11 ways to stop procrastinating—for good

We're all guilty of it, but there are ways to curb your procrastination and be more productive.

TIM FERRISS: Alright. Procrastination. Let's talk about it. It's a big topic. And by the way we all face it. It is an ever-present, evergreen issue for a reason and even the people you see on magazine covers, most of them – there are a few mutants, but they all have things they put off and there are a few different tactics, approaches that I found very helpful that I borrowed from whether it's guests on the Tim Ferriss Show or people I interviewed for "Tools of Titans," my newest book. Here we go, so down the list.

DAN ARIELY: So the first I think mistake is that we pursue momentary happiness rather than longer term happiness. We do the things that will make us laugh out loud today kind of, not always laugh out loud but kind of like that. And we don't do the things that are difficult and complex and challenging but give us a very different sense of happiness. Think about something like running a marathon. You don't see anybody happy. If you came as an alien and you imaged people's brains and you looked at their facial expressions as they're running a marathon you would say somebody's punishing them. They are paying for something terrible they've done and this is how they're paying their debt to society. It is kind of miserable, but it's also meaningful and creates a sense of achievement and so on. So we're pursuing momentary pleasure rather than truly understanding the depth of what happiness is or what meaning is.

FERRISS: Prolific music producers like Rick Rubin who's legendary and it all comes down to tiny homework assignments. So Rick, if he has a stuck artist for instance he will say can you get me one word or one line that you might like for this song that you're working on by tomorrow. Is that possible. Mini, mini homework assignments. So with a creative project in the beginning that's one. It's related to a piece of advice that I got from Neil Strauss and that is lower your standards. So he doesn't believe in writer's block. He says your standards are just too high. You're creating performance anxiety for yourself. So the advice that I got from another writer which matches with that is two crappy pages per day. So a lot of people are like I'm going to kill it. I need an ambitious goal. Let me do 1,500 words, 2,000 words per day for this book I'm working on. Well, there's a very high probability that you're going to fall short of that and then you will get demoralized. Then you'll get intimidated by the task and then you will start procrastinating. So make the hurdle. Make the success threshold really, really low. That's what I've done for my last three books is two crappy pages per day. That's all I need. If I don't end up using them that's fine. I just need to get out two crappy pages. If you're going to exercise and you're making a New Year's resolution, don't make it an hour a day, four times a week. No, no, no, no, no. Five to ten minutes at the gym three times a week, plenty. And in all those cases you will feel successful because you've checked your box for success. And then very often you'll exceed that for extra credit. You'll be well, I'm already at the gym. I'll go for an extra ten minutes. Well, I'm already flossing my teeth. We'll do an extra four. Well, I've already hit my two pages but I'm feeling great and I'm in the flow. Maybe I'll do ten. Maybe I'll do 20. But it prevents you from feeling like a failure. This is very, very important. That is what derails a lot of people.

JILLIAN MICHAELS: First we have to appreciate that there's a very big difference between inspiration and motivation. And inspiration is great. Inspiration is a source of, a catalyst if you will of change that comes from outside of you. So it could be an episode of Big Think that you watched. It could be a song you heard, a book you read, a memoir that you saw on who knows, some episode of television. And you say you know what? I'm inspired. If they can do it, I can do it and it gives you the little jumpstart on the engine. The car gets going and then in a month, maybe two, all of a sudden you kind of peter out and the battery dies again. And that's because you need motivation to stay in motion. And motivation is that why that comes from inside of you.

FERRISS: So you could use technique, for instance, like the Pomodoro Technique and people have interpreted this in different ways, but it effectively means sprints of say 20 to 25. Some people do 23 minutes where you are like all right, I know I'm not going to get this done, but I'm going to sprint for 20 minutes, 25 minutes and then take a five minute break. Once you have these positive constraints which, by the way, for a creative person very important to have positive constraints. Being able to do anything you want all the time is a recipe for disaster and paralysis and procrastination.

BARBARA OAKLEY: So I teach a course, Learning How To Learn, that's actually the world's largest massive open online course. We have something like two million people. And the Pomodoro Technique is the most popular technique. I hear from literally thousands of people and it's so simple. All you have to do is turn off all distractions so no little ringy dingies on your cell phone or anything like that. On your computer you want to turn off any kind of messages that might arise, set a timer for 25 minutes and then just focus as intently as you can for those 25 minutes. And this is a key thing when you're done you reward yourself and you reward yourself by relaxing a little bit and doing something completely different.

CHARLES DUHIGG: You can't find some work reward that's going to take the place of procrastination. If the reward of procrastination is that you get to spend five minutes distracted by Facebook and sort of see these updates of your friends. You have to allow yourself to do that. That has to be part of your workday. If you need five minutes every hour to look at tweets or to just surf the internet, you need to schedule that into your schedule. Allow yourself to do that because when people start procrastinating what they've done is they've tried to ignore that urge. They've tried to deny themselves time on Facebook or time surfing the web. And then all of a sudden it erupts and they go and they say I'm just going to check for five minutes and 45 minutes later they've lost all of this time. It's because they haven't accommodated that need. Once a habit exists you can't just quelch it. You can't pretend it's not there. You have to sort of accommodate this need in your life. And so the answer is to give yourself five minutes every hour. In fact you can set an alarm. At the end of every hour give yourself five minutes to surf the web. Because if you allow yourself five minutes every hour it won't explode into 45 minutes because you've been trying to suppress it.

