Why We’ve Seen a 5-Fold Increase in Procrastination since 1973, The Somewhat Sad Story of My Online Gaming Addiction, and 4 Ways to Curb Temptations and Eliminate Procrastination
During my high school years, I was massively addicted to an online game called Demigod.
I freakin’ loved this game. And I literally played it all the time. There were many days when I played upwards of 14 hours, just taking enough time away from gaming to grab some food and take care of my bodily needs. Often, I played until three or four o’clock in the morning. The next day, I was usually so tired that I simply decided to skip the morning classes. I vividly remember my teacher telling me, “Nils, you haven’t attended any class on Thursday mornings for 6 weeks now. I don’t buy your excuses anymore. You better get a handle on this or else...”
Even if I managed to get up in the morning, I was so tired in class that I could barely stay awake. It was seriously hard not to fall asleep at times, let alone concentrate on the subject being discussed.
The first thing I thought about upon getting up in the morning was Demigod and the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep was Demigod. In fact, most of what I thought about throughout the day was Demigod. How could I get even better? What might I have overlooked in the last games? Which tactics could I try next time? And so on…
When I got home from school, first thing I did was walk upstairs, turn on the laptop, load the game, grab a bottle of milk from the fridge, and start playing. Most of the time I didn’t even bother taking off my shoes or, to the annoyance of my mother, put away my school bag.
During the worst times, it got so bad that I literally used every spare minute to squeeze in a game. I even played when I was completely drunk coming home from a party at 3 or 4am in the morning. Oh, and when I wasn’t playing, I was of course reading on the forum or watching replays (don’t judge me, that’s what gamers do!). In total, I played well over 100,000 minutes.
Now, here’s where the story relates to the subject of procrastination. During my years of addictive gaming, I always knew that it was bad for me. I always knew that I wanted to stop (I deleted the game a bunch of times, but always relapsed after a few days, weeks, or even months). I wanted to study more. I wanted to exercise more. I wanted to get a job. I wanted to help out more in the household. I wanted to behave better towards my parents. But the allure of gaming was just too tempting. And so I procrastinated on studying more, exercising more, getting a job, helping out more in the household, and so on.
We all have things we want to do – great dreams, aspirations, intentions. But somehow we can’t get ourselves to follow through. Something seems to keep getting in the way.
We want to work out, but end up watching TV instead. We want to read more, but end up spending our time on Facebook. We want to be more productive, but…
What’s going on here? In today’s article, I want to show you exactly what’s going on. We’ll look at why we can’t follow through with our good intentions. We’ll learn why the problem will only get worse over the next few years. And we’ll discover some highly effective strategies to counteract these tendencies...
Procrastination: A Tale of Two Opposing Forces in Your Brain
I just asked you what’s going on when we want to do something, but end up doing something else instead. Well, what’s going on is an age-old battle between reason versus emotion, controlled versus automatic, reflection versus impulse, cold versus hot, reasoned versus intuitive, or cognitive versus visceral.
Plato referred to this phenomenon as a chariot being pulled by two horses, one well-bred, behaved, and of reason, and the other ill-bred, reckless, and of passion. Sigmund Freud described it as the rider and the horse. The rider representing reason and common sense, the horse representing our animal desire and drive.
Modern neuroscience simply refers to it as System 1 (also called the limbic system) and System 2 (the prefrontal cortex).
When we want to exercise, meditate, study, or engage in other things that help us achieve our long-term goals, that’s the prefrontal cortex speaking. This system gets activated by questions about future benefits. It’s where our willpower resides. It’s where planning arises. It’s what allows us to be patient, stay disciplined, and delay gratification.
When you end up dillydallying on Facebook, that’s courtesy of the limbic system. It’s fast, instinctive, driven by impulse, and only interested in immediate gratification. If you see a cookie and want to eat it, that’s your limbic system trying to help you survive. It’s almost like our animal brain. What do animals want? To survive and replicate by using the 4 Fs: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and mating. Do animals care about long-term goals such as better health, a new job, or more happiness? No.
