Procrastination comes in many disguises. We might resolve to tackle a task, but find endless reasons to defer it. We might prioritize things we can readily tick off our to-do list—answering emails, say—while leaving the big, complex stuff untouched for another day. We can look and feel busy, while artfully avoiding the tasks that really matter. And when we look at those rolling, long-untouched items at the bottom of our to-do list, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed in ourselves.
The problem is our brains are programmed to procrastinate. In general, we all tend to struggle with tasks that promise future upside in return for efforts we take now. That’s because it’s easier for our brains to process concrete rather than abstract things, and the immediate hassle is very tangible compared with those unknowable, uncertain future benefits. So the short-term effort easily dominates the long-term upside in our minds—an example of something that behavioral scientists call present bias.
How can you become less myopic about your elusive tasks? It’s all about rebalancing the cost-benefit analysis: make the benefits of action feel bigger, and the costs of action feel smaller. The reward for doing a pestering task needs to feel larger than the immediate pain of tackling it.
To make the benefits of action feel bigger and more real:
Visualize how great it will be to get it done. Researchers have discovered that people are more likely to save for their future retirement if they’re shown digitally aged photographs of themselves. Why? Because it makes their future self feel more real—making the future benefits of saving also feel more weighty. When we apply a lo-fi version of this technique to any task we’ve been avoiding, by taking a moment to paint ourselves a vivid mental picture of the benefits of getting it done, it can sometimes be just enough to get us unstuck. So if there’s a call you’re avoiding or an email you’re putting off, give your brain a helping hand by imagining the virtuous sense of satisfaction you’ll have once it’s done—and perhaps also the look of relief on someone’s face as they get from you what they needed.
Pre-commit, publicly. Telling people that we’re going to get something done can powerfully amplify the appeal of actually taking action, because our brain’s reward system is so highly responsive to our social standing. Research has found that it matters greatly to us whether we’re respected by others—even by strangers. Most of us don’t want to look foolish or lazy to other people. So by daring to say “I’ll send you the report by the end of the day” we add social benefits to following through on our promise—which can be just enough to nudge us to bite the bullet.
Confront the downside of inaction. Research has found that we’re strangely averse to properly evaluating the status quo. While we might weigh the pros and cons of doing something new, we far less often consider the pros and cons of not doing that thing.Known as omission bias, this often leads us to ignore some obvious benefits of getting stuff done. Suppose you’re repeatedly putting off the preparation you need to do for an upcoming meeting. You’re tempted by more exciting tasks, so you tell yourself you can do it tomorrow (or the day after). But force yourself to think about the downside of putting it off, and you realize that tomorrow will be too late to get hold of the input you really need from colleagues. If you get moving now, you have half a chance of reaching them in time—so finally, your gears creak into action.
To make the costs of action feel smaller:
Identify the first step. Sometimes we’re just daunted by the task we’re avoiding. We might have “learn French” on our to-do list, but who can slot that into the average afternoon? The trick here is to break down big, amorphous tasks into baby steps that don’t feel as effortful. Even better: identify the very smallest first step, something that’s so easy that even your present-biased brain can see that the benefits outweigh the costs of effort. So instead of “learn French” you might decide to “email Nicole to ask advice on learning French.” Achieve that small goal, and you’ll feel more motivated to take the next small step than if you’d continued to beat yourself up about your lack of language skills.
Tie the first step to a treat. We can make the cost of effort feel even smaller if we link that small step to something we’re actually looking forward to doing. In other words, tie the task that we’re avoiding to something that we’re not avoiding. For example, you might allow yourself to read lowbrow magazines or books when you’re at the gym, because the guilty pleasure helps dilute your brain’s perception of the short-term “cost” of exercising. Likewise, you might muster the self-discipline to complete a slippery task if you promise yourself you’ll do it in a nice café with a favorite drink in hand.
Remove the hidden blockage. Sometimes we find ourselves returning to a task repeatedly, still unwilling to take the first step. We hear a little voice in our head saying, “Yeah, good idea, but . . . no.” At this point, we need to ask that voice some questions, to figure out what’s really making it unappealing to take action. This doesn’t necessarily require psychotherapy. Patiently ask yourself a few “why” questions—“why does it feel tough to do this?” and “why’s that?”—and the blockage can surface quite quickly. Often, the issue is that a perfectly noble competing commitment is undermining your motivation. For example, suppose you were finding it hard to stick to an early morning goal-setting routine. A few “whys” might highlight that the challenge stems from your equally strong desire to eat breakfast with your family. Once you’ve made that conflict more explicit, it’s far more likely you’ll find a way to overcome it—perhaps by setting your daily goals the night before, or on your commute into work.
So the next time you find yourself mystified by your inability to get important tasks done, be kind to yourself. Recognize that your brain needs help if it’s going to be less short-sighted. Try taking at least one step to make the benefits of action loom larger, and one to make the costs of action feel smaller. Your languishing to-do list will thank you.
Caroline Webb is the author of How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life. She is also CEO of coaching firm Sevenshift, and a Senior Adviser to McKinsey & Company. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_webb_, Facebook, or Google +.
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