6 Easy Techniques to Trick Your Brain Into Beating Procrastination

Do you buy apples and spinach only to throw them out later when you forget to eat them?

Is your Netflix queue overflowing with high-brow, award-winning documentaries that you regularly eschew in favor of knocking out another season of The Walking Dead or Family Guy?

Or, perhaps you overcommit to future plans because tomorrow is a magical realm of possibilities, only to run out of time to get things done?

If yes, then you’re really bad at predicting your future desires.

It’s understandable. “Later” is just such a darned easy place to throw everything you don’t want to deal with now!

It also doesn’t help that we’re practically hardwired to select immediate gratification – after all, our brain evolved in a world where we might not even see the next week, much less live long enough to meet our grandchildren.

With so many uncertainties in the future, why not just sit around in your pajamas, binge watching sitcoms and stuffing your mouth?

The answer, of course, is that you’re likely not going to die next week. In fact, you’ll probably have to live with Future You for quite some time.

So, whether this is your first time or your tenth resolving to get in shape, stay on top of your to-do list, quit smoking, or just clean out your junk drawer, here’s how late-starting procrastinators can finally win in 2017.

Present Bias, Procrastination, and the Power of Marshmallows

Walter Mischel conducted experiments at Stanford University throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Children would sit at a table in front a plate of treats. The plate of treats included a pretzel, a cookie, and a giant marshmallow.

The children were given a choice: Pick one to eat right away. Or, wait several minutes and get two.

Seems pretty clear which is the better choice, right? Of course, plates full of treats are mighty tempting, so you can guess what happened.

Some of the children made absolutely zero attempts at self-control and ate their first pick.

Some writhed in agony, twisting their hands and feet in an attempt to distract themselves from their tasty prize. Some toed temptation even further by licking the treat.

In the end, one-third of the children tested couldn’t resist sinking their teeth in.

Here’s the thing, Mischel followed all of his subjects through high school, college, and into adulthood. And, what started as a study of instant gratification has, decades later, yielded far more interesting revelations about how we think.

Called metacognition, this kind of thinking about how we think led Mischel to discover that the kids who were able to wait out the marshmallow test weren’t necessarily smarter or less greedy.

Instead, they just had a better grasp on how to trick themselves into doing what was best for them – and that trait showed up throughout their lives, predicting lower rates of behavioral problems, higher SAT scores, and an overall measurable level of greater success.

In the struggle between should versus want, it turns out that the key to success is figuring out one simple fact: Want never goes away.

6 Steps to Beating Procrastination

The inability to grasp that what you’ll want will change over time – and that what you want now isn’t the same thing that you’ll want later – isn’t just responsible for a quarter of all vegetable purchases.

It’s the cornerstone of procrastination and it’s the reason that your annual resolution succumbs to a death by a thousand cuts.

Before you know it, it’s next December all over again and you already know what your resolution will be – the unfinished one from last year.

Tired of January 1st being your personal Groundhogs Day? Here’s how to beat your annual case of the tomorrows.

1. Stop Relying on Instruments of Productivity

Sure, you can buy yourself a daily planner and to-do list app for your phone. You can write lists and fill out schedules, but these tools alone aren’t going to help if you’re only using them to schlepp tasks off onto Future You.

2. Commit to Always Choosing the Later Reward

I once had a professor joke that his sock drawer was never so organized as right before a paper was due.

Yes, in the moment, rearranging the folders on your desk feels so much more rewarding than the task that’s due in a month which, if left unfinished, might cost you your dream opportunity, diploma, or even job.

However, instead of thinking how good it feels to tidy that desktop now, think about what’s going to feel better in a month – achieving that accomplishment and getting a paycheck or admiring your carefully organized workspace?

By reframing the possible reward as one that can be experienced in the future, you increase your chance of thinking rationally about the decision.

3. Embrace Deadlines to Reduce the Risk of Putting Off Tasks

Imagine that you’re in a class where you must complete three research papers in three weeks. Your instructor is willing to allow you to set your own due dates, giving you the following options:

  • Turn in one paper a week for three weeks.
  • Turn in two papers in the first week, and one in the second.
  • Turn in all of your papers on the last day.

It’s up to you which schedule to select, but once you pick one, you have to stick with your choice. Turn in a paper late, and get a zero.