We don’t have time to go into the details of these two systems here. The key takeaway is simply this: Procrastination happens when the limbic system vetoes the long-term plans of the prefrontal cortex. Your prefrontal cortex wants to exercise, but the limbic system prefers watching TV. Hence, you end up procrastinating on exercising. That’s how it works in a nutshell.
Procrastination means the limbic system won over the prefrontal cortex.
Throughout your day, there will be countless face-offs between the two systems. Every time you make a decision, you are torn between immediate gratification (what the limbic system wants) and long-term gain (what the prefrontal cortex wants).
For every single decision, you need to basically bring your prefrontal cortex online to override the impulsive limbic system. “No, we’re not going to eat that cookie right now.” “No, we’re not watching TV at 10am in the morning.” “No, we’re not going to masturbate right now.”
The more decisions you have to make, the more exhausted your prefrontal cortex becomes. This is known as decision fatigue. And it’s why your willpower starts lacking at the end of the day.
Now, guess what happens when you start filling your environment with more and more temptations, forcing your prefrontal cortex to make more and more decisions? And guess what happens when you’re making those temptations more and more enticing?
Welcome to the Age of Dramatic Distractions: Why We’re Seeing a 5-Fold Increase in Procrastination Since 1973
“Do not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin,” said Hesiod, one of the greatest poets of Greek literature, around 700 BC.
A couple hundred years later, around 44 BC, famous Roman philosopher Cicero declared, “In rebus gerendis tarditas et procrastinatio odiosae sunt (‘in the conduct of almost every affair slowness and procrastination are hateful’).
Procrastination has been around for a long time, even the ancient Greeks and Romans struggled with it. However, the impact it’s having on us has never been greater than today. In the 1970s, 4-5 percent of people surveyed indicated that they considered procrastination a key personal characteristic. Today, that number is between 20 and 25 percent – a 5-fold increase over the last couple of decades.
How come? Why are we seeing such a crazy increase in procrastination in such a short period of time?
Well, as you might guess, it has everything to do with the battle between your limbic system and your prefrontal cortex. Every decision you have to make – every temptation you have to resist –, exhausts your prefrontal cortex a little bit and potentially leads to procrastination.
Which is why, according to Dr. Piers Steel, a leading researcher in this field, distractions are one of the ‘deadliest determinants of procrastination’. He writes in his book The Procrastination Equation:
“…proximity to temptation is one of the deadliest determinants of procrastination. [And] the more enticing the distraction, the less work we do.”
To illustrate the relationship between procrastination and distractions, we can look at the following graph (taken from Dr. Piers Steel's book):
The dashed horizontal lines represent temptations, the lower one being a smaller temptation and the higher one being a bigger temptation. The solid line that eventually swoops up is the work curve, showing that most of our motivation is reserved until just before the deadline. The closer the deadline comes, the higher our motivation to work on the task becomes. Once our motivation for work is higher than our motivation for temptations, we start working and stop procrastinating.
As you can see from the graph, the more attractive a temptation becomes, the higher the dashed bar moves and the longer it takes for the competing work line to become the preferable choice. In other words, the more attractive the temptation, the longer we procrastinate. Dr. Piers Steel sums it up perfectly, “So, we can see that when the allure of temptation rises, so does procrastination.”
And that explains perfectly our rise in procrastination. Modern life creates more and more temptations which are simultaneously becoming more and more attractive. In other words, modern life creates more and more horizontal lines while moving them higher and higher. And what happens with the solid bar? It, unfortunately, stays pretty constant – the pleasure derived from working hasn’t really changed much over the last decades. So, to sum up, the temptation bar is rising ever higher, while the work curve remains constant. The result: we procrastinate more.
The limbic system basically gets hyperactivated in our modern, distraction-filled world, making it almost impossible for the prefrontal cortex to tame it.
