According to the science of procrastination, we’ve never had it easier. Facebook and Instagram and all sorts of other apps grab our attention, giving us an easy way out from the tasks we really want to be doing.
You’ve no doubt tried to procrastinate less. But then you reach the end of a self-imposed hectic day and realise you still didn’t get round to that key item on the to-do list. Or perhaps you set yourself a goal or resolution, only to end up feeling miserable when you didn’t stick to it.
Human intuition and desire alone clearly aren’t enough to overcome the issue.
So, what does science say about procrastination? Outsmart Yourself is a course by Professor Peter Vishton, who distils neuroscientific evidence to answer everyday problems. Here are three science-backed tips from Professor Vishton to help you succeed in procrastinating less.
1. Do nothing
Stop procrastinating by procrastinating? We’re off to a good start.
Often postponing action doesn’t mean total inaction. Procrastination often looks busy. Answering emails, checking notifications, tidying your desk, doing that suddenly essential task, any task, to avoid getting on with what’s really important.
So, if you’re guilty of this: try doing nothing at all. Sit quietly (phone out of reach) for 15 to 20 minutes. Just think about what you’re going to do.
This works for two reasons. First, the obvious: if you’re doing nothing, you can’t distract yourself with the classic avoidance behaviours.
The second reason is that procrastination is strongly linked with anxiety regarding a task. As you think about what you want to do for those 15 minutes, any anxiety associated with the action will likely recede.
2. Lower the stakes
Clearly, too little motivation is an issue. But it turns out there is also such a thing as trying too hard. Cognitive neuroscientists describe the ‘Goldilocks’ level of effort using the Yerkes-Dodson law.
Imagine for some reason or other, you’re playing darts. Except, you really don’t like darts so you only half-heartedly aim. Someone offers £20 if you get a bullseye in your next three darts. Science says this will improve your performance.
However, if someone then offers £1bn for a bullseye, the stakes are suddenly life-changing. In this pressured position, the Yerkes-Dodson law shows your performance will likely return to initial levels, or even lower.
The same applies to procrastinating from important work. While your task may be crucial, keeping it in perspective is key. Too much pressure increases anxiety, and makes delaying the task your natural response.
Try explaining to a cat the benefits of hard work (good luck!) and long-term delayed gratification. It’s simply not in their nature.
But, just because humans have the capacity to understand long-term goals, it doesn’t mean it’s in our instincts to stick to them.
That lengthy project will likely bring you a great deal of satisfaction when you finally complete it. But our brain wants more immediate satisfaction. Why write a book when someone has mentioned you in a social media comment? Why train for a marathon when there’s a new 10-part series just out?
In Outsmart Yourself, Professor Vishton explains how our behaviours come back to a single motivator: the drive to release dopamine. Pleasure stems from this release.
It’s almost impossible to prioritise a long-term goal when more immediate pleasures are available. The solution? Break the overall aim into a step-by-step plan of bite-sized chunks.
For example, a large work-related project might not be enjoyable. But by ticking off small goals (taking typically 20-30 minutes to achieve), you will see yourself getting closer to the finish line. This releases dopamine, providing the pleasure your brain so hungrily craves.
Hopefully these three tips will help you procrastinate less and get closer to achieving that big goal you’ve been putting off. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do nothing.