Motivation is overrated; instead focus on creating an optimal environment and behaviors that stimulate progress
Benton McTaggart | Career Success Coach
We have all been there. We have an important task that we know we should do, but instead, we opt to do something else.
We have a big exam that weighs a significant portion of our final grade but instead, we choose to watch back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones. We have an important interview for our dream job and yet, we go out partying the night before. Then we scramble at the last minute to get ready.
It is irrational. Yet it keeps happening.
Procrastination is the culprit.
It is one of the biggest stealers of dreams – whether financially, professionally, healthwise, or academically – it holds you back from being successful at the things that are important to you.
You perhaps feel guilty when you do not honor your commitments. You might even start to believe you are unmotivated, disorganized, or that you are just plain lazy.
However, it is important to understand why we procrastinate.
We procrastinate because the brain experiences stress brought on by fear. The fear of what will happen if we fail; the fear of the additional expectations that come with being successful; and the fear of the consequences of not being perfect.
These fears are never obvious.
However, if you dig deep enough, you will find one or all of them lurking somewhere in the depths of your mind.
Now that you know why you procrastinate, let us explore six easy tips to help beat procrastination.
1. Call yourself out when you exhibit a procrastination behavior.
Get good at breaking the habit of mindless procrastination. The truth is the brain likes to optimize itself. It automates your behaviors in specific situations like when it senses that a task might lead to failure. Instead, to avoid failure, your brain steers you to do something more pleasant. Verbally call attention to your behavior when you are about to procrastinate to break this cycle. For example, say: I am about to browse Facebook even though I have my math test in 24 hours.
2. Use simple and believable mental reframes.
Change the meaning you attach to an unpleasant task, and you shift your level of excitement and motivation around the task. You might think that your Statistics class is hard and boring. With that perspective, you are highly unlikely to get any statistics work done. However, you could reframe the way you think about statistics to something like: I am building mental toughness that will give me an edge in the nursing field. Adopting this new perspective gives you more reason to want to get the task done now.
3. Create an optimal environment to get your task done.
Procrastination sometimes happens not because we lack motivation, but because we are not in the right environment. Our brains associate specific habits, including bad ones like procrastination, with the environment in which we are in. Alter your environment to reduce procrastination. For example, you may associate being in your living room with playing video games or watching TV. In that case, when you need to study for a math test, find a space that encourages focus and productivity – like your library or a local coffee shop.
4. Make the task attractive.
Procrastination occurs when we attach strong feelings – like boredom, frustration or difficulty – to the activity at hand. Make tasks more enjoyable, attractive and fun to move through these emotional blackholes. Do this by pairing the task with an activity you already enjoy doing. For example, listen to recorded versions of your lectures while running or exercising.
5. Be intentionally lazy by breaking things into micro steps.
We tend to look for ways to use the least amount of energy possible. That is why we get a lot done when we perceive tasks as simple. Our level of procrastination increases when the task demands that we expend a lot of energy. Make the action around the task simple and easy to get done. Use the two-minute rule, outlined by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, to get around this.
Let’s say you have been putting off preparation for your upcoming web development interview. Get started by committing to one small step that takes only two minutes to get done. This could be writing an outline of the prioritized topics you need to review. The thrill of getting one action completed makes the brain excited to want to do more.
6. Set up immediate rewards.
Reward yourself either during or after the completion of a difficult task. When you anticipate a reward, your level of enthusiasm and motivation to get to that reward increases. For example, treat yourself to playing video games after you have completed your research paper.
Procrastination is a normal human experience. However, the costs of procrastinating are usually greater than the benefits. Understand that it is triggered by stress brought on to the brain by fears of both success and failure. Design tasks to be attractive, satisfying and very simple so that they take minimal effort to get started. Create an optimal environment that supports the actions you want to take, and don’t forget to reward yourself.