How To Stop Procrastinating

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S1: So if you were to if you were to look back in your past, when do you remember procrastination first being a problem for sixth grade?

S2: Oh, yeah, yeah. I was thinking about this. There was a book report I was supposed to read some book and I just didn’t want to. And I just put it off. And it was, you know, my teacher. There was nothing anyone could do to make me read this book. And I was, you know, a pretty good student. But yeah, that’s the first time I was like, absolutely not. I’m not doing this for no good reason.

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S3: Welcome to How To. I’m Charles Doing.

S4: This week, we’re talking with a listener who has a problem that particularly right now can be really tough. Procrastination. With lots of us working from home, putting things off can feel especially easy because there’s so many things on our minds. And there’s fewer co-workers around to hold us accountable. But the thing about procrastination is it can make us feel even more stressed. Then, as our listener this week knows quite well, it can also stand in the way of achieving our dreams. Meet Marie from New York City.

S2: I am a games based concept dog trainer.

S5: Basically, Marie helps dog owners train their pets to like sit and stay by playing games with them.

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S2: My business has been growing by leaps and bounds in the past year and I’d like to reach more people and help people who can’t necessarily afford a one to one consultation with their dogs to do that.

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S5: Marie spent all this money on an app platform and all she had to do was log on and record the videos.

S2: I really wanted to put together a training app with courses and videos and advice for people to access and have a good resource. So I signed up for it. I paid for it and then I did nothing with it.

S6: Marissa that once she signed up, she felt like her motivation kind of stalled out. She kept telling herself, you know, tomorrow I’m gonna shoot the video I need. And then the next day she’d come up with some reason to put it off one more day and then pretty soon a few months it passed.

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S7: So I’ve had all these ideas sort of sketched out on a notepad and floating around in my head.

S6: OK. So it sounds like. But but how long have you been waiting to make the content?

S7: A year there. Oh, no. I’ve already shelled out money to have, you know, a good chunk of money to have this app built. It’s built. It’s done. I have an account and I’ve already told people I’ve shown clients my prototype. I just need to put the content in there.

S6: So in other words, Marie has paid upfront for everything she needs for this app and she’s been paying for it for a full year. But she hasn’t actually made any of the videos that she needs to launch it. Then every time Marie plans to make a training video, which only takes a few minutes to record, she ends up organizing your closet or or prepping for dinner or baking treats for her dogs. Wiggles and Ross.

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S7: I just. Every day I know it’s there. It’s on my list of stuff to do.

S2: And then I wind up thinking, I’m going to do it tomorrow or I’m too tired or I get lost in like some little minutia of starting leg. Should it? Which font should it be like Helvetica or aerial or something like that?

S8: But it’s been a year now that you’ve been meaning to make these videos. Yep. Do you have a history of procrastination?

S2: I was. I got my BFA in photography, actually. And, you know, they gave assignments every week and you have your homework. And I would never do it. All right. Only halfway do it. And then, you know, two weeks before the exam, I start to get that anxiety like I should do this. I should really sit down tonight and do this. And then it be the next night and the next night. And then, you know, three nights before I would find a tutor and just sit down and, you know, cram through it and just get through an exam and do good enough. But also, I didn’t do my best.

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S9: I think we can all relate to that to some degree.

S10: There are these times when it’s so easy to put things off because they’re really hard or we get distracted or it’s it just seems like more fun to mindlessly scroll through Twitter, even though I always feel super bad after I do it. So how do we stop procrastinating? Can we help Marie figure out how to finally make these videos and launch your app? When we come back, we’ll talk to a behavioral scientist, someone who went through this terrible ordeal, became out of it with a unique understanding of how to stop putting things off. Stay tuned.

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S1: Then you take me, take me back. You’re a behavioral economist.

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S8: How did you get interested in this in the first place?

S11: AM I was badly burned many years ago. There was a terrible explosion and I was burning about 70 percent of my body.

S12: This is Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Dan’s accident occurred years ago when he was 17 years old and living in Israel. He was in this building and these magnesium flares ignited into escape. He had to run through the flames, burning most of his body. The burns were so severe that they required years of hospitalization.

