Fighting Procrastination: 5 Strategies That Work
Why aren’t Americans saving enough for retirement? Economics, of course, plays a factor; the twenty-first century has seen a rise in income inequality and sharp spikes in the cost of living throughout many of the nation’s major cities.
But in 2009, scientists at UCLA completed a study [PDF] that determined there may also be a neurological basis for this growing trend. Led by psychologist Hal Herschfield, the research group scanned the brains of study participants while asking them questions about (1) their Current Self, (2) their Future Self, (3) a Current Other, and (4) a Future Other.
The team found that the participants’ brain activity when answering questions about their Future Self was more consistent with their brain activity while considering a Current Other rather than their Current Self.
“Put in practical terms,” explains Becky Kane, editor at Doist, “when thinking of yourself in a month or a year or a decade, your brain registers that person in ways similar to how it would register Taylor Swift or the mailman or the lady driving the car in the next lane over.”
In short: It’s not you. It’s your brain.
Chances are you have experienced the disastrous consequences of this bad neurological deal. Cramming for a test. Pulling an all-nighter for a paper. Hastily, stressfully preparing for a project. Not to mention that when we procrastinate, we often feel stressed while we aren’t doing the work we’re supposed to be doing.
Anyway you cut it, procrastination is a killer. It hampers our ability to achieve our goals, heaps stress onto our Future Self, and it usually doesn’t provide the instant gratification to our Present Self that it seems to guarantee.
So, how do you battle this beast if it’s part of your neurological wiring?
1. Recognize That Your Future Self and Present Self Are the Same Person
Easier said than done, I know.
This seems especially difficult when you’re young. Many young people hold onto an unconscious conviction that they will be smarter, more efficient, and better prepared tomorrow than they are today. Tomorrow’s self, we think, is better, stronger, faster.
Except it often isn’t. It’s just as likely that tomorrow’s self will be more tired, more stressed, and equally or more distracted.
Mending the gap between your Present and Future Self can be as simple as repeating the mantra, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”
But perhaps a more effective strategy is to visualize and to try to inhabit that Future Self.
In recent years, Hal Herschfield and Daniel Goldstein have used software that allows participants to visualize themselves at 60, 70, and 80 years old. They have found that seeing this Future Self helps people commit to investing more into their future retirement.
On a smaller scale—for a final project, SAT preparation, or college applications, where the goal is much closer at hand—try to very deliberately imagine your day tomorrow or next week, whenever you imagine your Future Self will be so incredibly productive. Write down the details.
What gets in the way of that Future Self? Why is this Future Self free from distractions that the Present Self struggles with? Are there reasons other than a vague conviction that you can do better later?
If not, get to work. You’ll thank your Past Self later.
2. Treat Your Future Self Like Someone You Love
This brings me to my second point, a twist on the old adage, “Treat yourself like someone you love.”
This approach entails embracing rather than resisting your neurological makeup.
Think, OK, fine: I am bound to imagine my Future Self as a whole other person. Your job is to bring that other in close.
Imagine the option before you is this: either you can do the work you need to do now or you can leave it for someone you care for deeply, someone you feel the need to protect—a sibling, a grandparent, a best friend.
Turn your Future Self into an actual other person, but one that you care for deeply. You might then find the motivation to save that loved one from your present burden.
3. Focus...and Embrace Distraction When It Comes
Here’s a trick I practiced in graduate school.
If you’re like most ambitious teenagers, you have a lot going on. Sometimes, the sheer number of tasks can leave you feeling drained before you even begin.
It’s always best to focus on one task at a time. Clear off your desk of all distractions but that one, most pressing thing. This is a key technique advocated by Randy Pausch in this popular lecture on time management.
Close out all those excess tabs on your browser and get to the one or two windows you need. Split your screen in half to a word processor and one browser window. These are practical tactics that work.
But if you find your mind drifting, you might just want to let it drift…but take control of the wheel.
It’s natural to get distracted, but instead of diving into social media, pick up another project. Work on that for the ten or two-hundred minutes (no judgment) you might otherwise waste online.
This way, you can feed that little dopamine addict in your skull while chipping away at the tasks at hand.
4. Get Real (Visual) About Your Time
It’s not infinite, even though it might sometimes feel that way. Teenagers often hear, “you have plenty of time!” Which is true until you have none. Time is finite and unforgiving.
One way to visualize this scarcity of time is to take a look at this chart by Tim Urban, founder of waitbutwhy.com. Urban maps out a 90-year life in weeks. If you’re facing a semi-long-term goal, like acing the SAT, you can take a slice of this chart to envision just how little time you have. (Credit to Becky Kane for linking to this.)
This chart is especially useful because it reduces time into homogenous blocks. We often imagine our future time will be filled with epiphanies struck by the wand of genius. But this big, monotonous breakdown of our weeks reminds us that that’s often not the case.
Next week is a hollow little block, just like this week. Might as well get to it now.
5. Out of Control? Find a Commitment Device
In a 2014 Elite blog post, Ethan Sawyer described how he learned to overcome procrastination (mostly):
“One day I read something that really hit me: The next time you think, ‘I’ll do it later,’ do it now instead. Repeat this 20 times. I don’t remember where I read it, but I do remember feeling tired of not getting things done. So I tried it. And it actually worked.”
This is a simple version of what Daniel Goldstein calls a “commitment device.” As a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University, Goldstein forced himself to write five pages per day. If he didn’t, he forced himself to leave $5 on the subway in an envelope.
These are dangerous—your Present Self might manage to find an excuse as to why you can cheat just this once, or twice, or thrice, or…
But if you find your discipline waning and that you need an external control, a commitment device is worth a shot.
Keep in mind that we are always developing habits. Procrastinate now and you will get good (and used to) procrastinating in the future.
Our teenage years are a time to develop habits for adult life. If you don’t address your bad procrastination habits now, you are essentially, well, procrastinating. Don’t sabotage your Future Self, who will find the habit harder to kick then than it will be for your Present Self today.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.