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5 ways to overcome procrastination

Published on: Jan 25, 2016

What daunting to-do list task have you been avoiding? Ignoring? Dreading?

Tasks which require us to expend effort now for some kind of abstract future benefit, such as eating healthily or saving up, are much harder for the brain to process than the concrete reality of the here and now.

The brain prefers to focus on the present, so to overcome procrastination, we need to make the present effort feel smaller and the future benefit feel greater and more tangible.

During a recent lecture at the London School of Economics, Caroline Webb, a co-founder of McKinsey’s leadership practice and the author of How to Have a Good Day, outlined five techniques we can all employ to overcome procrastination. Webb suggested these techniques to tweak the cost-benefit trade-off and enable us to overcome procrastination:

1. Think about how great it will feel at the end of the day when you have accomplished the difficult task you have been avoiding. This makes the benefit more real and more vivid in your brain.

2. Promise yourself a short-term payoff to further tilt the balance between costs and benefits. Choose an activity you enjoy, such as taking a walk or calling a friend, and do it once you have completed the problematic task.

3. Make a commitment. Research suggests that telling a friend or colleague that you are going to complete a task by the end of the day reduces the amount of self-control that the brain has to exert when we are trying to do the right thing. You feel great when that person asks you about your progress and you can say “I’ve done it!” The more people you pledge to, the stronger the effect.

4. Make the first step of the task really small. Reducing the size of the initial action make the costs seem lower. Webb used the example of composing an email on a difficult subject where you are anxious about what to say. Writing a draft or simply typing out a few bullet points to include would be progress towards your goal. This small step gives your brain enough reward to provide the motivation to take the next step and the next one.

5. Link the task to something you enjoy. This is another way of reducing the perceived cost of taking action. Webb enjoys the occasional reward of getting a taxi, so whenever she does, she spends the journey writing an email that she has been putting off.

Shape your reality

Behavioural science says we can shape our own reality if we understand the shortcuts that our brains take.

The brain features two systems: The deliberate system and the automatic system, Webb explained.

The deliberate system powers conscious reasoning, helps us manage our emotions, and is responsible for forward thinking and planning, but it only has a certain capacity. To prevent the deliberate system from being overwhelmed, the automatic system filters out much of what is going on around you. This affects your perception of reality.

For example, whatever is top of mind in a given moment is what we notice and focus on. If you are having a bad day – the train was cancelled, the laptop presented you with the blue screen of death, and pay day is still a long way away – your brain will choose to “see” negatives that confirm that you should be in a bad mood. Conversely, if you are in a good mood, it will focus on positives that reinforce that mood. Therefore, our attitude when we begin a task or go into a meeting is incredibly important, because it shapes our perceptions.

Before beginning a difficult conversation or going in to an important client meeting, ask yourself, “What is my real aim?” advised Webb. Next, ask: “Have I already made any negative assumptions about what is going to happen?” and “Where would I rather focus my attention?”

This technique can also be used to reset your intentions in the course of a meeting that is going badly. Ask yourself, “What is my aim now?” The answer may be, “I just want to learn from this awful situation” or “I want to hear what other people are saying so I can understand why this has gone so far off-track.”

If you are hosting a meeting with contentious issues on the agenda, Webb recommended you begin by talking about the progress since the last meeting and asking each of the attendees to focus on a particular achievement they have made and the factors that contributed to that success. Beginning positively shapes perceptions for the rest of the meeting.

You can also use the technique to reset a bad day. Once you have acknowledged your mood, actively decide to notice a few good things in the following ten minutes, Webb suggested.

Look for anything that makes you smile or makes you feel good. When you start to feel good, that becomes top of mind, and your automatic system will focus on more positive things.