Just for a moment now, let’s consider some of the temptations modern life has to offer…
Video games are one hell of a sexy temptation. 50 years ago, people played with sticks and stones and shit (I assume). 15 years ago, we played Tetris and Snake. 8 years ago, Demigod was released. And even back in those times, video games were huge enablers of procrastination (as my own example showed).
But guess what? Video games are only becoming better and better. Just look at the improvements in graphic design. Modern games look as real as it gets. And they are engineered by multi-million dollar companies to be as rewarding and as addictive as possible. No wonder so many young people are now suffering from video game addiction – in Korea, for example, ten percent of young people show advanced signs of addiction, playing up to seventeen hours a day.
I love how Dr. Piers Steel puts it in The Procrastination Equation:
“With each evolving iteration of Grand Theft Auto, Guitar Hero, or World of Warcraft, choosing not to procrastinate becomes harder. The graphics, the story, the action, the console – all of them advance. In the battle for your attention, it is as if work is still fighting with bows and arrows while gaming has upgraded to auto-cannons, sniper rifles and grenade launchers.”
Clearly, the temptation of video games will only get bigger and bigger, resulting in the dotted line rising higher and higher.
When it comes to distractions, watching TV is still the #1 choice for most people, with the average American, for example, watching 4.7 hours per day. According to Dr. Piers Steel, it’s the king of distraction. He writes in The Procrastination Equation:
“The king of distraction – and there is only one – is television. Since its halcyon years in the 1950s, television has continued to perfect itself, gaining all the features it needs to win the competition for our time. The magic of the remote allows us to change channels without moving. The advent of cable and satellite has ensured that there is always at least one available channel that reliably caters to our tastes. And with multiple television sets throughout the house – more TVs than people according to Nielson Media Research – we can watch our shows anywhere we like. If our interest in a particular programme flags even momentarily – zapp! – we are off to other worlds in this 500-channel universe. So attractive is television that we are often guilty of over-consumption, feeling TV’d out and wishing at day’s end that we’d watched a little less.”
And, just as is the case with video games, TV is only getting better. You can now record multiple programmes simultaneously, store hundreds of hours of your favorite shows, and buy any movie whenever you want, while enjoying everything in ridiculously high resolution.
But, it gets even worse…
Ah, the internet. The procrastination-enabling device of choice for millennials. It’s like a candy store for your limbic system. There are websites catering to every interest and fetish, videos to download, music to listen to, text messages to respond to, emails to read, news to check out, and so on.
Even more attractive for most of us nowadays are social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on. Researchers investigating Facebook and procrastination now already refer to that combination as “Facebocrastination”.
According to the research, almost half of our time online is spent procrastinating. Timothy Pychyl writes in The Procrastination Puzzle:
“In this paper, published more than a decade ago (long before social-networking tools became popular), our participants reported that 47 percent of their time online was spent procrastinating. I think this is a conservative estimate.”
This was more than a decade ago? Lol, I don’t even want to know how high that number would be today.
The point is, distractions are a huge enabler of procrastination – and it will only get worse. If we want any chance of getting things done and getting a handle on procrastination, the solution is an obvious one:
We need to find ways to reduce and resist temptations…
Bottom Line: If You Want to Get Things Done and Curb Procrastination Now and in the Future, You Need to Find Strategies to Reduce and Resist Temptations
As we talked about in the beginning of this article, most of us have more than enough long-term goals: we want to lose weight, gain muscle mass, stop smoking, exercise more, work harder, make more money, and become happier along the way.
Standing between us and our great aspirations are distractions: the television, online games, apple pie cakes, Facebook, YouTube, and so on. We want to eat healthy, exercise more, and be productive, but we end up giving in to temptations – eating fast food, dillydallying online, and watching the latest Netflix show.
The solution is an obvious one. If we want to curb procrastination and make progress towards accomplishing our lofty goals, we need to learn ways of dealing with, reducing, and resisting temptations.
Here are 4 strategies to help you reduce and resist temptations…
1. Create a Commitment Contract
Would you keep wasting your time on Facebook if you had to pay $10 for every minute you spent on there? Probably not.