S13: And it’s been almost three years in hospital now, and hospitals are places that you could observe a lot, a lot of human irrationality and and the thing that was very difficult for me every day was the bath treatment. So if you’re a brand patient, you have bandages and they need to come off every day. Very, very painful to take them off. And because I had so many burns, it would just take forever. And the big thing that I used to have debates with the nurses on an almost daily basis was whether we should take the bandages off slowly or quickly. And you can imagine that if you take slowly the pain, the momentary pain is not that high, but it takes much, much longer. And if you do it quickly, the momentary pain is terrible, but it takes less time overall. Yeah. And the nurses believed in the quick ripping approach. And I didn’t believe in that. But they were in charge.

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S5: Once you recovered, Diane went on to study psychology and things like how we make choices when we’re in pain or when we’re confronting pain. And he learned that contrary to what his nurses believed, it’s best to minimize the intensity of pain rather than how long it lasts.

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S13: And they proved that the nurses were wrong. I proved that. And that kind of got me thinking more generally about what are the beliefs that we hold that are just wrong, that we think we do. We’re helping people out by doing X, Y and Z. But in fact, that’s not in people’s benefit.

S5: Eventually, Dan went on to write several books on how people make choices and end the mistakes that we make, including the bestseller Predictably Irrational The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

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S11: And so there’s lots of reasons why we don’t perceive things. And the remedy for this is, of course, to do experiments and to test it and to be sure. But there’s so many things that were so sure about that we don’t even we don’t even want to test it.

S5: One of the irrational behaviors that Dan spent a lot of time looking at is procrastination.

S10: And the first big insight he had was that for our brains, procrastination is about making a calculation.

S14: It’s about now versus later, cooking now versus health later, watching something fun on TV versus getting some more progress, though, the project later. And the reality is that we fail on this in in all kinds of ways. And and we fail on this because we’re not good at it to start with.

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S15: So there was this analysis that looked at what is the percentage of human mortality that happens too early. We accelerate our death because we make bad decisions. And when they estimated this data about 100 years ago, it was about 10 percent. Think about a hundred years ago, how could you make a bad decision and kill yourself? And though it’s likely more than 40 percent. Oh, my gosh, what happened? Are we are we most stupid? No, we’re not. Most stupid. We just surround yourself with better temptation.

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S8: Murray, does does this sound familiar to you? Like, is this does this sort of feel like it? It describes that what you’re dealing with every day.

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S2: Yeah, absolutely. You know, being in an environment that has all these distractions and temptations, you know, Instagram vs. shutting that down and focusing on what I want to do, there’s so many temptations for my attention, which is really what I’m trying to do, you know, lasso here.

S8: And so. And yesterday morning. So yesterday morning, when you when you had set aside this time to to work on your to do list and then you didn’t end up working to do list like like take me through. What did you actually spend your time doing instead.

S2: Well, I took my dogs out to my yard and, you know, I put my you know, my little i-Pad in front of me. And I had opened up my, you know, app that I was going to use to sketch out all of this stuff. But then, you know, everyone’s real. I hit a new tab or I just sit there and I’m thinking and then, you know, I’ve got to throw a ball for the dogs. And, you know, Ananta, that it’s more fun to play with the dog. So it’s just, you know, my attention was not going to get focused to get something done and actually mount my camera and turn on the video and say connect a microphone or something like those three steps or too much versus oh, I’m just gonna go play and I’ll do it in a second. When you’re working at home, what’s the most common procrastination that you find yourself in organizing anything around me into categories, whether it’s like my G-mail contacts or my photos that already have. They don’t need to be organized, but I’m, you know, putting them into even more precise folders.

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S8: So it’s not like you like watching TV or like eating bonbons, like you’re doing these things that someone else might seem like kind of boring work, but she’s doing it instead of all the stuff she’s supposed to get done from Marie’s description.

S11: And what she’s doing is what we call structured procrastination. These are the people who make to do lists, and the first thing to do list is make it to do list, and then when they make the to do list, they can check it off its end. The reason she is doing it is that. The things he’s trying to do don’t have short term rewards. They are complex and difficult and they involve thinking and uncertainty. You can spend the whole day taking videos and not liking anything you did. If you if you organize your photos, you get to say, I did something. So when it comes to rewarding, we want to feel progress. And sadly, there’s lots of things that we need to do that don’t give us progress indicators.

