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How to Procrastinate Less by Increasing Your Motivation and Decreasing Temptations

The role of motivation, awareness, and self-control in getting things done

Do you procrastinate?

I'm going to guess you do. Who doesn't? We all do things that are not the thing we think we are supposed to be doing, and then we tend to feel guilty about it. Fortunately, this article is not a cookie-cutter procrastination pieces that spouts off a few factoids and leaves you wondering whether procrastination is really that bad, after all. Procrastination is a problem: it means you're not doing something you know you ought to do.

Maybe you think you procrastinate because you're bad at time management. Well, you might be bad at time management. But that's not the real reason you procrastinate.

You procrastinate when you have a motivation problem.

(Read: How I Manage Deadlines: 5 Ways to Keep Projects On Track)

The role of motivation in procrastination

We are intrinsically motivated to pursue activities that we choose ourselves, that bring us joy, build a sense of mastery or competence, build a relationship or develop social connection, or contribute to something else we value. Our level of motivation is also influenced by pressure or demand from external sources, such as specific rewards or negative consequences that might result if we do (or don't do) a particular activity.

Say you want to do a task. You intend to do it. You really do. But… maybe not right now. Whether or not you choose to pursue the task right now—or whether you voluntarily delay it in favor of doing something else, even when you expect you might be worse off for delaying—is the result of a combination of four factors:

  1. Value: How fun or pleasurable the activity is
  2. Expectancy: How likely you are to succeed
  3. Impulsiveness: Your general level of self-control
  4. Delay: When you get the payout or reward

In general, people prefer to do fun, pleasurable things that they probably won't fail at and will reward them now. People are less likely to do tasks that aren't as fun, have less chance of success, and have more distant rewards. Instead, they procrastinate.

When people procrastinate, they choose a temptation over an ought-to-do. The temptation is a pleasurable activity with a delayed cost. The temptation helps them feel better now. Their future self can deal with the cost, later.

The key to procrastinating less is to increase your motivation for your ought-to-do, and decrease your motivation for temptations.

(Read: How Do You Decide What Projects To Work On As a Scholar?)

Increase your motivation for ought-to-dos

Increase your motivation for activities you ought to do by increasing the activity's perceived value and chance of success. For example, you might:

  • Try to notice any fun or pleasure you might be having during the activity. There might be something about it you enjoy. This can also increase your intrinsic motivation for the activity, since the reward will be, in part, the activity itself.
  • Work on the task when you have high energy.
  • Set your expectations about the activity correctly. If you expect it to be boring and difficult, you'll be more ready to persist if it is boring or difficult.
  • Take a break and gain perspective. Sometimes, taking time away from a task will remind you why you valued it. Or you may discover that the task isn't so important, after all.
  • Create habits around work. Schedule in leisure time before starting work. Use motivational quotes or music to help you get into work mode.
  • Set small, achievable goals. Use the incremental method for getting things done. Sometimes, doing one little bite-size piece of a task can help you see that you can make progress, which can increase your motivation to make more progress.
  • Look back and appreciate the work you've put in on the activity or task so far—seeing your progress can help you feel more excited about the work left to do. Sometimes, however, looking forward to see the work still to do can help us feel more motivated—so try that, too.

You can also try to make the reward feel more immediate. Remind yourself why the activity matters and how it contributes to your goals.

  • Connect the activity to one of your long-term goals. Reframe the activity from "this is something I should do" to "this is something I want to do to achieve my goal." If you see how the activity matters, you'll feel more motivated to do it. Conversely, you may realize that you don't care about the activity—which frees you to drop it in favor of activities that do help you reach your goals.
  • Give yourself frequent milestones—specific and measurable, so you know when you reach them. People are most enthusiastic about working on tasks at the beginning and end of pursuing a goal; the middle can be a difficult stretch. Avoid the middle! Break projects or activities into smaller pieces so you're always near the start or end of a milestone.
  • Celebrate reaching your milestones. The rewards don't have to be big. Pay attention to the type of task when giving yourself rewards—there's a complicated relationship between motivation, task type, and the utility of reward.

(Read: Deep Work for Parents: A 2-Step Strategy for More Effective, Efficient Work)

Decrease your motivation for temptations

To decrease your motivation for temptations, you first have to know what the temptations are. Self-awareness is key. What are you trying to accomplish? What behaviors are undermining that? Imagine yourself in ten years. How will future you feel about what you're doing now or wish you were doing differently? Thinking about the future can help you detect conflicts between your behavior and achieving your goals.

Here are some specific strategies you can try:

  • Think about why a temptation might not be as fun as it sounds. Remind yourself of the delayed costs, which may make the costs feel closer, thus decreasing your motivation for the activity. You can give yourself penalties for giving in to the temptation, too, adding an immediate negative consequence.
  • Try temptation bundling. Do an activity you don't like (but ought to do) with an activity you do like. A classic example is watching a favorite TV show or listening to favorite music while working out.
  • Make the temptation harder to do using pre-commitments—that is, remove the temptation before you can be tempted. If you're on a diet, don't buy unhealthy foods. Block social media with an app during work time. Work in a location where you can't do the tempting activity. Remove triggers that tempt you. E.g., put your phone in a drawer when you need to focus.

(Read: Life as Practice: Pursuing Excellence in Daily Life)

Decrease impulsiveness by building self-discipline

The fourth way to increase your motivation for your ought-to-dos is to decrease your general impulsiveness and build up your self-control and self-discipline. There are many ways to do this. I discussed several in a previous post: How to Build Self-Discipline: Why Awareness and Intrinsic Motivation are Key. For instance, you can practice self-denial or try discomfort training. Both involve noticing you want something and then deliberately not taking action to get what you want, instead persisting through the discomfort.

Practicing awareness or mindfulness can also help you build self-discipline. Notice your desires or impulses. Give them space. Don't react immediately. Reject the impulse to act, and instead watch, wait, let them go. Procrastination is negatively associated with mindfulness.

If you try pulling all four levers—increasing the value and expectancy of ought-to-dos, decreasing your impulsiveness and the perceived delay to reward—you'll decrease your procrastination and get more done.

Like this post? You'll find even more detailed advice about managing grad school and life in my new book, Grad School Life: Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research. Order it today!

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