People have been struggling with procrastination long before the Internet tempted us away from work with YouTube videos.
Thomas Jefferson didn’t take a break from writing the Declaration of Independence to tweet out his famous quote: “Never put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today.” And Mark Twain wasn’t on Pinterest looking for fence-painting techniques when he quipped: “Never put off ‘til tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”
So if we’ve been fighting procrastination for centuries, why do we still do it?
“Procrastination is one of life’s guilty secrets,” says Sebastian Bailey, coauthor of Mind Gym: Achieve More By Thinking Differently. “We all have the capacity to turn into an ostrich, put our heads in the sand, and hope that whatever it is we don’t want to do will just disappear.”
We put off small things as well as big things, but it’s far too easy for an occasional lapse to turn into a bad habit, says Bailey: “The good news is that just like you learn to procrastinate, you can unlearn it,” he says.
The first step is to understand that all procrastination isn’t equal. Bailey says there are five reasons we put things off:
A sense of confidence can make us procrastinate on doing things where we don’t see an immediate value, says Bailey. A classic example is taking time to make regular health or dental checkups.
“We don’t think it matters until we discover a cavity,” he says. “Rather than taking a small amount of time to prevent something, we end up spending more time having to fix it later.”
2. Avoiding Discomfort
Another reason we procrastinate is because we think the task is going to be painful, such as ending a bad relationship or quitting a job you don’t like.
“Instead of entering an uncomfortable situation that will lead to a potentially happier outcome, we stay in the dissatisfied place,” he says. “The anticipated discomfort keeps you from taking action.”
3. Fear Of Failure
People also procrastinate when the stakes are high, such as in launching a business or making a big move.
“Fear of failure can cause people to catastrophize situations,” he says. “In their minds, they fear if their business doesn’t do well, they’ll be forced to default on their mortgage, become homeless and unable to feed their family. This total fantasy keeps them from doing anything.”
4. Emotional Barriers
Sometimes being too stressed, excited, or tired can cause someone to avoid taking action.
“Many of us procrastinate about going to bed,” says Bailey. “Even though we want to go to sleep, we’re too tired to go to bed so we stay up later.”
5. Action Illusion
Finally, procrastination can happen when we’re busy doing other things, says Bailey: “Around tax return time, people tend to have the tidiest houses and best kept files in the country,” he says.
If you find yourself revising a document again or checking your email inbox instead of doing the task that’s important, you’re procrastinating. “This kind is dangerous because we get a strong feeling that we’re making progress,” he says.
Once you understand your reason for procrastinating, you can craft a way to solve it, says Bailey. “There isn’t a magic bullet,” he says. “The best thing you can do is spot the moment when you are falling into unhelpful habits of mind–when your mind acts on autopilot.”
The key to resolving procrastination is moving out of autopilot and engaging with what you want to achieve. Bailey offers three tactics:
1. The Five-Minute Start
If you’re having trouble getting started, make a commitment to work on the task for five minutes. Use a kitchen timer or the stopwatch on your smartphone. At the end of five minutes, you can choose if you want to continue or stop. This technique can work with emotional barriers or fear of failure.
“Committing to five minutes is not a big deal,” says Bailey. “Once you get started, you often get into flow and overcome the barrier. But if you want to stop, give yourself permission to do so.”
2. Creative Punishments
This tactic is good for complacency or avoiding discomfort–when the cost of an action is low. Decide on a punishment you will give yourself for not doing the task, such as making an appointment for a physical. It should be something that motivates you into action.
“You could donate money to an organization you loathe, such as a rival sports team or opposing political party,” says Bailey. “Then write a check that would be uncomfortable to lose and give it to a friend. Ask them to mail the check if you don’t complete the task by a certain date. This tactic significantly increases the cost of inaction.”
3. Implementation Intentions
Another solution for procrastination is putting the dreaded task into a context with something else, suggests Bailey. This solution works well with action illusion.
“Setting goals or breaking bad habits are two things we all want to do, but you’re likely to fail if they’re context independent,” he says. Add context to your task by pairing it with something else; for example, give a task a deadline or an order of completion.
“Think hard about situations that will trigger a series of behaviors and actions,” he says. “Set a rule that if it’s Thursday afternoon, you’ll dedicate time to product innovation. Or create an order for completing your business plan, such as doing customer research first. Context reduces cognitive effort you have to expend–it’s a less expensive way to think.”