battery that you recharge when you sleep and then use up over the day with every choice you have to make and every impulse you have to control. This means that if you get yourself into a lot of difficult decisions like “What should I do next?” or “Should I eat the donut or the vegetables now?” you use up your willpower pretty quickly. This effect is called “decision fatigue”. However, newer research suggests that willpower is more like an emotion that has highs and lows throughout the day, but never really depletes. It also seems to depend on your mindset, meaning that if you believe willpower is limited, it actually feels like it’s limited, whereas you have pretty much unlimited willpower if you believe it’s an unlimited resource.

Anyway, how would we even go about increasing our willpower? It’s not like we can just talk ourselves into having more of it. And according to recent studies, we can’t even train it.

You see, no one really has a clue how willpower works. But that doesn’t matter for us, because our strategy is the same in any case: We want to rely on willpower only if absolutely necessary. It is a much better strategy to implement structures into our life that eliminate temptation in the first place and avoid unnecessary decisions and internal battles against ourselves. The hardest part about procrastination is usually getting started and this is where we have to focus our effort on. We need a push to get from a resting state into action. After that it’s almost never as bad as it seemed. There are different ways to do that and we are going to take a look at the ones that I tested and found most helpful. We will start with some general tips and then get to specific techniques. Not all of them can be combined, so pick the strategies that you like the most and don’t hesitate to try something new if your old approach doesn’t work.

Throughout this post I will mention some interesting books for the different strategies and concepts. Most of them are available as audio books and currently Audible offers a 30 day trial with 2 audio books completely for free. It’s really worth it:

Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

 

It’s all about habits

Most decisions we make in our day to day life don’t happen consciously, but in form of habits. Habits are a strategy of our brain to save energy, by encoding certain behaviors to be executed on auto-pilot, without us having to actively think about them.

Driving a car is a good example. When you first learn to drive, you have to focus on all the different actions like steering, hitting the gas and breaks, switching gears, looking into the mirrors etc. That’s a lot of different things to focus on, no way you could also adjust the radio or have a conversation at the same time. But when you practice driving for a while, it eventually becomes natural and almost effortless. You’ve repeated it so often that your brain built a habit to save energy and use it’s capacities to focus on other tasks instead (Of course you should use that mental space to focus on the road).

Scrolling through Facebook when you feel stressed is also a habit, but an unproductive one. Habits usually have a trigger, like a certain place or emotion (you feel stressed), a routine that your brain executes in reaction to the trigger (you switch to Facebook and scroll through your feed) and a reward that makes your brain save this pattern for later (you get some temporary stress relief). Now your brain knows that it can release stress by visiting Facebook and saves it as it’s default reaction.

If you want to change your behavior longterm, you have to be conscious about your habits, build good ones and change bad ones. What most people see as discipline and strong willpower, is usually just a bunch of good habits.

According to the famous book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg (this is the audio version), we can’t just get rid of a habit by suppressing it. Once your brain is hardwired to crave a reward in reaction to a certain cue, it will execute the routine pretty much automatically. You can, however, consciously replace the routine with another one that provides you with a similar reward. Or alternatively you could just get rid of the cue.

Well, you certainly can’t get rid of stress. But you could change the way you react to it. Instead of surfing the web, you could do something else to relief it, like taking a short stroll, stretching your body or washing your face with cold water. This way you don’t get into some never ending rabbit hole of addicting content on an internet site and it’s usually easier to get back to the important stuff. Of course this means you would have to force yourself to do the alternative routine for a while, for example by blocking these addicting websites so you can’t visit them even if you wanted to. But this alone will probably not solve your procrastination problem, because there are other ways to distract yourself and you can’t get rid of all of them. Also there is nothing wrong with enjoying the internet and social media from time to time, we just need a way to control it.

Instead of getting rid of Facebook & Co, we can add new cues into our day and start building new, productive habits. We need starting signals that tell us when it is time to get to work, so we don’t always have this internal battle against ourselves. If we can train our brain to focus on a task in reaction to a certain trigger again and again, it will slowly turn into a habit, using up less and less willpower. This leads to lasting change, rather than just a short term quick fix. Then we can still relief some stress on Facebook (I just use Facebook interchangeably for any form of distraction), but we have a trigger that pushes us back to our important work, so we don’t end up wasting hours.

Throughout this post we will learn about different ways of adding new cues to our day and this way build better habits.

 

Always start your day strong

Independently from the specific techniques you will use to beat procrastination, this rule applies universally. The first few hours in the morning set the tone for the rest of the day. If you start watching Netflix right after waking up, it’s usually very hard to get into gear later on.

