“I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make when they go by.”
- Douglas Adams, author ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’
Douglas Adams, the author of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was legendary for his procrastination as are many notable, famous people throughout history. Leonardo Da Vinci, the 14th Dali Lama and Bill Clinton to name a few.
It’s something that impacts alot of us, some only a little bit and some chronically but why do we do it?
Why do we make plans, set deadlines, and commit to goals, but then fail to follow through on them? Why do we go to bed with the best intentions yet throw it all out the window the next day.
It has to do with the way our brain works and if we have a bit of understanding of that, then we can put some tactics in place to help manage it.
Why We Make Plans, But Don’t Take Action
There is a term know as ‘time inconsistency’ and it gives us one explanation as to why we procrastinate.
Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.
When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or save money — you are actually making plans for your future self. You’re planning your future life and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.
When you procrastinate, you act as your present self. You will put a greater weight on the choice that will benefit your present self. You present self-benefits from the satisfaction of eating chocolate therefore, you will make the decision to eat chocolate because you are thinking from the perspective of present self rather than future self.
So you know you’re fighting the natural default of your brain to look for immediate rewards rather than delay for future rewards. Now you know this, how can you overcome it.
Tip 1: Design your future actions.
Don’t rely on willpower-in most cases you won’t win. Instead, design some steps to help you meet your goals. Are you trying to lose weight? Then eliminate the things that tempt you. Shop online so you’re not so tempted by the chocolate aisle. If you aren’t tempted by the chocolate aisle then there is no junk food at home to tempt you either.
Want to exercise early – set your alarm, put your exercise clothes out and put your alarm over on your clothes so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. Now you’re already up you might as well get to the gym or go for that run.
Strategy 2 – Build the habit of getting started
Have you found that once you start something that you’ve been putting off it’s not as bad as you think? It’s the starting that’s hard, not the doing. It’s like going to the dentist for me-I hate the thought of it but once I’m there it’s not as bad as I imagined it to be.
For this strategy to work, don’t focus on the outcome you want, just focus on getting started. The countdown to 5 approach can work for this. Count backwards from 5…5, 4, 3, 2, 1 then start. Don’t count up to five-it’s too easy to keep going to 10, 20, etc!!
If that doesn’t work set an alarm for 5 minutes. Tell yourself you can stop after five minutes. What most people find once they start, they’re OK to keep going. It was the starting that was the hard part.
Strategy 3 – Get specific (set implementation intentions)
Set a really specific intention of doing a particular behaviour at a specific time in the future. By doing this you take something that is a broad, future goal (something your future self understands and is motivated by) and make it concrete by adding the when, where and how. For example, “I will exercise for at least 30 minutes on [DATE] in [PLACE] at [TIME].” Your present self will respond better to the specific intention.
Strategy 4 – Find an accountability partner
Struggling to commit to a goal or an action? Tell an accountability buddy and report into them regularly. It’s easy to let ourselves down. You will be less likely to admit to someone that you didn’t do what you said.
Get really specific in the actions you commit to with your accountability partner (i.e. draw on strategy three). Ask them to call you out if you don’t meet your commitment.
Our brains prefer instant rewards to long-term payoffs – it’s just how our brain works.
Don’t just rely on willpower and fight against the way your brain naturally works. Instead, take the time to design your actions rather than falling to the default system of our brain.