Personal Improvement

Trick your brain out of procrastination

There was once a grasshopper who loved to play the fiddle. One day, he spotted a group of ants hard at work.
“What are you doing?” asked the grasshopper.
“Don’t you know?” replied the ants. “We are preparing food for the winter! You should do it too, if you don’t want to starve.”
“Preparing food! That doesn’t sound like fun at all,” scoffed the grasshopper. “I’m just going to sit on my rock and play my fiddle.”
Aesop’s fable ends with the grasshopper starving to death when winter arrived. “Idleness brings want”, the story concludes.

Procrastination is no stranger to even the best of us. “Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the

The Grasshopper and the Ant

bill,” said Christopher Parker. (There’s also a less mellow version of this quote.) Parker’s analogy to personal finances is more apt than he probably thought; the Gail Kasper Consulting Group found that 40% of Americans overpay on taxes because of procrastination, resulting in a total of $473 million in overpayments. One can only imagine its effect on students.

David Laibson, an economics professor at Harvard, explains procrastination as follows: we put off work today because our perceived cost of doing that work is halved when we imagine doing it tomorrow. In other words, when faced with a difficult task, you think to yourself: if I do it tomorrow, it’ll only take half the effort. Yet studies suggest the opposite; procrastination makes people feel more stressed, less in control, and less effective overall.

So here are a couple of tried and true strategies to conquer procrastination. They work because they utilize the same psychological mechanisms behind procrastination itself. As they say, if you can’t beat them, exploit them.

1. Break it down: the power of pre-crastination

The participant (bottom) must carry either the left or right bucket (half-filled circle) to the end of the hallway (grey circle)

The participant (bottom) must carry either the left or right bucket (half-filled circle) to the end of the hallway (grey circle)

In a recent study conducted by David Rosenbaum from Penn State University, 257 college students were asked to carry either one of two buckets to the end of a hallway. One bucket was closer to the wall (hence farther from the subject) than the other, and the subjects were asked to pick the easier task. The experimenters expected students to pick the bucket closer to the wall, since this would minimize the distance they would have to carry it. What they found was the opposite; most subjects actually picked the bucket that increased their carrying distance. The researchers called this effect “pre-crastination”, the tendency to get simple tasks done and over with.

This seems counter-intuitive at first glance, but makes sense. The detrimental effects of chronic stress is well documented, and leaving a simple task undone – taking out the trash, for instance – creates micro-levels of stress. In the case of simple tasks, removing the stress is easier than avoiding the task, and so you are more inclined to get it done (unless your trash warrants its own real estate).

Practically, this reinforces the adage to break complex projects into simple sub-problems. For instance, when you have an assignment consisting of four questions, you can set individual target dates for each one. The larger the project, the smaller the tasks you break it into. For a term project, for example, you can have tasks as simple as “Read first page of assignment”, or “Write name”.

But what if you can’t even bring yourself to begin the break-down process? Here’s where the second strategy comes in:

2. Time warp: the 20 second rule

I first read about this strategy in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. Achor, a psychologist at Harvard, recounted a time when he tried to teach himself guitar. He was determined to practice for half an hour every day, but only managed to keep this up for a week. “The guitar was sitting in the closet, a mere 20 seconds away,” he writes. “But I couldn’t make myself take it out and play it. What had gone wrong?”

The solution, he found, was to make his good habits more accessible. He simply took the guitar out of his closet and set it up on a guitar stand, thus reducing the amount of time taken to access it by 20 seconds. That was all it took.

Similarly, to get a task done, simply make it more accessible. For example, if you plan to study organic chemistry tomorrow morning, you can lay out your notes today evening. The next morning, you’d be too lazy to tidy up your table in order to do anything else, and so begins the grunt work.

The same strategy can be used to cut bad habits. For instance, when I want to ignore distractors on my phone – Facebook, email, and such – I turn on airplane mode and shut it in the living room. Although I could easily access my phone, the act of opening my door, walking to my living room (all 23 steps!), finding my phone, and swiping right is simply too much work for my poor brain to handle.

Together, breaking it down and the 20-second rule make a formidable duo. I have personally tested several methods for time management, and none have been as effective as these. Whether you are starting a project, learning a new skill, or simply storing food for the winter, try these simple strategies. You’ll be surprised by what you see.


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