We talked about habits before, and another concept explained in The Power of Habit is the one of “keystone habits”, which are habits that tend to “spill over” to other aspects of life. For instance, people who exercise regularly also tend to be more productive, eat better, are more patient and even use their credit card less. Why? Because finishing your exercise routine provides you a small victory that starts building momentum. You feel proud and accomplished and you naturally want to keep this streak up. Another example is the simple act of making your bed in the morning. If you make your bed right after waking up, it’s your first little accomplishment at the start of the day and it immediately starts building up.

So if you want to procrastinate less, don’t just focus on the procrastination itself. Start your day well with a strict morning routine and follow it religiously every single day. Ideally you do some exercise, followed by a healthy breakfast. There are many more things you can (and should) implement into your morning routine, like gratitude and meditation. Google for “morning routine” to see some examples. Also take a look at my How to Stay Healthy as a Programmer blog post for some general tips on exercise and nutrition.

If you are a student, a freelancer or anyone else who has to plan his own working time, make sure to get at least one important task done before you do something entertaining. You perform at your best in the morning (even if you think of yourself as a “night person”), you have the most willpower and you immediately start building a series of small wins. If you procrastinate right away, anxiety and guilt starts building up, putting you into an overall terrible mood from which it can feel impossible to escape. Crossing an important task off your list on the other hand takes some of the burden of the day off your shoulders, builds momentum and even if you afterwards fall into a rut of procrastination, you have the good feeling that you made at least one step forward. But in most cases a good morning also leads to a good day overall.

 

Eliminate temptation

As I said earlier, I don’t think it’s necessary to completely deny yourself any form of entertainment. But as soon as you are working on a task, nothing else should be in reach. Always strictly separate productive time and leisure. Even if you just work for 20 minutes, be deliberate about it and fully focus on the task at hand. Don’t get into the habit of interrupting your work for unimportant stuff, because then procrastination is just inevitable and you will never learn to focus for longer periods at a time. Even if you always get back to your task, there are switching costs whenever you go from one activity to another, because your brain has to recalibrate and refocus. And if you have your phone on your desk, constantly beeping with new notifications, you completely wreck your efficiency and attention span. For the same reason you should avoid multi tasking in general.

But every time you have to battle an urge, you use up some willpower, until you eventually have to surrender and your whole day falls apart. So don’t battle the urge, eliminate it. Whenever I’m trying to cut down to a low body fat percentage, I make sure that I don’t have any fast food or sweets at home. If I then find myself totally stressed out and hungry at the end of the day, I cannot binge on that stuff even if I want to. That makes sense, right? Well, you can apply the same principle when you want to focus. Turn your phone off and put it in another room. Make your password long and complicated so you can’t turn it back on quickly. Close any website that is not important for your current task. If you find it really hard to ignore Facebook & Co, use one of those website blockers that are available for all major browsers, to temporarily block your most procrastination-prone websites. Just google “website blocker” and you will find different plugins. Some of these blockers also allow you to specify the time window in which you are allowed to access blocked websites, and you can whitelist certain sub pages (like a particular Youtube channel), so you can still visit them while the rest of the website is blocked. Of course you should whitelist the Coding in Flow Youtube channel and website.

 

Schedule your day

I introduced the idea of starting signals before, and in my opinion the most effective way of implementing this, is in form of a schedule.

Most people use their calendar to plan for events with a clear start and end time and put their other tasks on a to do list. The problem with lists is that they make it so easy to procrastinate. Not only because you can put a task off until it becomes really urgent, but also because the little dopamine hit you get from crossing something off a to do list makes you go for the smaller and easier tasks first. This way you end up washing the dishes just to avoid doing the difficult stuff. Then these difficult tasks start piling up on your list, causing more and more anxiety and the procrastination spirals into orbit.

Instead I use my calendar as my to do list. I schedule almost everything I have (and want) to do and block out time for it in advance. This way I know exactly at what time of the day I am supposed to do which task and don’t have to constantly ask myself if I should relax a bit longer or if I am already procrastinating. And when the time comes for a task to begin, I have a clear starting signal that helps me get over that initial barrier of dread and into action. I almost never feel like starting a difficult task and every time I take a break I lose my motivation to go back to it. But the calendar makes it so much easier to actually follow through, because I don’t have to make a decision at this moment. I already decided beforehand. This way I have to use less willpower and the sequence of cue (the event comes up in my calendar), routine (I start working on it with full focus) and reward (I finish the task and feel accomplished) slowly turns into a habit, making it more and more automatic and using up less and less willpower, until it eventually becomes natural.