S5: Dan’s familiar with this problem of not getting immediate rewards. For instance, when he finally got out of the hospital a few years after he was burned, he found out that he had become infected with hepatitis C from a blood transfusion. And so he had to inject himself with this medicine every other day. And if he did these injections, then eventually down the road, it would cure the hep C. But in the short term, they were incredibly painful and they causes terrible side effects.

S11: So so I basically made a deal with myself and I like movies. So when I was on these Hep C regimen, I made a deal with myself that every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, which were the injection days, I would first thing in the morning go to the video store. There used to be video stores at the time. I would rent two or three videos I really wanted to watch. I would carry them in my backpack the whole day, looking forward to watching them. I would get home in the evening. I would put the video in the VCR.

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S16: I would take an injection, I would inject myself and then I would press play and I arrange my bed in front of the TV and hit the bucket in a blanket that was already for the shivering and the side effects and the vomiting. But the thing was that I connected something. I did not want the injection when something I wanted the videos.

S11: And the idea is that being healthy in 30 years is just not that motivating. But doing something that is an immediate reward is is motivating. And we call this reward substitution. And the idea is that the real thing is sometimes just to find the future in ways to find the future, its rewards. Power is not high enough. So. So in this in this case, what you can say all the reward of one day having your own app is going to be enough. No. Too far in the future. Uncertain. Not going to be sufficiently strong. What you need to do is you need to create an immediate reward for doing the work, not for the outcome.

S4: When we come back, Dan will help Marie figure out which reward she needs to help her complete her to do list. Don’t put off hearing what comes next.

S5: We’re back with our listener Marie and our expert Dan Ariely.

S8: So, OK, so Mary, let’s let’s let’s try this out. So what reward would you give yourself that you really enjoy if you sit down and you make the 10 minute video and it doesn’t matter how good the video is or how bad it is because we’re rewarding the effort and not the outcome.

S2: OK. I would then get to put all my tech aside and have a good 20 minutes in the yard with just me and the dogs.

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S8: Is is that going to work for Marie or does she need a reward? That’s very different from the activity that she’s doing.

S11: Yeah, so. So in a deal way, that’s wouldn’t to be her reward because you want the separation and you want something else.

S15: But but you know, when you hear her, she’s so excited about these dogs. I don’t know if we have another option. So, you know, Lori, you tell us is what what else is going on in your life?

S17: It’s basically all dogs. Can you get a different hobby like we. Yeah, I do. Always.

S2: I think, you know, I can definitely differentiate between now we’re working and we’re doing, you know. My dogs are working and we’re doing some filming. And then after that, there’s a sort of release and happiness and maybe you can separate even more.

S18: I don’t know if you can take their color off or. Oh, yeah. Do something else that we just separate the two periods.

S8: So that’s sort of ritualized that a little bit so that you’re in your mind, you’re thinking this is our work time and this is our playtime.

S2: Know, that’s great because we do that in dog training anyway. So, you know, putting a collar on and saying, okay, we’re working now and then taking the collar off and saying play time is is pretty natural. They’ll understand it. I understand it. So that’s perfect.

S19: Here’s our first rule. If you’re putting off a long term project, particularly one where the result is uncertain or the reward will take a long time to arrive, find a way to reward yourself as fast as you can. Just for getting it done, that short term anticipation will keep you going, even if it’s hard to see your long term progress. And then there’s another tactic. Make the hard choices easier.

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S16: So, for example, I have in my office one of those deaths that go up and down spending this. They can be sitting in spending. And what they found is that if when they leave the office, for example, and then leave it tonight, if I leave it in the up position, I come in the morning and they stand. But if I leave it at night in the down position, I come in the morning and they and they sit so.

S15: So I set my own default. So one question is how do we set it up so that the good behavior is the easiest?

S5: OK, OK. So let’s let’s try it. Let’s let’s figure out a plan for tomorrow. So. So you use your phone to make these videos, right? What if you were to set up your gear like your phone in your stand that the night before? Does that make sense?

S2: Yes. I can get my little phone stand, make sure my phone is charged and even and get that all set up so that it’s when I leave the door to take my dogs into the yard. I can grab that as well. Put it next to delicious.

S11: How long is each one of those videos?

S17: You know, 30 seconds to five minutes, say.

S18: And how many of them do you want to make a day? One.

S2: I would say I’d want to make three a week, including editing.