This hypothetical illustrates the power of making temptations pay – of making them less attractive. If you can find ways to make distractions unattractive (e.g. by adding a penalty to them), you basically make it easier for the prefrontal cortex to override the limbic system. In other words, you will be able to resist the temptations much more easily.
To make this happen, you can create a so-called commitment contract. You commit to doing (or NOT doing) something and create a contract that if you fail, you will lose a bunch of money, run around the block naked, or whatever.
The process is simple: First, you pick a commitment. Second, you set the stakes – what will happen if you fail to meet your commitment?
If you’ve ever heard of the website StickK.com, that’s exactly what the site does. It asks you to pick a goal (what do you want to accomplish?), set the stakes (what will happen if you fail to meet the goal?), and get a referee (usually a friend or coach that will judge if you accomplished your goal or not).
By adding a penalty to temptations, you make them much less attractive, essentially moving the dotted line in the distraction paragraph from earlier. The result? Work becomes relatively more attractive and you stop procrastinating and start getting things done.
Other useful tools to use for commitment contracts are the website CovenantEyes to overcome porn addiction and the SnuzNLuz alarm clock that will donate to your least favorite charity every time you hit the snooze button.
2. Reframe How You Think About Temptations
What do you associate with your temptations? Chances are, whether you’re aware of it or not, that it’s something positive. Facebook may be associated with relieving tension, watching fun video clips, seeing friends, connecting with people, and so on. In your mind, checking Facebook is associated with an immediate, positive reward – otherwise your limbic system wouldn’t want to check it all the time.
Here’s the deal. As long as your temptations and distractions are seen in a positive light, your limbic system will be on high alert and it will be hard to resist them. That’s why you need to reframe them so that they are seen in a more negative light.
You can do this in a few ways. For example, come up with a mental list of all the bad aspects of the temptation. In what ways is it harming your life? What’s the most disastrous thing that could possibly happen because of that distraction? How is it stopping you from achieving your dreams? Think about the bigger picture. Will the temptation help or hinder you from living the life you want? Five years from now, would you or would you not indulge in the temptation? Get really objective here. Does it make sense to indulge in it? What would you recommend a friend do?
These thought experiments basically bring your prefrontal cortex online, helping you become less impulsive and more rational, objective, and disciplined. Plus, they will help your brain connect negative images with the temptation, making it less attractive and something to be avoided rather than indulged in.
Your smartphone, for example, goes from being a way to chat with friends, play games, and surf the web to being a study or career killer – something that will distract you from studying or working, something that gets in the way of your future goals.
Btw, the same works for positive behaviors. If you associate exercise with pain or something you have to or should do, you won’t feel very inclined to do it. Yet, when you see it as a way to become more confident, have more energy, and something that helps you achieve your goals, then you’ll be much more likely to want to exercise and actually do it.
3. Up the Hurdles – Make It as Hard as Possible to Indulge in Temptations
Remember what we said about proximity to temptations earlier? Proximity to temptation is one of the deadliest determinants of procrastination.
This is a major problem in today’s world because no matter where we are, temptations are almost always around us and readily available at our fingertips. Dr. Piers Steel refers to this as universal proximity in his book The Procrastination Equation:
“Universal proximity is exactly the goal – to shave enough seconds off the mechanisms of delivery that all products can be purchased as impulsively as the sweets by the checkout counter. Once this happens, the world becomes an inescapable cage of temptation and if your willpower ever lapses, even for just a second, that’s all the time they need to get you.”
It's just way too easy for us to indulge in temptations. It’s like he says: all you need is one weak minute and you find yourself checking Facebook, reading your emails, or indulging in a chocolate cookie.
What we need to do is increase the initial hurdle to engage in temptations. If you have to jump through multiple hoops and overcome other annoying obstacles until you are finally on your beloved Snapchat, then you’ll think twice whether that’s worth it or not.