Another benefit of this approach is the feeling of control it gives you. In your calendar you can exactly see how everything fits into the 24h you have available. You know where your time goes and don’t feel like your day is just slipping through your fingers. A time limit on a task can help you power through something difficult, because you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel. If you know that you have only 30 minutes left until your scheduled break, it is much easier to stay on track instead of giving in to the urge of doing something else, even if the task feels unbearable. I like to work in blocks of 90 minutes each, because it is long enough to get me into a state of flow, but still short enough to allow me a break before I am not able to focus anymore. I then take a break for 20 minutes before I start another 90 minute block. You can also start with shorter intervals (see the Pomodoro Technique below) and of course if you are really deep in the zone you can just skip a break completely.

I put everything into my calendar. At what time I go to sleep, when I go to the gym, from when to when I work on Coding in Flow etc. If you have a difficult task that is due long into the future, instead of dumping it on a to do list where you put it off until the last minute, just set aside a little bit of time for it every day and this way get it done without stress. Want to get into the habit of reading half an hour before sleep every night? Put it into your calendar as well!

And here is how I do it: I use Google Calendar, because it has the best user interface and the drag and drop feature allows me to reschedule everything quickly. Every task is represented by an event with a duration and regular tasks are set to “repeating”, so I don’t have to add them manually over and over again. There’s one problem however: you can’t tick off events like you can do in a to do list, which makes it possible that some of them slip through and you don’t even notice that you didn’t do important task X yesterday. But there is a simple way to avoid this: Every event has a color and I change the color of a finished ones to grey. This way I immediately notice if I forgot something.

Google Calendar, finished tasks are greyed out.

The downside of the calendar approach is that it can be a bit difficult to get used to it and it also depends on your job situation. If you have a lot of appointments and meetings that are often postponed, it can be hard to reschedule everything all the time. Start as simple as possible. Schedule a few blocks of focused time into your calendar wherever it fits you. Maybe a few hours on the weekend, or half an hour at the end of each day. And don’t be too granular, it will just make rescheduling more complicated. Instead of specifying the exact task, just create a block for a particular project. My time blocks in the image above are for “Coding in Flow” in general, which means that I can work on blog posts, videos or anything else related to Coding in Flow that makes sense to me at this time.

But even if you don’t want to use the calendar approach, there are other strategies you can use to add cues and build good working habits.

 

Use the Pomodoro Technique

If you find it hard to focus for longer periods of time or you really dread the work you have to do, try the Pomodoro Technique. For this you work in sprints of 25 minutes, followed by a short 5 minute break. After every 4th 25 minute session (4 Pomodoros) you take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. Repeat this cycle as often as you need. That’s the summary of the technique, but actually there is a bit more to it. If you want to know the exact “rules”, check out this book.

You can use the Pomodoro Technique together with a schedule, or on it’s own. The timer works as your starting signal and as I mentioned before, a time limit on a task can make it easier to get yourself to focus on it, because you always see the light at the end of the tunnel. 25 minute sessions make it easy to endure tasks you really hate, but here I explain why I wouldn’t use it for programming, at least not all the time.

 

Use the 5 Second Rule

The 5 second rule is a simple but effective strategy that motivational speaker and author Mel Robbins invented and described in her book “The 5 Second Rule”.

And this is how it works: Whenever you have the instinct to act on a goal, this short glimpse of insight that tells you that you should get back to work, that you should head off to the gym or that you should speak up right now, whenever you have that gut feeling that you should be doing something difficult, you immediately start counting down from 5 and before you reach zero, you physically move towards that goal. This can mean you stand up from the couch and grab your gym bag, or you put your phone away and switch to whatever task you have to do.

The counting temporarily stops your brain from coming up with reasons and excuses not to do the task and at the same time it works as a starting ritual. Instead of defaulting to avoidance when a difficult tasks comes into your mind, you get into the habit of taking immediate action. If you wait longer than those 5 seconds, your mind will most likely kill the idea and you will procrastinate instead.

While approaches like the calendar schedule or the Pomodoro Technique add new starting triggers to get you to do something, the 5 Second Rule uses the hesitation itself as the cue to form a new habit. The habit of taking immediate action instead of procrastinating. It does that by shutting off your monkey mind in the critical first seconds.

I tested this technique and it works. If you schedule your day or use the Pomodoro Technique, you don’t really need it tho, because you already have a different starting signal. However, it’s also very useful for other uncomfortable situations, like getting out of bed, talking to someone you don’t know or making a healthy food decision. Try it tomorrow when you wake up. Instead of hitting the snooze button (I just assume you do), start counting down from 5 and then jump out of the bed before you reach zero.

 

Break down goals and tasks

You should always break your longterm goals down into smaller short term goals and set a timeline for them. It gives you a healthy sense of urgency and provides you milestones along the way, which you can celebrate and gain motivation from. Ideally you should write these goals down, because according to studies this increases the likelihood of you actually accomplishing them.

