Everybody struggles with procrastination, even psychologists struggle with procrastination, too. Procrastination, the habit of putting tasks off to the last possible minute, can be a major problem in both your career and your personal life. Side effects include missed opportunities, frenzied work hours, stress, overwhelm, resentment, and guilt. This article will explore evidence-based techniques to beat procrastination.

As part of their Temporal Motivation Theory, Piers Steel and Cornelius J. Konig proposed this equation

In this equation, value is the reward associated with the task and expectancy is the confidence that you can complete the task. The ‘reward’ can vary — if a task is pleasant then it in itself is of high value. Perhaps it will result in something good for you, like a good performance evaluation at work and a bonus — it is high value in this case as well. Delay is the amount of time on hand to get the reward. In this definition, impulsiveness is your sensitivity to delay and usually tends to decrease with age. If you’re more impulsive, it is easier for a current distraction (coffee with a buddy) to get your eyes off a distant target (getting that report done).

Piers Steel’s theory explains why you are more motivated to do something you enjoy (higher value), but procrastinate another task. However, once your deadline looms, your motivation to do the unpleasant task increases. You are also more motivated to do things when you are more confident in your skills (higher expectancy), or when you are less susceptible to distraction (lower impulsiveness).

Example: Students preparing for exams

Let’s look at an example to make things clearer. A student with an exam is more motivated to study for a subject he or she enjoys and knows well, because the enjoyment is of greater valueand there is a greater confidence (expectancy) that studying will lead to a desired outcome, i.e. high grades. If the exam is a month away (delay), the student will be less motivated to study today (unless he or she is very sensitive to deadlines, i.e. less impulsive) but as the exam day gets closer, the motivation to study increases.

The way we perceive a task’s value is time-sensitive

Studies on “delayed gratification” have shown that most subjects prefer getting $100 the same day to $110 a month later. Economists use the term “hyperbolic discounting” to describe how, when given a choice between two rewards, we tend to give a higher value to the one that occurs sooner. In his book, psychologist Dan Ariely talks about “hot states vs. cold states” to describe how we are level-headed about temptation when it is not immediately present, but find it hard to resist when it’s there. When planning your study sessions a couple of weeks before an exam, you might think in your “cold state” that you can skip watching the big game. But when the day arrives, the game puts you in a “hot state” that makes the temptation to watch irresistible, so you put off studying.

Illustration of the effects of deadlines, the “delay” in the equation above.

In one study, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch looked at how deadlines affect students’ tendency to procrastinate. In some classes Ariely imposed set deadlines for three papers his students had to submit, in another he suggested that they could submit all three papers on the last day of the semester and in a third group, he instructed the students to set their own “official” deadlines, which they would commit to and communicate to Ariely at the beginning of the course. He found that the class that did worst was the one with papers due on the last day of the semester — the students in the third group performed better because they had artificially increased their motivation by setting themselves deadlines that were earlier.

5  techniques to beat procrastination!

1. If you know your weaknesses, you can take certain steps to mitigate their consequences, like Ulysses asking his men to tie him to the ship’s mast, knowing that he would not be able to resist the song of the sirens. If you’re easily distracted, you might change the conditions in which you work, minimize noise, stay logged out of certain websites, maybe even switch off your phone. After all, you’re never really doing nothing when you’re procrastinating, you’re simply not doing what you should be doing at that time.

2. Part of this self-analysis is also to check your tendency towards optimism (see the study by psychologist Roger Buehler and his colleaguesshowing how overoptimistic our estimates are). When you think that you only have about a day’s work to do and you leave it to the last day, you usually find that something else comes up or there is more to do than you expected. Your over-optimism put you in a situation where you had much less time than you originally thought. Counterbalance your optimism with a dose of reality to avoid this planning fallacy.

3. After you analyze yourself, it’s time to closely analyze the task at hand. Is there a specific part of it that is of low value? You can artificially increase this value by promising yourself a reward at the end, a kind of self-bribe. or by linking your task to something of greater value. You can try to make mundane tasks more enjoyable, through music or by trying to make a game of it. You can also create peer pressure by pre-committing to a friend or colleague — this increases the value of the task (because you want to look good to your friends and colleagues) and can reduce the “delay” if you set yourself a tighter deadline.

4. It’s not just about smaller tasks and frequent breaks, though. It’s also about clarity. Author David Allen advises making sure that your to do list includes the immediate next action for every task. Tasks like “write report” or “discuss with partner” are more likely to be procrastinated because they are complex and consist of a few steps. The to-do list should consist of specific and smaller actions like “prepare income table for report” or “set up appointment with partner for Friday.”

5. You can procrastination by developing consistent “good habits”. Piers Steel gives illustrates how this works in his book, “Exercise programs, for example, should take place at regularly scheduled times, leaving little guesswork about where and what the fitness activities will be. Like clockwork, every Tuesday afternoon at 5:00, you go and lift weights, and every Thursday morning at 6:00, you go running. Take whatever you have been putting off and specify where and how you intend to implement it.”

Research originally shared by  on Medium.