How to stop procrastinating

August 23, 2018

Procrastinating is painful. It wastes time and causes stress. It's a lose-lose strategy and we know it, but many of us suffer from it anyway. Why?

We don't procrastinate because we are naturally undisciplined or because we don't have "it". Instead, we procrastinate when we lack motivation.

Sure, the nature of our work affects our motivation; we will procrastinate less the more we care. But even if we care about our work, we might procrastinate, because other, fundamental factors torpedo our motivation.

To stop procrastinating, we need to motivate ourselves. Let me phrase that differently:

The key is not to focus on procrastination, but rather on motivation.

It's the difference between a negative approach (stopping unskillful behavior) and a positive approach (encouraging skillful behavior). Here's how we create the conditions for skillful behavior:

Get a good night's sleep. When we get the right quantity and quality of sleep, we have more willpower available. By contrast, when we don't sleep enough, or when we sleep poorly, we make worse decisions. In innumerable ways, life is easier when we get enough sleep.

Move our body. When we move our body, we literally create motivation in our brain, in a chemical way. This is true for small movements, like getting up from our desk and walking around the office for a minute. (This is one reason why we might notice our motivation decreasing the longer we sit at our desk.) It is also true for bigger movements, such as doing exercise that gets our heart rate up.

In fact, if you want to increase your motivation and stop procrastinating now, the most effective thing you can do is to move your body for a bit and then get back to work.

Be around people who inspire us. For each of us, certain people will inspire us and others will distract us. Perhaps we work well when we're around lots of people who are doing focused work, because we admire their ability to focus. By recognizing this and taking action, we can improve our motivation without trying to conjure more willpower out of thin air (and getting angry with ourselves when we fail to).

For example, in the past few weeks, I spent time with dozens of people who told me about their difficulties in doing work they care in a sustainable way. Hearing their stories, and realizing that I could help, motivates me to continue writing.

In a way, acknowledging the influence of these factors—sleep, exercise, and the people around us—can be an immense relief. We don't have to do any soul-searching in an attempt to understand why we are not disciplined like other people seem to be. We don't have to berate ourselves for "not trying hard enough" or for being lazy.

Instead, we can realize that our motivation—and hence our level of procrastination—is largely determined by inputs that we can control. We can simply change the inputs (sleep, exercise, and quality social interactions) and we will receive better outputs (more motivation; less procrastination).

True: it takes time to sleep, to exercise, and to be around people who inspire us. But this time is an investment and it will pay off.

Choosing to spend time on the fundamentals can be difficult. We might feel guilty over spending a few hours exercising—those are hours we could have been working! But our goal isn't to maximize our hours worked; our goal is to maximize our output. If we get the fundamentals right, we will be more motivated and get more done even if we work fewer hours.

To stop procrastinating, improve the fundamentals.


— Peter

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