How To Stop Procrastinating: 4 New Steps Backed By Research


I don’t wanna. I don’t wanna. I don’t wanna. It’s awful and horrible. I hear it causes cancer. I’ll do it when I feel better. I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll do it when I’m taller.

Procrastination plagues us all. We always think there will be more time tomorrow and research shows that’s just not true.

No, you won’t do better work by waiting. In fact, studies show leaving things unfinished makes you stupid.

To be honest with you, dear reader, I should have started writing this hours ago. So how can both of us finally banish procrastination for good? I decided to call a guy who has answers.

Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times and author of the bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Here’s what you’ll learn in the post below:

  1. Why your standard response to procrastination never ever ever works.
  2. How turning habits into “personal starting rituals” can make beating procrastination easier and fun (believe it or not.)
  3. Why the most powerful habits are all about how you see yourself.
  4. Why eating chocolate with friends might be the secret to beating procrastination — and every other bad habit you have.

No more putting things off. Rather than doing this “eventually” let’s do it now.


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. As Charles says, 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 wayyy more productive when we automate tasks by making them habitual.

Here’s Charles:

When people make hard tasks into habits, it tends to use less willpower. You’re thinking about it less. Think about brushing your teeth. Anyone who has children knows that getting your kids to brush their teeth is like fighting demons. Everything about it is hard. When you think about it, it’s not hard for us as adults to brush our teeth. The reason why is because as that behavior becomes a habit, it requires less and less willpower. It starts drawing on different parts of the brain than the prefrontal cortex where decision-making occurs and activities that require willpower occurs. That’s the lesson. If there are some things that are hard to do, that you want to make them more automatic and less demanding of willpower, then by deliberately making them into habits, by paying attention to cues and rewards, you gain a strength over how to influence that.

(For more on how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

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. Here’s Charles:

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. Here’s Charles:

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 WorkweekTim 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.

(For more on the rituals that geniuses use to accomplish great things, click here.)

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 affect on how you behave everywhere?

Charles calls these super-habits “keystone habits.” Exercise is one example. Here’s Charles:

There’s this fundamental finding in science that some habits seem to matter more than others. When researchers look at how people change their habitual behaviors, they find when some changes occur, it seems to set off a chain reaction that causes other patterns to change as well. For some people, exercise is a good example of this. When you start exercising habitually, according to studies, you start eating more healthfully. That makes sense. You start feeling good about your body. For many people, when they start exercising, they stop using their credit cards quite so often. They procrastinate less at work. They do their dishes earlier in the day. It seems to be evidence that for many people, exercise is a keystone habit. Once you start to change your exercise habits, it sets off a chain reaction that changes other habits as well.

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.

(To learn the six things the most productive people do every day, click here.)

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. Here’s Charles:

The research shows that every habit has three components. There’s the cue, which is a trigger for an automatic behavior to start. Then, a routine, which is the behavior itself. Finally, a reward. The reward is really important because that’s how your brain essentially learns to latch onto a particular pattern and make it automatic. Chocolate, after running, is an obvious example of a reward that many people enjoy. It doesn’t have to be chocolate. What matters is that if you want to make a behavior into a habit, you need to give yourself something you enjoy as soon as that behavior is done. It could be a piece of chocolate. It could be having a smoothie. It could be relaxing for 15 minutes and taking a nice shower. What’s important there is that people give themselves a reward.

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. Here’s Charles:

Compare that with how most people try to add an exercise routine to their schedule. They wake up in the morning. They go for a quick run. They get home and they’re behind schedule. They have to get their kids ready for school and out the door. Rush through a shower. Then, they’re late to work. They’re anxious about getting to their desk. What they’re effectively doing is punishing themselves for exercising. Your brain pays attention to whether you had something you enjoyed or something you didn’t enjoy afterwards.

Duke researcher and bestselling author of Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely agrees: rewards are powerful for beating procrastination.

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. Here’s Charles:

One of the big important things is that when you’re trying to change a habit, there’s this key important ingredient, which is that you have to believe that change is possible. Particularly, at an inflection point, where there’s some kind of crisis or challenge to the change. You need to have some level of belief that you have, what’s known as an internal locus of control. The ability to change your behavior. Part of getting that belief, oftentimes, comes from participating in change in a group environment.

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. Here’s Charles:

The first reason is that you get positive reinforcement from other people. Friends tell you, “You’re doing great! It seems like you’re making some progress.” They help positively reinforce it. The second part of it is that you see other people achieve changes. There’s this basic comparative psychology that says, “Jim across the room; Jim has been sober for four months. I think Jim is a moron. If Jim can do it, I certainly can do it.” That’s very important to making change seem feasible and possible.

(Need a more thorough step-by-step explanation of how to build new habits? Click here.)

Okay, Charles has given us a lot of good info. Let’s round it up and also learn why this system may be far more important than merely beating procrastination.


Sum Up

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

  1. You don’t need more willpower. You need to build a solid habit that helps you get to work.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. Here’s Charles:

If you try to transform everything at once, it tends to be very, very destabilizing. In general, what people should do, is they should think of change as a project. It’s a project that takes a while. That means you do little experiments to see what new routines work. If you say, “This week, I’m going to focus on this one habit. I’m going to run a different experiment every single day to try to change my behavior. Then, I’m going to give myself another week or two to actually implement this plan.” We go through this in the book very explicitly. That’s very, very powerful. That gives people a lot of opportunity to change. Now, it might feel frustrating to say, “If you have ten habits you want to change, that means it’s going to take eight months or nine months.” The truth of the matter is if this is a behavior that’s really important, changing it will have this huge impact on your life. It’s worth spending a month to change one behavior permanently. You’re going to be reaping the benefits of that for the next decade. The way to think about this is, “I’ve got a plan. I’m on a journey. It’s going to take a little bit of time but when the change happens, it’s actually going to be permanent and real.”

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.

While doing my homework on procrastination I came across this line in a research study:

Continued research into procrastination should not be delayed…

Looks like even procrastination researchers have a sense of humor about the subject. And you should too.

I’m putting together a PDF that will round up a number of other hardcore strategies for overcoming chronic procrastination. It’ll be in my next weekly email. Sign up to get it here.

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