Why You Can’t Stop Procrastinating And What to Do About It (a Simple 2-Step Approach to Beat Procrastination)
“Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.”
Tell your dog to “sit” and when he does so, reward him with a goodie. Do this a couple of times and the dog will quickly learn to sit down when you tell him to “sit”.
That’s how behavior works in a very simplistic way; in animals as well as in human beings. We get rewarded for a behavior? We’ll repeat it. We don’t get rewarded or even get punished? We won’t repeat it in the future. Why should we?
This is how habits are built as well. They involve a cue, a response, and a reward. It’s only once your brain starts anticipating or rather expecting the reward that the power of a habit fully kicks in.
The point is, our behavior is strongly driven by rewards. Rewarding behaviors get repeated and unrewarding behaviors die out.
We can use this knowledge to our advantage in overcoming procrastination. And that’s exactly what this article is all about. If you want to learn how to train yourself to procrastinate less and get more done using behavioral psychology and the power of rewards, keep reading.
The Ultimate Reason We Procrastinate
According to Neil Fiore, a famous procrastination expert and author of The Now Habit, there is one main reason we procrastinate. He explains in his book:
“In my work with thousands of procrastinators I have discovered that there is one main reason why we procrastinate: it rewards us with temporary relief from stress.”
“The main reason we learn any habit, as Drs. Frederick Kanfer and Jeanne Philipps tell us in Learning Foundations of Behavior Therapy, is that even a seemingly counterproductive habit like procrastination is immediately followed by some reward. Procrastination reduces tension by taking us away from something we view as painful or threatening.”
The main reason we procrastinate is because it’s rewarding.
Think about it, when you face an uncomfortable task, you feel anxious, tense, stressed out, and you experience all kinds of other negative emotions. When you decide to procrastinate, you immediately relieve that stress. Phew, you don’t have to do the thing right now. It’s a similar feeling the drug addict experiences when he finally gets his next shot.
And this relief of negative emotions is usually just the first reward. Oftentimes, there’s more…
Occasionally work we thought we had to do later is completed by someone else or proves otherwise unnecessary, thus justifying our procrastination and offering a double reward.
When we tell ourselves something like, “I’ll do it first thing tomorrow morning,” that provides another reward in the form of positive emotions. You see, when we imagine ourselves engaged in some future action that we perceive as beneficial, we feel good about ourselves. After all, we’re being proactive, right? Tomorrow we’ll go for a run in the morning – good for us!
But the biggest reward usually comes in what we do instead of doing the thing we procrastinated on. If you’re anything like me, you tend to follow up your delay with one of the following, highly rewarding tasks:
- Watch TV
- Play video games
- Goof off on Facebook, Instagram, or your other social media channel of choice
- Check emails
- Surf the web
These are all incredibly rewarding for your brain, thus acting as a great reinforcer of behavior. In this case, a reinforcer for procrastination. Think about this for a moment. You’re literally teaching yourself to procrastinate, digging the habit deeper and deeper into your neural structure…
Oh, and we haven’t even come to the fun part yet. What if you actually do get some work done? Do you ever reward yourself?
Procrastinator After Getting Something Done: “Should Have Done Better.”
The fact that procrastination is so rewarding in and of itself is bad enough. But it gets worse because chronic procrastinators never actually reward and reinforce their good behavior.
When they do manage to get something done, follow through with a plan, or finish a project on time, they rarely take the time to acknowledge it. They don’t give themselves credit. They don’t celebrate themselves. If anything, they find something to bemoan or to complain about. Nothing ever seems good enough.
You see, procrastinators usually possess a set of characteristics that make them unlikely to reward themselves and reinforce good behavior.
For example, they tend to have very high standards. If they meditate for fifteen minutes, they feel like they should have done twenty minutes. If they get something done after first procrastinating on it, they still feel guilty. If they work well for two hours, but afterwards end up on Facebook for ten minutes, it’s as if all the great work they did beforehand never even happened and they feel guilty again.
This used to be me by the way. I’d never acknowledge the good stuff I’d done, but I’d instantly feel guilty after giving in to a craving or whatever. I certainly never bothered to give myself any credit for doing something right.
