How To Beat Procrastination

For the first 30 years of my life, I coasted and procrastinated often. I am pretty ashamed of it. 😔

In the last few months, I've beaten procrastination. I'm proud of this! ❤️

Here's how I did it. I hope it helps you.

1. Procrastination Is A Harmful Positive Feedback Loop

Procrastination happens when you don't start a task because you "aren't ready" and then you "feel guilty" about it, which leads to more feelings of "not being ready", which means you feel guiltier. It's a feedback loop:

Guilt 🔁 Procrastination

Just like "action proceeds motivation" guilt proceeds procrastination.

As Wait But Why notes, we get stuck in the Dark Playground instead of getting into flow.

2. Professionals Don't Wait For Your Feelings. Run The Algorithm

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work” ― Chuck Close

It's good to be aware when your guilt creates procrastination. One option is to breathe into your emotions and really feel them.

Your other option is to stay "screw it", just get to work. Action precedes motivation.

As an aside: Elon Musk "beats" procrastination by simply asking "what would I do if an optimal algorithm was running me? Do that."

But what if just saying "get to work" doesn't work? Time to learn an equation:

3. Learn The Procrastination Equation

As LukeProg writes, motivation is a function of the four variables below:

Let's explore it by using two example tasks from college: 1) an essay on insects due at the end of the semester and 2) a computer science coding project that I love.

For the insect essay, the Expected Value (or EV) is pretty low. It's not Valuable to me. I don't really know if I even Expect to finish it. Plus, the Delay is high. It's due at the end of the semester. This allows Impulsiveness to take over and I procrastinate by watching Starcraft.

For the coding project, the EV is quite high. It's valuable to me because I love coding. Plus the Delay is low. I get a hit of dopamine every few minutes that I make progress. This allows me to keep Impulsiveness at bay because I'm already doing a high EV task with a fast reward loop.

But that was in college. This is now. You're Old and still procrastinating! Here's how to beat it.

4. To Increase EV, Do What You Love

Let's start with the top. To increase EV, do things you love. It's as simple as that. What is easy for you and hard for others? Do more of that.

5. To Decrease Delay, Decrease Time

Once you've started a task, it's easy. But starting is hard. Getting momentum is hard. To beat this, use the 2-min and 5-min rule.

  • 2-min Rule: If an action will take less than two minutes, do it immediately. Don't add "ping that person" to your todo list. Just spend 2 min to ping them. The most effective people have inbox zero.
  • 5-min Rule: For any larger task, make it more appetizing to start by framing it as "do 5min on this task." You trick your mind into a short Delay, then just continue once you have momentum. The most effective people do great deep work.

Your goal is to break down tasks into exciting bite-sized tasks. Like "spend 5min improving your website homepage!"

6. To Decrease Impulsiveness, Add Friction

Even if you have exciting bite-sized tasks, you may be attracted by Impulsive behaviors like watching Magic: The Gathering. We live in a world of accelerating addictiveness! It's hard.

To stop this, add Friction to make these behaviors harder. This mostly takes the form of apps to protect your time. I use and recommend:

  • to block Youtube and Twitter after 10min each day
  • to completely block sites like Twitch
  • Nudge to turn off Youtube recommended videos
  • On my phone, I use Screen Time to block all apps 7am-9am in the morning and 10pm-11pm at night before bed. I also have a 10min limit on apps like Facebook and have deleted apps like Twitter from my phone.

Your whole goal is to decrease friction by making exciting bite-sized tasks, while increasing friction around similarly exciting and bite-sized procrastination like Youtube.

7. See Your Day As An Exciting Set Of Pomodoros To Fill

I love working in Pomodoros. I recommend Vitamin-R to track them.

Plan your day in terms of pomos. What will you spend your 8 morning pomos on? What about your afternoon pomos? Try to get at least 12 pomos in every day.

Here is a chart I used just to track them for myself. It's like filling in My Life In Weeks but My Day In Pomos with exciting work.

8. Focus Work in the Morning, Repetitive Work and Meetings in the Afternoon

Almost everyone does their most productive work in the 5 hours after they wake up. I block off 8am-1pm every day for this. Take this time as a gift and use it.

Use the afternoon for meetings and easier work. Your Impulsiveness will be higher then.

9. Make "Motivated" Part of Your Identity

I have a morning gratitude and affirmation process (with 5-minute journal). As part of this, I write "I am" statements each morning. For this, I write "I am motivated." This helps ingrain it into my identity and recognize when I'm not doing it.

As James Clear writes, identity-based habits are crucial. Change your identity, change your habits.

In summary:

  • Learn the procrastination equation
  • Decrease friction by feeding yourself exciting bite-sized tasks with the 2min and 5min rule
  • Increase friction by downloading a portfolio of time trackers and site blockers
  • Make it part of your identity
  • Feel better! You're now doing great work you're proud of.

Some final notes:

2023 Update:

  1. If you don't love what you do, all of the above is just "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." Procrastination can be a sign that you aren't working on something you love. Do that first.
  2. In the 2010s, LessWrong called this "beating akrasia". Here's a list of how to beat it. I've found monoidealism especially helpful.