Here are some ideas you can try out:
- Block all distracting websites (I recommend using FindFocus or Cold Turkey)
- Delete all distracting apps on your smartphone
- Delete all your computer games
- Bury your PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Wii, etc. in the basement
- Get rid of your TV
- Install a timer that automatically turns off Wi-Fi at certain periods of the day (or at night)
Again, these are not 100 percent fail-proof. You can just re-install your games. You can un-block the websites. You can turn on the Wi-Fi again. But are you really going to go through all of that trouble? Maybe. But certainly less often than if you didn’t create these barriers.
4. Stimulus Control: Control Your Environment or Be Controlled by It
You’ve probably heard of priming before. It basically states that anything in your environment can trigger a certain behavior or goal. Walking past the gym can trigger the goal of wanting to work out. A plate of veggies and fruits can trigger the goal of eating healthy. Walking past a jewelry store can trigger the goal of buying jewelry or other luxurious items.
A sexy image can trigger the urge to have sex. Hearing a snippet of a song can make us start humming it. The smell of cake and chocolate can make you hungry. Dimming the lights immediately increases fearfulness. Holding a hot cup of coffee or tea infuses warm feelings in us, making us more charitable. Putting sweets on a secretary’s desk in a clear rather than opaque bowl (thereby making them more visible bot not more available) increases snacking by 46 percent.
Even other people can trigger behavior or goals in us. Reading about a successful businessman can motivate us to start our own business. Watching a James Bond movie can make men more dominant and self-assured. Watching someone offering gifts and helping others can make us more kind and altruistic.
The point is, anything and everything in our environment has an influence on us. The objects we see, the tastes we smell, the words we read, the people we interact with – these environmental cues can all trigger unconscious behavior.
Bringing it back to temptations and procrastination… it’s obvious now that certain things in your environment will trigger you to indulge in temptations, while certain other things in your environment will trigger you to stop procrastinating and start working.
If you want to waste less time on temptations and more time on what actually matters, you need to take control over your environment.
You need to get rid of cues that trigger distractions and fill your environment with cues that trigger work and goal pursuit.
Let’s look at a couple ways of doing that…
Declutter Your Browser
My browser used to be a mess even just a few months ago. It was plastered with bookmarks, add-ons, extensions, and what not. The problem is that every visible hot-linked website or article or add-on is a cue for your unconscious mind and will activate goals that get in the way of our productivity. It’s like they’re all screaming at you 24/7, “Click me! Click me already! C’mon, please click me!”
No thanks. Here’s what my browser looks like today:
And here’s what it looked like in the old procrastination-supporting mode.
Here are the steps I took to declutter my browser (I’m using google chrome):
- Get rid of the bookmarks bar by hitting Ctrl+Shift+B
- Move add-ons and extensions all the way to the right so you don’t see them all the time
- Install an extension that displays a blank page instead of thumbnails when you open a new tab (I use Empty New Tab Page)
Declutter Your Desktop
The same goes for your desktop. Any quick launch icons or hot-linked programs need to go because they act as unconscious goal activators.
Here’s what my desktop looks like today:
Here’s what a desktop that screams for trouble looks like:
Here are the steps I took to declutter my desktop (I use Windows 10):
- Delete all or most quick launch icons from your taskbar (just right-click them and “unpin from taskbar)
- Move all or most quick launch icons on your desktop to one folder (I called it creatively “DESKTOP”)
There was probably some more stuff to do, but I forgot what it was. You’ll figure it out – the goal is to get rid of as many triggers as possible.
Declutter Your Phone
Same shit. If you unlock your phone and immediately see icons for all your favorite distractions, guess what that’s going to tell your brain? Frankly, they have to go as well.
Here’s what my smartphone looks like after unlocking:
Eliminate All Notifications
Want an extra month of productivity a year? Dr. Piers Steel has a trick to help you achieve just that. He writes in The Procrastination Equation:
“Here is a trick that will give you an extra month of efficiency each year. It is easy to implement, immediately effective, and doesn’t cost a penny. First, go to your e-mail programme. Second, disable all the audio alerts and mailbox pop-ups. … That’s it, there is no third step. Banishing e-mail notifications will make you about 10 percent more efficient and over a year that translates into one more month of productivity.”
