Did you know that our brains are actually programmed to procrastinate? It’s called the present bias – our tendency to over-value immediate rewards at the expense of our long-term intentions. It’s easier for our brains to process concrete rather than abstract things, and the immediate hassle is very tangible compared with those unknowable, uncertain future benefits. Hence, our tendency to push bigger tasks for tomorrow and do smaller ones first. Or to find excuses to not tackle the to-do list immediately. The less time consuming tasks seem more appealing as does the prospect of finding more free time now than later!
How can we beat this instinctive habit? Here are three research-backed practices to try.
- Own the consequences of inaction. According to researchers Baron and Ritov, when planning, we are more inclined to evaluate the pros and cons of undertaking a task. We don’t consider the pros and cons of not doing it. Known as omission bias, this often leads us to ignore crucial information or be less aware about consequences. Thus, if tempted to push a task to tomorrow, pause, and think about the downside of doing so. You may realize that tomorrow is too late, or that your credibility is at stake!
- Tackle hidden mental blockages. There’s a saying, that barriers of the mind are often more powerful than the real barriers we face. A large aspect of procrastination is mental. A popular problem solving technique developed by Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System (1950), is a potent one to practice. Called the ‘5 levels of Why’, the basis of this scientific approach is to repeat asking ‘why’ five times. Here’s an example Ohno offers of how Toyota uses this process. Often, the issue is that a perfectly noble competing commitment is undermining your motivation. Asking why multiple times helps prioritize the action that needs to be taken first.
- Visualize the end result. A study shows that people are more likely to save for their future retirement if they’re shown digitally aged photographs of themselves. Why? Because it makes their future self-feel more real. Apply a different version of this technique to any task you’ve been avoiding. Paint a vivid mental picture of the benefits of getting it done. It might prod you towards action.
The next time you feel challenged by procrastination, remember that your brain is pretty much acting on auto pilot. It needs help to focus on the bigger picture. Tempt it with rewards, think of the benefits, and ask what else might be coming in the way of completing the task. That might help you tick those tasks off the list.