Another classic trait of procrastinators is self-criticism. It’s the same story. Self-critics fail to reward or even acknowledge good behavior, but harshly beat themselves up after bad behavior – a surefire recipe for procrastination. In fact, research has shown that self-forgiveness reduces future procrastination and that self-compassionate people are less likely to procrastinate than their self-critical peers.
Whatever the exact reasons, procrastinators rarely give themselves credit for doing something right. Which, unfortunately, means that they miss out on reinforcing their behavior, they miss out on building up a positive habit, and they miss out on making it more likely to get work done again in the future.
The Plot Thickens…
So far we’ve discussed that procrastinators get rewarded for procrastinating, but never reward themselves for doing work. Since behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated, this is already a great plan for more future procrastination. But it gets worse…
The guilt and self-criticism that procrastinators impose on themselves leads to a further problem: the deprivation of leisure time.
Procrastinators see themselves as burdened by incomplete work. They feel like they should always be working, but don’t deserve any rest. They think of their lives as “being on hold” – only once they get organized enough, successful enough, and only when they’ve overcome procrastination for good are they allowed to enjoy life.
They feel that work requires deprivation and sacrifice. And because they’re rarely truly productive (in their minds!), they feel guilty taking time for leisure activities. And so, any leisure they actually allow themselves is half-hearted and accompanied by guilt.
Paradoxically, procrastinators are always either working or feeling guilty about not working.
This results in procrastinators living a life largely deprived of leisure, pleasure, play, fun, recreation, and so on. When we take all of this together, we see a futile picture emerging…
A Dreadful State of Affairs: Why Procrastinators Keep Procrastinating
Summing up what we’ve learned so far:
- Procrastination is highly rewarding because it relieves stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Plus, it gets a double reward since we usually end up doing something highly rewarding such as watching TV, playing video games, etc.
- Procrastinators rarely reward themselves for working, ridding themselves of any incentives for future work.
- Procrastinators tend to put their lives on hold, depriving themselves of leisure time, fun, pleasure, and true recreation.
This, by the way, used to be me for some periods of my life. I’d wake up in the morning, procrastinate on getting out of bed by religiously hitting the snooze button, feel guilty about sleeping in, procrastinate some more on what I intended to do, fill the time with useless activities, start feeling even more guilty, and then on top of that drown myself in some filler activities (mostly online gaming) to run away from the negative feelings and find some relief.
Because I never got any real work done, I’d also not allow myself time for leisure. Most of the day I was engaged in some stupid, non-fulfilling activity just so that I didn’t need to face my uncomfortable feelings (mainly guilt). And even if I did go out to meet friends, play football, grab some drinks or whatever, I couldn’t enjoy myself properly because I was feeling guilty for not working.
Yep, that was a pretty deep hole I had to dig myself out of.
Anyway, back to the point I was actually getting to… So, the life of a chronic procrastinator is basically deprived of any real rewards – no pat on the back for getting work done, no guilt-free leisure time.
This results in a paradoxical state of affairs: The only way for a procrastinator to get rewarded or to experience pleasure is by… procrastinating.
Think about it. If you get any work done, you don’t acknowledge it and neither do you reward yourself. If you take time for leisure, you do so half-heartedly and feel guilty for not working. If you procrastinate, on the other hand, then you get rewarded. You relieve pressure. You get to check Facebook. You get to check email. You get to watch TV. Or you get to indulge in any other distracting, but rewarding activity.
There is no real incentive for you to change. You keep reinforcing the habit of procrastination by rewarding it, but you fail to build up the habit of overcoming resistance, getting stuff done, or actually working because you never even pat yourself on the back for doing it.
That’s how addictions work. That’s how habits work. And that’s ultimately why you can’t stop procrastinating.
But don’t despair, there’s a way out of this misery…
How to Dig Yourself out of Your Procrastination Hell (2 Steps)
Procrastination is a complex problem with many possible solutions. I have written many articles on such solutions and they all contribute in helping me overcome this dreadful habit. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll limit our discussion to two crucial steps that most relate to what we’ve been talking about:
- Step One: Stop beating yourself up if you procrastinate…
- Step Two: …reward yourself if you don’t.
Simple as that.
Step 1: Stop Being So Fucking Self-Critical.
