The Psychology of Procrastination

Personal development literature provides us with lots of cookie cutter solutions to our daily challenges. Sometimes, it’s better to develop our own solutions by reflecting on our own psychology. Here’s an analysis that I made on myself. You can do the same analysis on yourself to find out why you procrastinate and how you can overcome procrastination.

What Makes Us Procrastinate?

Why do we procrastinate? If we ask this question to ourselves and come up with honest answers, we can find solutions that are effective for us. For that reason, I want you to ask yourself this question and come up with your own answers. In my case, it’s a combination of the following.

  1. I face a task that is mundane, boring, and repetitive, such as washing the dishes.
  2. I face a task that doesn’t provide any rewards in foreseeable future.
  3. There’s always distraction available to shut down the nagging voices in my head.

The Nagging Voices in My Head

When I’m facing a mundane, boring, repetitive task, the Goliath in my mind starts protesting. “This task costs us time and energy. It doesn’t provide us with any benefits. Why do we do this?” Remember, this part of our brain is not highly evolved. It can’t see far into the future. It can’t see the horror of a few days of dishes accumulating in our kitchen. And this part of our brain is in charge most of the time.

On the other hand, our David, the more evolved part of our brain starts nagging as well. “We have to wash these dishes now. Otherwise, we will face a greater mess down the road. It will cost us more time, more energy, and more psychological pain.”

Now, you have a competition between your David and Goliath. Who’s going to win? Goliath’s strategy is to shut down David through a distracting activity, such as surfing the Internet. David’s strategy is to stay awake and either overpower Goliath through willpower or convince Goliath with a clever argument.

How to Keep David Awake and Strengthen Him

When it comes to our relationship with David, we have two options. We either keep David awake and strengthen him or we put David asleep and weaken him. If we keep David awake and strengthen him, he will be able to overpower Goliath when we face a challenge. If we put him asleep and weaken him, he will be overpowered by Goliath in the face of a challenge.

Both options are self-reinforcing. That means the more we put David asleep, weaken him, and let him loose a battle against Goliath, the weaker David will get. The more we keep David awake, strengthen him, and let him win a battle against Goliath, the stronger David will get. Both options are self-reinforcing cycles.

If you think about it, the solution to our procrastination problem lies in the paragraph above. Can you see it? The solution is to create small challenges to exercise our David to stay awake, to exercise his muscles, and to win small victories over Goliath. As David wins these small victories, he’s going to feel stronger and more confident. We can gradually increase the intensity of the challenges to increase his strength.

“The solution is to create small challenges to exercise our David to stay awake, to exercise his muscles, and to win small victories over Goliath.”

A five minute meditation session is a great place to start small to exercise your David. You can add further exercises that are just sufficient enough to challenge the muscles of David without making him lose a battle against Goliath. As you gradually increase the intensity of these challenges, your David will build enough strength to overpower Goliath, when you face a real challenge.

How to Convince Goliath

Goliath can be a force of nature when working towards our most ambitious goals. However, you need to convince him to work on your cause. You need to come up with arguments that pushes his emotional buttons. Goliath has to see the rewards and pain clearly. You need to show the long term rewards and pain clearly to Goliath, over and over, and convince him of their validity. Otherwise, he will only look in front of himself, see the immediate rewards and pain, and act accordingly.

Don’t worry about Goliath accepting your arguments. Goliath learns by association. The more you repeat the connection between rewards and the beneficial activities and the connection between the pain and the harmful activities, the more Goliath will make those associations.

You can convince Goliath by making a list of potential rewards and pain points and repeat that list to Goliath over and over. Let’s go over the simple example of taking care of the dishes every day. You can apply the same principle to all the procrastination challenges that you are facing.

“Once our Goliath gets something at an emotional level, he is a force of nature and he will be willing to handle those challenges.”

“If we wash the dishes every day, we will only deal with a small amount of work every day. It will only take us fifteen minutes. We will be enjoying a clean, tidy environment. If we don’t wash the dishes every day, we will have to deal with more work down the road. It will be a pain in the neck to wash those dried up food rests from the dishes. They will require way more effort to clean. Every time we see our kitchen sink, we will be depressed with the amount of work waiting for us.”

Formulating the rewards and pain points as arguments is necessary but not sufficient in itself. We need to repeat these arguments to ourselves over and over until we internalize them at a gut level, until our Goliath gets them at an emotional level. Once our Goliath gets something at an emotional level, he is a force of nature and he will be willing to handle those challenges.

Using Rewards and Pain Points to Overcome Procrastination

Rewarding ourselves for our efforts on a challenge is a great way to reinforce ourselves to keep working on that challenge in the future. If your days and weeks only consist of work and no rewards, you will eventually burn out and give up. Therefore, it’s a good idea to give yourself some rewards as a result of your efforts. Be careful when selecting these rewards. You don’t want to select the rewards that would weaken your David.

Which rewards would you give yourself as a result of your efforts every day, week, month, quarter, and year? Which rewards would you give yourself as a result of specific milestone achievements? Make a list of them and go over that list regularly. At least on a daily basis and whenever you feel like procrastinating.

“If you don’t have any rewards in your life, your life will look like a labor camp.”

The goal is to connect those rewards to your efforts and achievements. So, it doesn’t make sense to give yourself the reward at the end of the day, if you haven’t reached your goals that day. However, at the end of the day or week, enjoy your rewards fully, thinking about your efforts during the day and week.

You have deserved this reward, because you have worked very hard for it throughout the day and week. This reinforces the connection between your efforts and rewards in your mind. Moreover, it will make the possibility of the long term milestone achievement rewards more convincing to yourself.

If you don’t have any rewards in your life, your life will look like a labor camp. You will not be motivated to do anything at all and you will end up procrastinating all the time.

You can double the effects of rewards by working on your pain points as well. Just come up with the pain points in your life that would motivate you to take action towards your goals. The pain points can be about your current life situation as well as about your future. Maybe, not getting a promotion is a current pain point. Maybe, not having sufficient savings for your retirement is a pain point for your future.

Just like the future rewards, write your pain points down next to your rewards and reinforce them in your mind by reading them every day and refer to them every time you feel like procrastinating.

Exploration Questions

Here are a few questions for you to reflect upon.

  • What are the beneficial activities that you’re avoiding?
  • What makes you avoid those activities?
  • How can you make those activities more attractive and exciting?
  • What are the harmful, useless activities that you indulge in?
  • What makes you indulge in those activities?
  • How can you make those activities repulsive?

Write down your answers and read them often to reinforce them in your mind.

Burak Bilgin
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly overview of my latest content on personal development and life lessons.