Pre Script: I began writing this post on April 4th. But procrastinated finishing it and publishing it. I procrastinated writing an article about procrastinating. I know it’s so cliché and meta.
I know you’ve all done it. You’re in the middle of your work day trying to finish something, and you get an urge to do something else for 5 minutes. So, you spend those five minutes scrolling through Twitter or playing a game on your phone.
Or you finish 80% of something, but can’t find the energy or motivation to finish it? Sound familiar?
I have been a serial procrastinator throughout my life and I need that adrenaline rush of the deadline as it fast approaches me. And many a times, you could hear the deadline whooshing past me and I fail to complete so many tasks.
Everybody lies about how quickly one finishes a task. I have lied many times to myself about how productive I am.
Everyone procrastinates. It’s a natural part of life and something we all do from time to time (or maybe even more often than that). The problem is, when it starts getting in the way of our productivity at work or school, then it becomes an issue that needs to be addressed head-on.
Procrastination is a common problem for developers. We all know that we should work on our projects or write blog posts, but often find ourselves postponing those tasks to do other fun things in the meantime. This post will give you some tips and tricks to help you stop procrastinating and get more done!
Why do we procrastinate?
During the last weekend of 2020, I got an excellent idea for a product. I immediately jumped at the opportunity and began working on my computer, making sure that I can turn this idea into a reality.
Few hours passed, and I was still figuring out the best way to build it. Pretty soon, 3 days flew by, and it began hard to focus on what I was doing because all these other new features and ideas kept occupying my mind.
At a point, I was so overwhelmed that I stopped all work on the idea. It’s more than 3 months, and I still haven’t launched the idea yet.
So what happened? Why did I procrastinate?
You could give various reasons: lack of motivation, fear, laziness, overwhelmed feeling, and so on.
But there’s a simple explanation that scientists and psychologists give: our brain tends to values immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.
I have been trying to teach “delayed gratification” to my 5-year-old kid and realized I am no different from him.
I would spend hours scrolling through Reddit or Twitter rather than work on my idea or even write a blog post.
Your future self and present self are always going to have opposing and conflicting views. Present-self likes instant gratification (like the Cat video on Reddit). In contrast, the future self wants to progress in life, like lose weight, publish a book, launch a startup, etc.
Your future self would want to be fit, but your present self would like that doughnut now.
Your future self would wish to a multi-million dollar exit from your startup. Still, you would prefer to read about other’s successes today.
Pain vs Reward
One reason why we procrastinate is that the reward doesn’t seem to be worth the pain.
My wife has been trying to learn to play the guitar. Her instructor told her to practice for an hour every day. But she doesn’t do it every day.
If she practices every day, she would be rewarded by becoming better at playing the guitar. But it also involves the pain of taking time away from her other activities.
We procrastinate because we don’t fear the repercussions of not doing something enough. If the pain or consequence of your procrastination is you getting fired, you would never be lazy.
Our mind instantly identifies such pain vs reward arbitrage opportunities and focuses on instant gratification.
How to stop procrastinating?
We understood how and why we procrastinate, but how do we stop it? Let’s look at a few ways:
Make your reward for action immediate
You’re more likely to do something if you get a reward right away. Make that your goal! Rewarding yourself immediately after doing something will make it much more likely that you’ll repeat the action.
Your present-self brain is looking for that instant hit of gratification. If you keep it satiated enough, it might let you focus on your task.
Every decision and action you take has both long term benefits and immediate benefits. The mistake most of us make is just thinking about long term benefits.
If you want to avoid procrastinating, begin giving yourself some small rewards. These help train your brain and remain motivated enough to make it a habit.
Make your pain of inaction or consequences immediate.
This is the opposite of instant rewards. If you begin to procrastinate, think about the consequences. For example, if you don’t finish that math assignment tonight, you’ll not be able to go out with your friends tomorrow, and they might get mad at you.
If you’re like me, you’d instead put off now than face the consequences later. But if I don’t get my work done today, then there’s no way my boss will pay me tomorrow!
Make the pain of your consequences immediate by being public about your task with your friends or family. That social pressure will help to finish your work.
Split the tasks to be more achievable
One frequent mistake I kept making was to make all my tasks big. I know I can finish it, but the inertia of beginning such a huge task was way too high.
It’s tough to move a 100kg stone uphill. But it’s pretty easy to pick a 5kg rock and run.
Similarly, make your tasks small and achievable. If you have a task that takes more than 2-4 hours on average, it can be split further.
A lot of productivity experts do suggest this. But to be honest, I have never been successful in it.
There are many techniques like installing browser extensions that block certain websites during work hours (bye-bye Reddit). Or using different devices for work vs personal.
But it takes a great deal of effort to enable them and stick to it consistently.
If you are the type of person who can stick to such rules, then go ahead and use such tools to block distractions.
It just isn’t for me.
Five Tasks a Day
I got this idea more than 10 years back listening to a podcast (I think the Stackoverflow Podcast, but I can’t find the episode now)
Before you go to sleep, list down the five most important tasks that need to be completed tomorrow. These tasks will help you start your day off right and ensure that everything goes smoothly.
Prioritize them by importance and give yourself an estimate for each task. And when your day ends, make a note of how well you performed.
If there are any pending tasks, don’t blindly move them to tomorrow’s list, but instead build it from scratch. The priorities might have changed. You have the option to starting each day fresh.
Maintain consistency to improve every day
Whatever technique you choose, this is the most essential part of it – maintaining consistency.
If you are going to the gym every day, do not skip a day because it will make it harder for you to go back.
Even if, for some reason, you had to miss one day, make sure you don’t skip two days in a row.
I have written about this before, so you can read about them.
Here are some techniques and ways to avoid procrastinating. You can’t and won’t use all of them. But use these as tools in your toolbox. Use the right tool in the proper context. And you will become a better version of yourself every day.