Procrastinating means delaying something we must do (for example, by doing something else instead), usually because it is boring or unpleasant. It is a term that has been thrown around a lot during the last decade, especially with the rise of social media. However, procrastinating is not a new phenomenon.
Humans have been procrastinating for centuries. Nowadays, the most common forms of procrastination are checking our social media accounts, watching Netflix or even just plain sleeping, but we have always managed to find a way to delay what we have to do. Take for example, Victor Hugo, one of history’s most important french writers.
Victor Hugo: expert procrastinator
During the summer of 1830, our famous author was battling against a tight deadline: has had promised his publisher he would write a new book. Instead, he spent the whole year doing all sorts of non-related activities. When Hugo’s publisher realised, frustrated, he set a new deadline: less than six months away.
Thanks to this, the author came up with a plan to become more efficient. He gave all of his clothes to his assistant and told him to lock them away. This way, he would not be tempted to take part in any outdoors activities. He then wrote and wrote during the whole fall and winter of 1830. Finally, he was able to publish “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” two weeks earlier, on the 14th of January 1831.
Victor Hugo has showed us none of us are immune to daily life distractions. It was even around in the ancient Greece, where philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle came up with a word to describe this behaviour: “akrasia“.
Akrasia is the state of doing one thing even though you know you have to do something else: you act against your better judgement. Akrasia could be considered similar or even a synonym for procrastinating. It is basically what holds you back from doing what you planned to do.
Making plans and not following through
One theory as to why akrasia “works so well” in keeping us from doing things is what we call “time inconsistency”. This term refers to our brains valuing immediate rewards over future rewards. This means that when we set a plan, we actually make a plan for our future selves. At the moment of making a plan, it seems like a good idea and even motivates us because it is easy for your brain to see the long-term benefits.
However, when the moment comes for us to take an immediate decision, we no longer think about our future selves: instead, we think only about our present selves. And these “present selves” we talk about likes instant gratification much better.
So what this means is that we might go to bed feeling motivated about an action were are going to do in the future, but then wake up falling into old patterns: nothing has changed and we keep procrastinating. The motivation has drifted away.
Is there a solution to it?
The solution to procrastinating seems to lay in the ability to delay gratification. The key to success is resisting the pull of instant gratification as often as possible (if not always). This is what will take you from where you are to where you want to be.
Three ways to help you beat procrastination
1. Design your future actions
This is, for example, how Victor Hugo overcame his akrasia. His method consisted of putting away his clothes in order to prevent his future self from going outdoors. This method is called “commitment device”: it is a choice your present self makes to lock in a certain future behaviour, binding you to a positive habit and restricting you from negative ones. These commitment devices help you design your future actions.
2. Reduce the friction of starting
“On a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating”Eliezer Yudkowsky
If the guilt of not doing what we have to do is worse than actually doing it, why do we still procrastinate? The answer to this is that it is not hard doing the work, it is hard starting. This is why it’s important to build the habit of getting started when introducing a new behaviour.
3. Utilize implementation intentions
An “implementation intention” is stating your intention to implement a certain behaviour at a particular time in the future. Basically, what this means is that actually scheduling actions to be fulfilled is, in fact, useful when building a habit. For example: “I will exercise for an hour every day on x day in x place at x time”. It seems to be a simple task, but it is definitely effective: implementation intentions can make you two to three times more likely to fulfill an action in the future.
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