The Formula Behind Procrastination & Six Ways to Optimize It

This is part four of a four part series I wrote on procrastination. If you'd like to start at the beginning and learn the source of your procrastination, start here.

If you've been keeping up with this series, we've covered procrastination at length now. We started at its source and moved through strategies to discover and implement solutions. First, with micro strategies, then a specific strategy to arm you with something practical to start immediately. Now we'll complete the series with a breakdown of the components that influence procrastination and offer some final tools to disrupt those forces in your favor. 

The Formula Behind Procrastination

Whenever I'm asked about the problem of procrastination and how one can overcome it, two words come to mind:

Reduce friction. 

Procrastination comes from a deeply rooted avoidance of tasks. Avoidance that causes mental friction. Mental friction is when the cost of engaging with a task seems, to our mind, higher than the cost of avoiding it at that moment. That leaves you two variables you can adjust to reduce mental friction:

As long as the above formula remains, you will naturally avoid the activity. In order to overcome your natural inclination to avoid, you will have to apply a lot of discipline and willpower, which are very unreliable. The most effective strategies to overcome procrastination in this way have already been covered in the articles on micro habits and the two-minute rule. 

By understanding the formula of procrastination, you can create a plan of action that doesn't require lots of willpower by tuning the two variables—dialing up the cost of avoiding now or reducing the cost of engaging. Let's use a basic example to explain how to adjust the available variables. 

Suppose a student is given a term paper with the deadline at the end of the school year. Not a big deal for our well-educated student until he/she realizes that four other classes have given term papers with the same due date. Now they don't want to get stuck working on all five at the end of the year, so they need to develop a plan. Luckily, this student is aware of the formula behind procrastination, and they know precisely how to hack it; here are the options:

1. Tuning Up Cost of Avoiding

At the beginning of the year, the cost of avoiding these term papers is very low for our student. The due date is months away, so any small amount of cost to engage will easily be greater than the cost of avoiding, which translates to mental friction. Procrastination ensues. The cost of avoidance has to be raised enough to trigger urgency in completing the work. There are two options to boost the cost of avoiding:

Peer Group: Create a study group or network with other people who have the same mission in mind. There is a strong force behind peer pressure, and you can utilize it for the positive. Identify the individuals who are motivated by the same outcome as you and align with them. In this circumstance, it's the students who care most about their grades. Pair with them and plan to be around them both inside and outside the classroom. This strategy utilizes our natural inclination to be like and liked by our peers, which will raise the cost of being different and not studying. 

Accountability: Take the last strategy even further and challenge your potential peer group to deadlines and milestones. Keep each other accountable. Actively make bets on the completion of those milestones, so there are costs to losing. Offer one of your accountability partners a free dinner if you don't finish a deadline on time. Thus, creating real punishments for avoiding the activity. 

These are excellent tools for creating artificial punishments to avoiding your desired work. They'll keep you on track while progressing toward your objectives. 

2. Tuning Down The Cost of Engaging

"Know the brain you have to get the brain you want" - Julia Degaaf

Of course, getting straight A's feels fantastic and is a powerful motivator to complete the work, but if our brains were that simple, procrastination wouldn't exist. Instead, our brain favors short-term gratification far more than a hopeful gratification many months away. Therefore sacrificing enjoyable activities right now to do homework for a chance at an A+ months' away seems like a foolish choice. This is how the brain works, and so we have to generate a strategy that hacks this reward system. Here are the primary methods to do just that:

Environment: This is where minimalists win. The cost of engaging in your desired activity can be made or destroyed by your environment. If you don't believe me, try studying in a nightclub and then a library without WiFi and see your results. Environment is the simplest and most effective way to adjust the cost of engaging. If your living area is filled with distractions to your desired work, it will require tremendous willpower to ignore them. On the contrary, if your environment inspires your desired outcome, it will compel you to work. 

Timetravel: Visualization sounds much cooler when named time travel, but it also makes sense. As previously mentioned, our brain favors gratification now much more than gratification later, but visualization brings that future reward to us in the present moment. By visualizing ourselves receiving a future (and desirable) outcome right now, we effectively imitate those feelings and inspire the work required to manifest that outcome in reality. 

Dopamine Hits: Scientific breakthroughs have revealed that our minds and bodies are more mechanical than you'd think. Although we don't understand all of it in its extraordinary complexity, we have figured out a lot—one being that our brain loves hits of dopamine. Understanding this gives you the advantage to build a plan that triggers dopamine hits either by rewards or by converting the activities related to your desired outcome so that they, themselves, are a rush of dopamine. 

Whenever your planning a crucial habit or activity, embed one of these five dopamine-releasing triggers into it:

By fusing these dopamine triggers with the work involved in reaching our desired outcome, we'll gain enthusiasm for it. A joy of engagement will replace the cost of engagement. We also receive the added benefit of learning faster, which we do while enjoying something. 

Another way to hack our dopamine system is by adding these features to our environment. In the example with our student, he/she can choose a new coffee shop to study at each week which will provide a novelty factor to a somewhat tedious task. 

The dopamine hit can also be rewarded after our work. In this way, it becomes the carrot dangling in front of our eyes. Gratification from our long-term outcome may be too far off to enjoy but going to get ice cream after one hour of studying is something we can experience right now. 

Clarity: Create obvious and specific steps toward your desired outcome to reduce mental friction around it. The opposite of this is vagueness. The more vague your actions, the higher your perceived cost of engagement. Four questions can override this:

  1. What is the next step?
  2. Where will I complete it? 
  3. How will I complete it?
  4. How long will it take?

Specificity is our ally. Suppose our student wants to work on the term paper tonight before watching a movie and relaxing. If "work on paper" is all our student is thinking, then the likelihood of them avoiding that work is high. But, if they know the very next step to progress with the term paper is "researching what led to World War Two" then the clarity in what needs to get done goes up, vagueness goes down, and so does the perceived cost of engagement. That answers #1. If the student answers all three, the effect is most potent:

"I'll research the causes of World War Two at the library before I head home using books from the library and afterward, the internet, for one hour before heading home." 

This objective has a very high chance of follow-through. It's clear, specific, and time-bound, making it very manageable for our brain to tackle. 

The above four methods are incredibly effective in reducing cost of engagement. They should always be considered when planning long-term projects with undesirable work involved. They'll give you control of the components that form and build procrastination so that you can overcome it on a consistent and systematic basis. 

Join The Strive Journal!

Each week I condense and share insights, writing and interesting links through my newsletter The Strive Journal. If you are a curious person and want a blend of fascinating content delivered to your inbox, consider signing up.

I do my best to make sure it’s the best email you receive every week.

You're almost there...

Confirm your subscription!

1. A confirmation email was sent to you
. Please click the confirmation button in this email to complete your subscription. If you don’t see this within a couple of minutes, make sure to check your promotions/spam folder.

2. Add to your address book to make sure that you get every weeks issue of Strive Journal!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.