So, which do you choose?

The seemingly smart answer would be to turn in all your papers on the last day since it gives you plenty of time to work on each.

However, in a 2002 study performed by Klaus Wertenbroch and Dan Ariely, these same options were offered to students who were then split into different classes depending on their preference.

Surprisingly, the class that did the best wasn’t the group of overachievers who planned on turning in more than one paper up front. Instead, it was the students who had opted for three specific but equally spread out deadlines.

The lesson being that those students who decided to spread out their deadlines were the best at recognizing that they were likely to procrastinate, and compensated by setting up zones in which they would be forced to perform.

Alternately, those who weren’t honest with themselves about their tendencies to put off tasks into the future were more likely to fail at getting tasks done on time.

4. Stop Idealizing Future You

One trick to beating procrastination is to imagine that there are two yous: The you who is sitting here right now reading this, and a future you who will be influenced by a completely different set of ideas and desires.

Present You might recognize the costs and rewards at stake when it comes to choosing the salad instead of the super burrito, studying instead of meeting with friends, or writing the paper instead of playing a video game.

The trick is to accept that Present You won’t be the person facing those choices or consequences. Instead, it will be Future You – and Future You isn't to be trusted.

Future You is likely to give in to a whole other set of temptations, then you’ll be transformed back into Present You, full of shame and disappointment for letting another opportunity at achieving your goals pass you by.

Instead, stop enabling Future You to sabotage your goals by entrusting them with important tasks.

Recognize that, on your current trajectory, Future You is weak and prone to giving in and the only way to make Future You stronger is to empower them by starting your accomplishments now.

5. Jumpstart Your Motivation to Complete Tasks by Cheating (Just a Bit)

Have you noticed how often the hardest part of some tasks is getting started? With that in mind, you can jumpstart your brain with a little trickery: Create an unconventional to-do list that’s rigged in your favor.

Imagine that you have ten things that need to get done. When writing down your tasks, include two items that you’ve already completed. Then, pad the list with a couple more that are easy or rewarding.

As you continue to cross off items, you can trick your brain into gaining momentum and make it willing to tackle the other, more difficult tasks on your list.

6. Tackle Work-Based Procrastination With the Pomodoro Technique

In the early 1990s, developer, entrepreneur, and author Francesco Cirillo created a procrastination-busting method called The Pomodoro Technique.

Named “Pomodoro” after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work as a university student, this technique works on a simple methodology:

When faced with any large task or series of tasks, breaking the work down into short, timed intervals helps you to get – and stay – on schedule.

While that’s not particularly novel, The Pomodoro Technique goes further.

Bursts of work are buffered by short breaks which help to train your brain to focus for periods without worrying about constantly refilling inboxes or looming deadlines.

However, there is a method to The Pomodoro Technique that’s goes beyond setting up mini-deadlines that goes something like this:

  1. Get a general idea of how much time and effort an activity requires by tracking how many 25-minute Pomodoros you need to complete a specific task.
  2. Once started, fiercely protect your bursts of Pomodoro-timed work from external distractions.
  3. When readying yourself to start a new task, do your best to make an accurate estimate of how many 25-minute increments you’ll need to complete it.
  4. Set out your daily schedule by listing how many Pomodoro bursts you’ll need to complete each task, giving appropriate time for lunch breaks.
  5. Once you’ve got the hang of using The Pomodoro Technique to estimate and track your time, start using work bursts to help you achieve new objectives, such as increasing your accuracy instead of just concentrating on volume.

Stop Making Empty Promises and Beat Procrastination by Outsmarting Yourself

Procrastination is so hard to beat because it’s two-fold: The tendency to put off our goals is both influenced by an impulse such as buying candy at the checkout counter and by placing more value on immediate satisfaction than future rewards.

But as we’ve shared, beating procrastination and getting a leg up on your 2017 resolutions isn’t about having more willpower and drive.

Instead, your ability to achieve your goals is best played as a game – one in which you have to develop a long-game for outsmarting your own childish impulses for pleasure and novelty that can never be completely excised from your mind.

Ready to get started? To arm you with every possible tool that can get 2017 off on the right foot, we’ve talked about why so many people fail at their New Year’s resolutions and an easy-peasy step-based approach to beating the odds once you’re on your way.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.