ARIELY: The literature there's a term for this. It's called structured procrastination where you basically do lots of little things that give you the sense that you're making progress without actually making any progress. It's very easy to get ourselves to do lots of little tasks that gives us momentary slight joy. Oh, I erased another email. Oh, I responded to that email and so on. Without thinking long term.

MICHAELS: There should always be a look towards the future. We are always growing and evolving and progressing. There is no finish line in life ultimately and I think that's tough for some to accept because we think okay, I crossed the finish line, now what. You're not dead. There's more work to do. Look at that.

ARIELY: In long term thinking it's really what causes real joy. And it's not easy, right. It's not easy. I get about 300 emails a day. I wake up, I open my laptop. It's always a moment of slight depression. Oh, my goodness. I have to deal with all of this. And I could spend my whole day doing email. And email here's an analogy. There's an analogy for all the things that you have to do but they're not giving you a true sense of accomplishment. And the real challenge – and it's not easy is to carve time to do the things that you would say at the end of three months, six months, a year and so on will give me a sense that I'm actually contributing doing something useful. So personally I do this with writing. It's very easy to spend a whole day responding to email. I try to protect some time and say I'm going to write. I'm going to actually stop. I'm going to think. It will take me awhile. Sometimes I'll write something I said the whole time was useless. I didn't really progress enough but from time to time there is progress and over time it creates a body of knowledge that you say this is actually a very useful thing.

FERRISS: The next way that you can apply positive constraint is by building in incentives and consequences. All this means is make yourself socially accountable. Having someone else to hold your feet to the fire and keep you accountable for whatever goal you've set for yourself. That could be a check in via phone. It could be a bet so a financial component which is very effective. And I think in part not because of the money you will win but the money you will lose. People work a lot harder to counteract loss aversion it turns out.

ARIELY: The beauty of human nature is that lots of things motivate us and sense of accomplishment and achievement. Our title, our connection to work. Our connection to people at work. Competing with other people. All of those things motivate us. When we write a motivation equation we would write motivation equals yes, money is important but so is achievement, sense of progress, competition, dah, dah, dah, dah. And the question is how do we use all of them. How do we use all of them to create motivation.

DUHIGG: Why are some people so much better at maintaining their focus and not reacting and not getting distracted by all these things. It's because ahead of time they've envisioned what they expect to see. They've envisioned what they expect to occur. So on the subway when they're riding to work they think about what is this day going to be like. I know that I'm going to this meeting. What do I expect to occur at that meeting. And so when they walk in and they're boss asks them some unexpected question their brain almost subconsciously says I didn't expect that question to occur. This isn't matching the picture in my brain of what I anticipated so I need to put that question off. I need to say can we take that offline and I'll answer that later. Or they have a picture in their brain of what it's going to be like to deal with the kids and to make dinner. There's some type of expectation and so as a result when their pocket buzzes and an email comes in they can say I can't handle this right now. I need to give myself five minutes and I'll deal with this later.

MICHAELS: Remove negative impacts in your environment and that's one of the things that's so good about actual things is that if you change them they stay changed. There's no fighting back. But do some deep self-reflection and consider getting into some counseling to look at those things and get the tools to turn them around.

So those are a few things that you could utilize and I'll give you one kind of wacky one that is from Mike Birbiglia whose one of the most successful comedians on the planet. When he was procrastinating working on his screenplay, his latest screenplay, he noticed that when he was accountable to someone else, he had a meeting, he was never late. He was always early. But when he had a commitment to himself to write he might put it off for hours. So he took a post it and he put it next to his bed – and this sounds ludicrous, but it said Mike – and I think it was three exclamation points. You have a meeting with yourself at 7:00 a.m. at Café whatever it was where he tended to work. And that actually for whatever weird quirk of human psychology got him to stay on track for his meeting with himself to write his screenplay. So that's another Jedi mind trick that you might try on yourself. There are many tools in the toolkit but keep it small, keep it defined, rig it so you can win and when in doubt figure out a way to create a loss or shame if you don't actually tackle your task and achieve some type of measurable goal by a specific point in time.

  • Most of us feel guilty or lazy when we put things off until a later date or time, but procrastination is normal and happens to everyone. The key is not to eliminate the word from your vocabulary, but to find ways to work and rest smarter so that tasks get done.
  • In this video, investor Tim Ferriss, behavioral economist Dan Ariely, health and wellness expert Jillian Michaels, and others share 11 tips for mastering procrastination including focusing on long-term happiness, understanding the differences between inspiration and motivation, trying the Pomodoro technique, and removing the things that are distracting you from the project at hand.
  • One interesting tip shared by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg is to build procrastination into your workflow as a reward. "If you need five minutes every hour to look at tweets or to just surf the internet, you need to schedule that into your schedule." According to Duhigg, it's when we try to ignore that urge completely that things fall apart.

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