S18: OK, great. And what time do you usually wake up? 6:00 AM. OK, and ideally, at what time would you start filming? 7:00 a.m.. OK, so. So what did you write in your calendar? A 45 minute block from 6:53 45. The first 15 minutes will be to decide what you’re going to film, okay. And you’ll make a list and you’ll keep on thinking about what else you want to do it. By the end of those 15 minutes, you’ll pick the best idea you have up to that point. There’s a timer. When? 7:15. Is there the best idea you have? You start shooting and you basically shoot that film over and over until the half an hour is over. Until you happy, right? And then you get your reward.

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S19: Here’s our next rule, and it relies on this idea of choice, architecture, of of designing your environment to make starting a task as easy as possible. That means everything from setting up your equipment the night before to two blocking at a time in your calendar with specific instructions on what to do and a time limit for when you stop what you’re doing and start the next task to just hear him say pick the best idea.

S7: Keep filming until you know there’s a time limit or you’re happy. That’s just such a simple idea that, you know, it breaks. It doesn’t make it like my whole identity is tied up with whether this is an awesome video and I look great in this video. So I just get it done. It might not be fantastic, but just do it.

S8: Dan, how frequently is that part of procrastination that like people don’t know where to start or or just even starting is like tied up in all these like huge things in their heads that are terrifying with many projects?

S11: What happened is that’s the enemy of big projects is is fear that this is just too big. And I don’t know how to start. And I don’t want to look foolish and I don’t want to make a mistake in breaking it into into small components. And and just starting is is really important. But what about accountability? Now, in this case, you have your commitment for your dogs. And, you know, I haven’t done any studies on commitment to dogs, but commitment to others are very important. There’s lots of things. That’s when other people depend on us. We kind of rise to the occasion. What what can you do on accountability?

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S2: I can just text to someone. And actually, a friend of mine just came into my head who’s always awake at the same time. And what I’ve been doing most mornings is she loves my dog. So she’ll say, where’s weigl’s? And asked, send her a picture of Wiggles so I can send her a picture of Wiggles and say video done once I’m done. And then I can ask her to call me and yell at me if I don’t do that.

S13: So it’s tied into something I’m already doing, you know, tied to something doing you asking a friend to do that. There’s a whole range of things you could do and you can start making it more powerful. So, for example, what if you told your friend that on every day you don’t do it? You also buy her coffee and you can you can you can give off an incentive.

S17: Yeah, no, that’s perfect.

S13: Point is that that there’s ways to make this accountability larger. Right. And more more powerful, more pronounced. You can have a friend. You can have embarrassment. You can post things on Facebook and say, I failed again today.

S11: The point is that you want to make both the reward of doing the right thing and the accountability for this higher.

S19: Here’s our third rule. Find someone to hold you accountable and to heighten the stakes. You’ll be more likely to complete a task if you know that someone is waiting for you to do it.

S8: And if there might be negative consequences if you fail, you know, one of the things that occurs to me in hearing you talk about your experiences. It sounds like it sounds like you’re a pretty organized professional person, right? It’s not. It’s when you’re procrastinating, you’re doing useful, productive things. I’m wondering. Is there something deeper that might be going on that’s that’s getting in your way?

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S2: Probably insecurities. I’ve been a dog trainer for this. I’m going into my fifth year. And so there’s many different camps of training, lots of controversies online. So to just sort of throw my hat in there and be just a, you know, open myself up to people saying, well, you know, what you’re doing is wrong. What you’re doing is right. You know, it’s gonna be a whole lot of opinions coming in. I think maybe that is is driving a lot of the procrastination that once you put those videos out there, maybe you like people mates are criticizing you for the video, disagreeing with how you’re doing it or if, you know, I put this app out there and it’s downloaded 10 times and then it’s just a dud. You know what? That sort of. I’ve been working having this in my head for a long, you know, over a year. So then to to actually have to do it and put it out there and risk having it fail then.

S20: Ben, what?

S8: What do you think of that, Dan, like how much does that play into? We’ve been talking about procrastination is kind of this like calculus in people’s heads between short term rewards and long term rewards.

S21: But then there’s this backdrop of. Of being scared about’s trying something because we might learn that we made a big mistake and regret is a really interesting emotion.

