We all procrastinate to some degree, and we have since long ago. The ancient Greeks called it akrasia, acting against our better judgment. But with all this time and experience under our belts, why do we still tend to put things off, and how do we break the habit?
“One explanation for why akrasia rules our lives and procrastination pulls us in has to do with a behavioral economics term called ‘time inconsistency,’” says James Clear, author of the novel Atomic Habits. “Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.”
When you make plans for the future, like a savings or weight goal, your brain sees the value of taking actions that match the long-term benefits. But when the time to make an instant decision comes, your brain naturally pulls you toward the reward in the here and now. “And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.”
The ability to resist the pull of instant gratification and the ability to delay it do a good job of predicting success in life. So how do you do that? Clear offers three simple steps.
Design your future actions
This involves putting commitment devices in place. When Victor Hugo found himself under a deadline to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he had a friend lock his clothes in a trunk, leaving him only a shawl. That kept him inside, at his desk writing, instead of visiting friends and entertaining.
Other commitment devices might include things like buying individual-size food packages instead of bulk to prevent overeating.
Take away obstacles to starting
An army drill sergeant once told his troops, you can get out of doing anything, but you’ll spend more time avoiding the task than doing it.
It’s not being in the work that’s hard, but starting it, Clear says. “This is why it is often more important to build the habit of getting started when you’re beginning a new behavior than it is to worry about whether or not you are successful at the new habit.”
As Nike once said, just do it.
Take away the barriers to getting started and make it as easy as possible. “Don’t worry about the results until you’ve mastered the art of showing up.”
Give your planned actions a definite time and place
Instead of saying, “I need to exercise three days a week,” say, “I will exercise on Monday at 6 PM at the gym,” and do the same for each day.
Another example would be, “I will write for at least thirty minutes at home at 630 PM on November 3, 2019.
Procrastination is so ingrained in the human psyche that we sometimes have to resort to crazy tactics to get ourselves moving in the right direction. But before you have a friend lock your clothes away, give Clear’s suggestions a try and beat the akrasia bug.