To Procrastinate Less, Make Tasks More Attractive (4 Ways)
Would you procrastinate on doing your taxes if you got a million dollars for doing them right now? Would you procrastinate on anything if it meant your kid or someone else had to suffer a horrible death? Would you procrastinate if you lost a finger for every additional unit (hour, day, whatever) of delay?
You see, procrastination has a lot to do with how much you value a task. If the thing you should do is of low value to you, chances are you’ll procrastinate. If it’s of high value, you’ll find a way to get it done.
Researchers call this ‘task aversiveness’. The more aversive a task, the more likely we are to procrastinate. Tasks, goals, or projects can be aversive for a number of reasons – they may be boring, difficult, frustrating, anxiety-provoking, or resented.
The point is, if we want to procrastinate less, we need to find ways to make tasks less aversive and more attractive. So, without further ado...
Here are 4 ways to make tasks more attractive...
1. Connect Tasks to Your Values and Future Goals
You can make seemingly irrelevant and boring tasks more attractive and meaningful by connecting them to your values and future goals. If you can see how present tasks lead to a better future, you will value them more highly.
For any task, goal, or project you’re procrastinating on, ask yourself the following questions:
- How is this task connected to my future goals?
- How will this task help me reach my goals?
- In what ways is this task connected to my values?
Cleaning your room becomes a sign of your maturity and a way to be more productive on your way towards achieving your goals. Sitting down to meditate becomes an opportunity to become more present and self-disciplined. Finishing a writing project becomes something that benefits your career.
Once you connect those small, irritating tasks to your values and your future aspirations, they become much more meaningful. You now want to do them because they help you be and become the best version of yourself. The result? Less procrastination.
Here’s how Dr. Piers Steel, a leading procrastination researcher, puts it in his book The Procrastination Equation:
“The risk of procrastination diminishes when tasks are relevant, instrumentally connected to topics and goals of personal significance. Actions that don’t fit self-determined and self-defined goals are amotivational.”
According to him, this is a major reason why procrastination decreases with age. As we mature, we are better able to connect the dots, seeing reasons for what we once thought was pointless. It’s like Nietzsche said, “He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.”
2. Make It a Game
Another way to make tasks less aversive is by turning them into a game. Challenge yourself, create a feedback loop, or try to beat your own score.
How many of these can you get done in 20 minutes? Can you do it in less time? Can you do it one-handed or with eyes closed?
3. Promise Yourself a Reward
Oftentimes, we procrastinate on things that would be highly beneficial for us in the future. If we could start meditating daily, exercising regularly, eating healthy, or finishing our work projects quickly and efficiently, we would gain massive rewards in the future.
The key words here are in the future. The things we procrastinate on usually only reap rewards far in the future, making them unappealing for our immediate gratification seeking brains. We need to do them now, but only reap the rewards in the future. Because that’s not attractive to our brains, we procrastinate.
The solution is simple. We need to substitute long-term rewards (better health, more career success, increased longevity, enhanced self-control, etc.) for immediate rewards. This is a strategy Dan Ariely, a famous psychologist and bestselling author, calls ‘reward substitution’.
Instead of waiting for the benefits of exercise in the years to come, you can reward yourself immediately. When you successfully exercise for 30 minutes, treat yourself to a delicious smoothie or protein shake.
Instead of waiting for the benefits of meditation, promise yourself a reward if you manage to meditate 7 days in a row. Allow yourself to watch a movie, indulge in some chocolate cake, or purchase some shiny new toy.
If you are working on an important work project, promise yourself a reward for every major milestone you complete and schedule big reward once you’ve completed the entire project.
Rewards help you make tasks much more attractive (less aversive), thus reducing procrastination.
4. Try Temptation Bundling
The previous strategy was all about using rewards after doing the thing you should do. This strategy is about rewarding yourself while you’re actually doing the thing – e.g. listen to your favorite podcase while jogging.
This idea is called ‘temptation bundling’ and was invented by Katy Milkman, a professor at The Wharton School of Business. I’ll let her explain in her own words:
“What I realized is that if I only allowed myself to watch my favorite TV shows while exercising at the gym, then I’d stop wasting time at home on useless television, and I’d start craving trips to the gym at the end of a long day because I’d want to find out what happens next in my show. And not only that, I’d actually enjoy my workout and my show more combined. I wouldn’t feel guilty watching TV, and time would fly while I was at the gym. So when I talk about temptation bundling, I mean combining a temptation — something like a TV show, a guilty pleasure, something that will pull you into engaging in a behavior — with something you know you should do but might struggle to do.”
You combine the task you’re procrastinating on (or any other behavior that is good for you) with a behavior that feels good. In other words, you’re bundling a behavior you should do with a behavior you feel tempted to do.
This makes aversive tasks more attractive and should therefore lead to less procrastination. Scratch the should – there’s actually a study proving that it works. Participants who used temptation bundling were 29-51% more likely to exercise than the control group.
So, choose a task you’re procrastinating on and marry it with one of your guilty pleasures. Blogger James Clear offers some examples over at his website:
- Only listen to audiobooks or podcasts you love while exercising.
- Only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails.
- Only watch your favorite show while ironing or doing household chores.
- Only eat at your favorite restaurant when conducting your monthly meeting with a difficult colleague.
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