S15: Regret is about the fact that we compare ourself to a different state that we could have been in. If you don’t do anything new, there’s never an opportunity for regret. You can never say why did they do that? Because you just didn’t do anything, you did the same thing every day. But if you do something new, something big. There’s a assymetrical chance that you will say, I should have done something differently. When we make big courageous steps and is a chance for failure and their chance for failure.

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S16: This is not in a non symmetrical ways influencing our lives. So we often don’t do enough of those. Those brave. Brave steps.

S8: Does that sound familiar to you, Mary?

S2: Oh, yeah, absolutely. You know, I could I’ve could definitely just continue in my own little niche here where I do one on one consultations. I have a little puppy class, but for whatever reason, I still have these more grand ideas of wanting to connect people with, you know, some positive training and connect people who are having struggles with their dogs and make dogs lives better. Because, you know, I work in New York City and they’re all it’s kind of crazy for everyone, especially an animal living here. So I feel that motivation to. Try and make it better, but then again, it’s the whole. I might fail. Why am I even trying to do this? You might feel regret. Yeah. And my one to one sessions like today I had some great sessions, a puppy learn something really nice and that owners were really happy. And there’s like, you know, talk about immediate rewards or award was right there.

S15: I have this image of of a dog trainer with training the dog trainer. We’re trying to figure out the haggler. And that’s the thing that we look at risk. Sometimes we look at it every time is the downside. We focus on a downside of one thing so we don’t do it. And then we focus on the downside of another thing and we don’t do it. But at the end of the day, we live in life that we don’t live to the risk we would have liked to take.

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S5: Here’s our last rule. Sometimes you just have to take a step back and think about what is really holding you back from completing this thing you want to get done. The biggest reason for your procrastination might be some block. You just haven’t admitted to yourself. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll fail or or maybe you’re afraid you’ll succeed and not know what to do next. But it’s only by acknowledging that fear that you make it easier to deal with and to get over.

S21: I mean, it sounds like a little bit what you’re saying. Danas is for you, Marie. If you wake up tomorrow and you make this video and it’s disappointing, you probably are going to feel some regret. You gave up a previous career. You’ve spent twelve hundred dollars. You make the video and it doesn’t seem that great. But but if you do it every day, right. If you do it every day, eventually that video might be pretty good. And not only that. But if another year goes by.

S2: Exactly. I’m here because I realized a year has gone by and I have that regret of like, why can’t I move forward? And I should have done this. And a lot of it is just me kicking myself saying, why don’t you just get up and do this?

S8: And, you know, I don’t think it’s that unusual, the thing that you’re dealing with. I think whether you’re successful or unsuccessful or smart or not, smarter, rich or poor, everyone I know struggles with the same thing. The thing I love about about your research stand is that it points out all of us struggle with this all the time. The fact that we struggle with it doesn’t mean that we’re bad or that we’ve failed. It’s not admitting that we’re struggling with it. That is the failure. And once we admitted that, actually it’s easier to deal with.

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S15: I think it’s right because then you a you admit it and be you moving to the situation of looking for solutions. And basically that I think, will help you with the long term motivation. Right. It’s been in 60 days from now when you have many videos, it’s you saying, OK, look, look at this pile that I’ve accumulated the most.

S8: Yeah. And that 60th video is going to be so much better than the first one.

S2: Right. Yeah. I can’t get better until I actually start doing them. And now I’ve got the system that Dan Marino laid out so easily for me. You know, I’m like, why didn’t I think of that? It’s so simple. I mean, I feel like now I’ve got a plan. So I think that in six months, there’s like, no way it won’t happen.

S5: Thank you to Marie for sharing her story with us. We can’t wait to see your dog training videos when they’re up. And you can check them out yourself at all for labs dot com. That’s all for LHC, dot com, as our Web site says, prepare to be bough.

S3: Wow. And thank you to Dan Ariely for his fantastic advice. You should definitely check out all of his books, including his latest book, Dollars and Cents. Do you have a problem that needs solving? Send us a note how to add Slate.com and we might be able to help. That’s how to at Slate.com. Also, just a quick reminder to send us your questions about life under quarantine and your solutions. What’s working for you that the rest of us can learn from? If you’ve got something, call it. Leave us a voicemail at 6 4 6 4 9 5 4 0 0 1. How to executive producer is Derek John? Rachel Allen is our production assistant and Mayor Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hani’s Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Special thanks to Sung Park and Asha Solution. I’m Charles Du. Stay healthy. And thanks for listening.