Besides e-mail notifications, also make sure to block any other notifications on your computer and your phone. Every notification is an unconscious goal trigger that possibly gets in the way of your productivity and leads to procrastination.
Declutter Your Work Space (and Everything Else in Your Life While You’re on It)
A cluttered, messy, disorganized workspace is a minefield of distractions and unconscious goal triggers. If you want to work more efficiently and procrastinate less, you need to radically declutter your work space.
But there’s a catch-22 as Dr. Piers Steel explains in The Procrastination Equation:
“Everything extraneous on your desk distracts and detracts, making it harder to find any focus on your primary purpose. But here is the Catch-22: the number-one activity that people postpone is ‘cleaning out closets, drawers, and other cluttered spaces. Procrastinators are more likely to leave clutter, which in turn, increases their procrastination.”
If you want to save time, procrastinate less, and get more done, you know what to do. Out of sight, out of mind is the motto here.
Remove the Triggers for Any Remaining Distractions
Here are some additional ideas for getting rid of cues for distractions:
- Hide the remote control for the TV or close the doors of the television cabinet (if you have one). Or move the TV to somewhere you don’t see it all the time.
- If you’re serious, get rid of distracting stuff completely. Sell your TV. Uninstall and delete any of your games.
- During work, put your phone away where you don’t see it.
- In general, put any possible distraction somewhere you don’t see it
Fill your environment with work and goal triggers
Be creative. What are cues that you associate with your goals? What reminds you of your goals? What could unconsciously activate your goals?
Here are some ideas:
- If you want to work on your writing project, put relevant material on your desk
- If you want to read a book, put it on your desk or somewhere else you can see it
- If you want to work out in the morning, put your already-packed gym bag next to your bed
- If you want to feel inspired to work hard, put images of your idols in your environment – maybe a book from Gary Vaynerchuk, your favorite quote from Warren Buffett, or a small way figure from Benjamin Franklin or another of your heroes.
- If you want to feel more calm and be able to concentrate better, get a plant in your office or hang up pictures of nature or even just get a background image of a nature scene. (Check out this article for more on that!)
- If you want to be more present, get a small buddha statue
The possibilities are endless. You can use anything to function as goal triggers – post-it notes, books, images, statues, quotes, etc…
Make Your Work Place a Cue Itself
Here comes a powerful strategy. You can make your work place a cue itself, so that focus and concentration happen automatically as soon as you sit down.
This requires you to create clear boundaries between work and leisure. You need to dedicate your work space exclusively to labor. Work in that space only for as long as you are truly productive. Once you’re getting exhausted, motivation leaves you, and distractions become too irresistible, leave your work space and do your gaming, web surfing, chilling, etc. someplace else.
This means you may need to get a second computer, one for play and one for work. If that’s not possible, at least create two separate profiles on your computer, one for play and one for work. If you work from home, if at all possible, create a separate office, no matter how small or symbolic. Maybe change the clothes once you’re done with work as well. Or create a transition ritual that clearly signals your brain, “Work is over. We’re transitioning into leisure time!”
According to Dr. Piers Steel, this segregation between work and play can make a huge difference. He writes in The Procrastination Equation:
“If you keep work and play in discrete domains, associations will build and attention will become effortless – your environment will be doing all the heavy motivational lifting. Three studies have investigated the effectiveness of this technique with students, and found that the use of dedicated work areas decreased procrastination significantly within weeks.”
Modern day distractions like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Video Games, TV, and our beloved smartphones are responsible for a large chunk of our procrastination.
If we want to procrastinate less and get more meaningful work done, we need to learn ways to reduce the impact those temptations have on us. We need to reclaim our time and attention using the strategies we've talked about in this article.
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. How are modern distractions impacting you? And what are some of your best strategies for reducing their impact?
P.S. Want more? Now that you know how to deal with time-robbing distractions and temptations, want to know about other strategies to reduce procrastination and get more done?
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