On a day to day level you can also break particular tasks down into small, bite-sized steps and cross them off while you finish them. Crossing a task off a list has a motivational effect, because it triggers a dopamine response in your brain, which makes it crave more of these little accomplishments. You can utilize that by turning a big, intimidating task into smaller, harmless tasks.

I am a big fan of this strategy in theory, but in practice I found it hard to implement, because a lot of tasks are abstract and unpredictable, making it hard to break them down into clear steps. What you can do instead, is focusing on the next immediate step and blinding out what comes after it. Don’t think about “all the stuff you have to do”. Just focus on what you have to do right now. Your brain tends to bloat uncomfortable tasks up, making them look harder than they actually are.

If you feel like you need very small tasks but you don’t know how to break them down, use the Pomodoro Technique instead.

 

Start small

No matter if you want to schedule your day, use the Pomodoro Technique, the 5 second rule or something completely different, it’s always better to set yourself small targets rather than getting frustrated and throwing the towel completely. As I explained in my Incremental Progress over Intense Sprints blog post, you can make a lot of progress just by taking regular small steps forward. You just have to be deliberate about them and pick the tasks that actually matter.

You should always try to improve yourself and your goal should be to beat procrastination and be in control of your day, but you have to be realistic about what is possible with your capacities at this particular moment. If you feel depressed and lazy, then you can’t become a super productive person overnight. You have to build up to that step by step. And you should embrace and be proud of these small steps, because they matter.

Want to get into morning exercise but you feel like crap after waking up? Start with walking around the neighborhood for 5 minutes. Want to learn a new skill but you feel exhausted after getting home from your job? Schedule 30 minutes for it on the weekend. Or 20. You will be amazed how much you can accomplish by just doing small but consistent steps forward.

Also don’t use “it’s already too late” as an excuse. Even if your whole day was unproductive and it’s already 2 hours before bed time, you can still get half an hour in and this way finish your day with a little progress. Don’t wait for “fresh starts”.

If you are an Android programmer, I have one thing you can try right now. When you click here, you get to a playlist with Android tutorials that are 3 minutes or less. Watch one of them right after you finished reading this post. Maybe try out whatever I am showing there or just watch it without doing anything. But do it immediately. You will learn something new, you will make a small step forward and it will be over in a moment. Even better: bookmark the playlist and watch one of those tiny videos whenever you have some spare time. This way you get into the habit of appreciating small steps.

Also get rid of any form of perfectionism, because it will keep you from finishing (or even starting) anything. Read about the growth mindset and force yourself to put results out there that are “just good enough” (whatever that means in your case). The same goes for any worries about what others might think of you.

 

Some more tips

The most important points you should take from this post are, that motivation and willpower are overrated and that you need some sort of starting signal to build productive habits. You need something that gives you a little push, because you will almost never “feel like” doing something difficult. This can either be in form of a schedule, by dividing your work into Pomodoros, by using the 5 second rule or any other form of trigger you can come up with.

The strategies and tips on procrastination are endless and I wanted to focus on the ones that I found most helpful. There’s more to the procrastination puzzle, but I can’t write about all of this in detail, because then this post would be huge. So let’s just summarize a few more things:

  • A growth mindset is crucial in order to eliminate your fear of failure and embrace the learning process. Read about it in my growth mindset blog post.
  • Studies found that forgiving yourself for past mistakes and previous procrastination is more effective at improving your situation than beating yourself up over it. So be kind to yourself.
  • At the same time be very mindful about excuses for any upcoming tasks. Make it a habit to call bullshit on yourself whenever you try to invent new explanations on why you should wait a bit longer, why it’s not the right time now or why you can’t do something. Generally be forgiving about your past but strict about your future.
  • When other people tell you that “it’s ok to procrastinate”, that you “don’t have to do difficult tasks” or that you should “just enjoy yourself”, then they say this to justify their own behavior, not because they sincerely want to help you. Procrastination and other unhealthy habits are a lack of control over your life, and that always leads to misery.
  • Enough sleep is crucial. Too little of it doesn’t only hurt your efficiency, it also reduces your willpower and makes you fall back into bad habits. Of course your nutrition is also important and doing regular exercise has been shown to make you smarter. Read my How to Stay Healthy as a Programmer blog post to learn more about healthy habits.
  • You should be doing mindfulness meditation. Besides other benefits, it helps you cope with negative emotions better, which means that you can better control the urge of escaping from a difficult task. A perfect place for this is your morning routine.
  • Accountability and external rewards can also help motivate you, but I didn’t find them very effective personally. However, they can be worth a try for you.

And remember to get your 2 Free Audio Books from Audible.

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