Yes, procrastinating sucks, but beating yourself up over it only makes things worse. The kind of environment self-criticism endows is simply not healthy and can create a lot of problems. You see, the motivation resulting from self-criticism is one of fear. Because getting harshly criticized when we fail is so unpleasant, we become motivated by an unhealthy desire to escape our own judgment.
The narrative goes something like this, “OMG! If I don’t get this done today, I’ll beat myself up like crazy. I better get this done. I better get going.” This results in unnecessary pressure and stress, ultimately leading to performance anxiety – the stakes are just too high for us to perform at an optimal level. (The idea that pressure improves performance is a myth.)
Even worse, this fear of failure leads to a problem called ‘self-handicapping’ – a tendency to undermine performance in order to save our ego in case of failure. You unconsciously sabotage yourself so that if you do fail, you can avoid feeling unworthy by blaming failure on not having enough time, not having tried hard enough, etc. I used to engage in this type of behavior all the time throughout my high school years. Because I never studied hard for a test, I didn’t have to blame getting bad grades on being dumb but on not trying.
Procrastination, it turns out, is oftentimes a form of self-handicapping. And self-criticism is the driving force behind it. Kristin Neff, an expert on the downfalls of self-criticism, explains in her book Self-Compassion:
“Research indicates that self-critics are less likely to achieve their goals because of these sorts of self-handicapping strategies. In one study, for instance, college students were asked to describe their various academic, social, and health-related goals, and then to report on how much progress they had made toward these goals. Self-critics made significantly less progress toward their goals than others and also reported that they procrastinated more often. So, instead of being a useful motivational tool, self-criticism may actually cause us to short ourselves in the foot.”
She adds that self-compassion – the other side of the coin – helps people procrastinate less:
“Self-compassionate people have also been found to procrastinate less than those lacking self-compassion. This is partly because they report being less worried about how others view their performances, and thus don’t require a plausible excuse for failing.”
So, self-criticism leads to more procrastination while self-compassion leads to less procrastination. This adds to previous research showing that self-forgiveness after an act of procrastination leads to less procrastination on the next task.
The point is, stop beating yourself up for procrastinating. Instead, learn the ways of self-compassion. Create an environment that fosters growth and high achievement – an environment of understanding, kindness, warmth, and love. To learn more about that, check out my other articles on self-compassion: Why peak performers choose self-compassion over self-criticism and a summary of Kristin Neff’s book titled Self-Compassion.
Step 2: Start Rewarding Yourself, Even For The Tiniest Victories.
It’s like Dale Carnegie says, “Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.”
Right now, you already overcome procrastination occasionally, right? Sometimes you have the willpower, you have the strength, and you get it done. Now, simply reinforce this behavior.
From this moment going forward, every single time you overcome the urge to procrastinate, every single time you manage to follow through, every single time you get something done, reward yourself. Reinforce the behavior you want repeated. It’s that simple.
Specifically, you can use the following ways of reinforcing your good behavior. I use them in my own life, and they work. Feel free to just copy them.
- Practice internal self-praise. Catch yourself doing something right and then give yourself some internal self-praise such as a silent ‘Atta boy!’ Acknowledge that you did something right. Don’t just push it aside as if it’s nothing. Really take the time to acknowledge and maybe even celebrate your good behavior a little bit.
- Keep an accomplishment list. I’ve talked about this in a previous article. Simply write down your small wins, no matter how tiny! This makes sure you acknowledge them and don’t just forget about them.
- Do the what-went-well exercise. This is another simple, but effective way of acknowledging and thus reinforcing good behavior. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, talks about this in his book Flourish: “Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well… The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”
- Use reward substitution. Many healthy and positive behaviors (e.g., meditation, exercise, or good nutrition) only reap rewards far in the future, making them unappealing for our immediate gratification seeking brains. That’s why we need to substitute those long-term rewards (better health, longevity, etc.) with immediate rewards. When you exercise successfully for thirty minutes, reward yourself with a delicious smoothie or a protein shake or allow yourself to watch some TV. When you finish a work project, treat yourself to a night out with your spouse. When you manage to get up early for 7 days in a row, reward yourself by buying a new pillow or sweatshirt or whatever. The idea is to make a contract with yourself. If you do XYZ, then you’ll get such and such reward.
