How To Stop Procrastinating

Posted: January 14, 2015

If one of your New Years resolutions was to stop procrastinating and start getting things done, you need to read this article from Barking Up The Wrong Tree. Read on to learn how habits, chocolate and friends can help you stop procrastinating.


1) You Don’t Need More Willpower. You Need To Build Habits.

You don’t have a willpower problem. This wouldn’t all be better if you could force yourself to do that dreaded task.

As I talked about when I interviewed the foremost researcher on the subject, willpower is a limited resource.

Relying on it to get things done is a really lousy strategy. You really only have the willpower to muscle yourself to do about three to four things a day.

Yeah, three or four. (So basically I’ve used up all my willpower by the time I get out of bed.) So what’s the answer?

Building better habits. In fact, 40% of the things you do every day are habitual.

So if you can just move those awful, horrible mom-don’t-make-me-go-to-school tasks into the habit territory, you’re far more likely to get them done. Research shows we’re way more productive when we automate tasks by making them habitual.

So habits are the answer. But how do we use habits to beat putting things off?



2) Turn That Habit Into A “Personal Starting Ritual”

I’ve posted a lot about the research and solutions to procrastination. What’s a common theme we see again and again?

Getting started is where the war is really won. This makes sense intuitively. Often it feels like something is impossible… but then once we get going we find it’s actually not that bad.

Finishing things isn’t as much of a problem as just getting started in the first place.

One way to use habits to fight procrastination is to develop a habitualized response to starting. When people talk about procrastination, what they’re usually actually talking about is the first step. In general, if people can habitualize that first step, it makes it a lot easier.

So don’t make this some terrible grind of a habit. Make this a habit that’s a “personal starting ritual.” Get your coffee or whatever energizes you and turn that into a visceral signal that always means I’m getting going.

And here’s the best part: your starting ritual can be fun. As in doing some of the stuff you’d do when procrastinating.

Seriously. A little bit of that forbidden fruit can actually make you more productive.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit says: For instance, I’m going to set a timer for five minutes. I’m going to surf the web for five minutes. As soon as the timer goes off, I’m going to do “X”. Whatever “X” is, for the first step. One of the things that’s important, is to recognize that you can’t simply extinguish this craving for entertainment or novelty — the things that drive procrastination. Instead, what you need to do, is you need to indulge that craving but indulge it in such a way that the recovery is very easy. Pete Gollwitzer calls this “Implementation Intentions.” He says, “Let yourself procrastinate for five minutes but set the timer. As soon as the beeper goes off, you know that you’re immediately going to start writing the memo or start answering emails.” The lesson there is, “Don’t just try and power through not procrastinating.” Instead, come up with a plan where you allow yourself to indulge this craving you have, which isn’t going to go away, but do it so the recovery is encapsulated.

And Charles isn’t the only one saying this. We’re hearing about the power of rituals all over the place.

In my interview with the bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss he said a morning ritual was essential. The awesome Dan Pink recommends a starting ritual and a finishing ritual when you work.

Recent research from Harvard professors Michael Norton and Francesca Gino shows that rituals have many positive effects. Francesca explained in my interview with her:

What we studied in this project was whether these rituals are really of beneficial effect in terms of bringing you confidence and potentially impacting your performance positively. That is actually what we found. What is interesting about the studies is that we also have physiological measures. What we find is that if you engage in a ritual prior to a potentially high anxiety task, like singing in public or solving difficult math problems, you end up being calmer by the time you approach the task, and more confident in what you’re about to do. As a result of that, you actually perform better.

Building habits and turning them into personal rituals can help you get things done and make you perform better. But what type of habits should we build? Are some habits more effective than others? Absolutely.



3) The Most Powerful Habits Change How You See Yourself

So what kind of ritual should it be? Something at work? One that helps you get boring chores done? Which one is going to have a nuclear bomb style effect on how you behave everywhere?

So why are some habits keystone habits and others aren’t? Keystone habits change how you see yourself and that’s what causes the cascade of positive change. Here’s Charles:

The power of a keystone habit draws from its ability to change your self-image. Basically, anything can become a keystone habit if it has this power to make you see yourself in a different way.

So what’s the task that really makes you feel accomplished? What makes you feel like “someone who gets things done”? That’s probably where your keystone habit lies and the first place you should attack.

Keystone habits make the best rituals to create change and that’s the way to stop procrastinating. But what tips do you need to know to really supercharge habit change?



4) The Secret To Good Habits Is Eating Chocolate With Friends.

Okay, I’m oversimplifying. But there are two powerful lessons here.

First, rewards (like chocolate) are utterly essential when trying to build habits. Bad habits are easy to acquire because they usually have very immediate rewards. (Maybe heroin addicts do have a “personal starting ritual” but they probably don’t need one.)

If you add a reward after a good habit you want to build, it’s a powerful reinforcer. So treat yourself to a piece of chocolate after you close the tab on Facebook and get to work.

When you muscle things through willpower instead of developing a habit and rewarding yourself, you’re probably teaching yourself not to accomplish things.

By making important tasks feel unpleasant you’re training yourself that doing these things is bad.

So that’s the chocolate part. But what about friends?

A support network shows us that change is possible. In fact, tons of research says that the people around you might be the key to lasting change in life.

Mom wanted you to hang out with the smart kids in school because they provided good examples. Mom was right.

But friends also give our ego a kick too. For instance: Jim’s an idiot. You’re way smarter than Jim. But Jim manages to avoid procrastination. Well, if Jim can do it, you definitely can too, right? Now that’s motivating.



Sum Up

Here are some takeaways from Charles about how to stop procrastinating:

  • You don’t need more willpower. You need to build a solid habit that helps you get to work.
  • Getting started is the tricky part. Turn that habit into a “personal starting ritual.” It can even have some fun to it as long as it signals that in a few minutes, it’s time to get cranking.
  • The most powerful habits change how you see yourself. Think about what makes you feel like someone who gets things done and make that a part of your starting ritual.
  • Eat chocolate with friends. Maybe not literally, but it’s a good reminder that you need both rewards and a support network to build rock solid new habits.


The coolest part is that if you follow these steps you’re on your way to a lot more than beating procrastination — you’re on your way to a better life.

Build one new great habit per month with the above steps and in a year you can be a totally new person.

You can become someone who is way more conscientious and as the research shows, that’s the secret to a longer, more successful life.

And don’t beat yourself up if this doesn’t work immediately. Research shows forgiving yourself when you drop the ball is key to overcoming procrastination.

It’s hard, but by investing some energy into building good habits you’ll make progress with time. Stay positive.