Ultimately, the pleasant emotions generated by self-praise and other rewards creep backwards into the effort itself. By combining effort and rewards you can learn to associate tasks or work in general with something desirable.
These effort-reward cycles eventually lead to a phenomenon called ‘learned industriousness’. It basically states that getting rewarded for high effort leads to more high effort in the future. By rewarding yourself for your efforts, you are literally training yourself to exert high effort.
Currently, you are training yourself to procrastinate, resulting in what we could call ‘learned procrastination’ or ‘learned laziness’ – because laziness/procrastination gets rewarded, it’s more likely to happen again in the future. In other words, you are teaching yourself to procrastinate.
Learned industriousness is kind of like the opposite. By rewarding high effort, you are teaching yourself to exert high effort again in the future. You start associating high effort with positive emotions and rewards. Put differently, you are learning to be industrious.
It’s like I said many times before in this article: behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.
Find ways to reward yourself and you’ll slowly, slowly build the habit of not procrastinating and actually putting in the effort and getting stuff done.
P.S. Want More Tips to Beat Procrastination?
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I was finding this article pretty interesting until you ruined it by dropping the F bomb, then I stopped reading it. The bible says do not let any unwholesomeness come out of your mouth except for that which is for building up. This includes profanity. You need Jesus so I will be praying for you.
Well, thanks for praying for me.
Great article. It’s very clear and it all makes sense.
Thanks! Glad you like it.
Complex, difficult and poorly understood (I find) topic covered concisely and coherent Nils – really good to have read this.
I can relate to almost everything that you said (including Arsenal FC support).
Glad you enjoyed it, man. It’s a poorly understood topic, indeed. To be honest, I’m still wrapping my own head around it, lol.
Hey Nils, I had a revelation this morning about my mixed up reward system and feeling deprived. Googled it and found your article. I really think this will help me get started in the right direction! You hit it right on the head for me! I’m ready to dig in. Thanks for the book references and more articles… I gotta get to reading!
We are Manchester United fans here… but won’t hold it against you ;).
PS as a Christian myself, I was devastated at the judgemental remark made toward you. I got a good giggle from the f bomb… I didn’t write it in my notes, but I got the point you were trying to make. You be you, man. Ooxx
Hi Dedra, glad you found value in the piece. It’s funny… the first thing that came to mind when I read that previous comment was: “That’s not a very Christian remark, lol.” Oh well. Thanks for the kind words, and all the best! 🙂
Oh my god! This is SO me! One by one I kept thinking, oh man this guy literally knows what’s happening to me, and you had me when you wrote, “life is on hold”… Because that’s precisely how I feel like, and I thought there is no way out.
The article is well-written, the accurate observations and sense of empathy is like a blessing. Thank you! I am going through an epitome of procrastination and it seems like the biggest problem of my life right now. Like it’s the only thing that’s holding me back. I suddenly realized it has something to do with brain’s reward system and in some research I landed on this article. Your points are well-placed, I will definitely be trying this. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Shekhar. I can empathize with how you feel. The good news: betterment is possible. Just stay patient and put in the work 🙂
This is really insightful. I can relate to almost everything you wrote, especially “Paradoxically, procrastinators are always either working or feeling guilty about not working.”. I have never thought that procrastination is itself the reward. Now I’m starting to make sense of my behaviours. I’m definitely going to try your 2-step method. Thanks so much for sharing!
You’re more than welcome! 🙂
Nils Salzgeber – Almost all points mentioned by you are matching with my existing behavioral pattern of procrastination. I am going to follow your solutions right from this moment and will check my progress on it. Thanks a lot for this valuable article and guidance.
You’re welcome, Vishal. If you put in the work.. the results will come! 🙂
Nils, I really appreciate this article! I’ve been stuck in a deep, deep cycle of procrastinating and getting depressed at my lack of accomplishments day-to-day. This is the first thing I’ve read that’s actually helped me. For the last few days I’ve been giving myself frequent rewards throughout the day whenever I get something done, and it’s working!! It’s motivating me to do more and I feel good about the things I’ve been able to do 🙂 Thank you so much for writing this xoxo
That’s awesome, Chloe! Congrats on taking action, and I’m so glad it’s working for you! 🙂