The Definitive Guide to Replacing Procrastination with Willpower?
By Marty Nemko
We all procrastinate. It's human,
especially with school assignments or around tax time. Sure, we
know we're fooling ourselves when we say, "I'll be more in the mood
tomorrow." But we just can't delay gratification--we want our
Yeah, we know we'd be better off
deferring the short-term pleasure of procrastinating for the
long-term benefits of accomplishment, but we can't resist immediate
Or we rationalize our
procrastination by thinking we'll still have time to get it done
but, alas, there's only one set of circumstances when everything
goes as expected and a million ways it doesn't.
Yet many of us do want to change,
at least a bit. We know we'd feel better about ourselves and how
we're living our lives if we got more done today. Not manana.
I always knew it was important to control procrastination but
what really made that stick for me was this: During a keynote
address to college presidents, I asked, "Raise your hand if you
think of yourself as a procrastinator." 15% did. I asked the same
question of a large group of unemployed people. 90% raised their
Alas. procrastination can be a devil to control. As
President Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, wrote, "My evil
genius, procrastination, has whispered me to tarry 'til a more
However I will not tarry in sharing with you some ways to tame that evil genius procrastination. I'll offer you the techniques that have most helped the 3,900 career and life coaching clients I've had the privilege of working with for, now, 26 years.
I made this section the book's longest, most thorough, because virtually nothing is more key to living life well than replacing at least some of your procrastination with willpower.
Sometimes, the solution comes down to simply forcing yourself to follow Nike's exhortation to Just Do It!" Really, sometimes it's just a matter of forcing yourself.
But if you've read this far into the section, chances are that hasn't worked well enough for you. So first, I'll present the six core ways to increase your drive, your willpower. Then, I'll show you six ways to overcome psychological and physiological blocks. You needn't use all 12. Just try those you sense may help you.
But first, three myths that require dispelling.
Procrastination is not always a problem. Sometimes, it's your mind saying you shouldn't tackle the task. Consider that voice. Only if you decide it really is in your interest to do the task, should you consider the strategies I'll show you. Hey, Goethe decided he needed 30 years of contemplation about Faust before he felt he could start writing it. And he took another 32 years to finish it.
A second myth: "Once a procrastinator, always a procrastinator." A client said "I can't even envision myself as a person who follows through. The techniques in this section have helped countless procrastinators. They may not completely cure your procrastination--that's not necessary. Just moderating it will enormously benefit you.
The third myth: Some people believe you must be self-confident before you can have the willpower to act, to have drive. In fact, most of my clients who improved their willpower first acted, even though they didn't feel confident. In psychologist terms: their behavior change preceded their attitude change. And their taking actions, usually low-risk actions, the proverbial baby steps, increased their confidence, which, in turn, made them more willing to take additional actions.
So, confident or not, let's see if we can replace at least some of your procrastination with willpower and maybe even out-and-out drive. On second thought, maybe we should do it later?
Okay, first, the six core ways to replace your procrastination with motivation, with willpower.
1. Embrace work. My father was a Holocaust survivor, having escaped from the Ponary death camp. After the war, he was dumped on a cargo boat and dropped in the Bronx, NY, without a penny to his name, no English, no family, only the scars of the Holocaust tortures. Yet he was always a well-adjusted man. He said that the most important thing that healed him was work: staying busy, being as productive as possible. That felt good to him. He was proud of being able to provide for my mom, my sister, and me.
Perhaps surprising, my dad is not an outlier. As I was growing up, I got to know about 30 Holocaust survivors. It was the ones who focused on work and not on reliving the Holocaust that seemed the emotionally healthiest, not to mention, of course, productive.
We tend to dub highly productive people with the pathologizing term, workaholic, a disease, like "alcoholic." Actually, I think them rather heroic, like Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan, who said that our work is defined by how much we contribute to society.
I'm not exhorting you to work all the time. I merely invite you to ask yourself whether you're as productive as you want to be?
Not-obvious nugget: One way to stay conscious of whether you're being as productive as you want is to evaluate activities you're about to do on what I callThe Meter:from -10 to +10, where -10 is making things much worse--for example, selling cocaine to children and +10 makes things much better, for example, trying to cure cancer. So, for instance, let's say, on a Saturday morning, you're deciding whether to watch TV (a 0--neither helpful nor hurtful) or finish that work project (say, a +3.) Sure, you might decide you need the recreation, and that's fine. But by making such decisions consciously, Not-obvious nugget: being aware of thatmoment of truth when you're deciding what to do next, if you're like most of my clients, you'll more often choose to be productive. You'll have more drive, more willpower.
Picture the benefits and liabilities of accomplishing your goal. If the liabilities outweigh, choose another goal. If it's a long-term project, you might try the seemingly superfluous but often effective technique of, three times daily, saying aloud, with expression, the benefits of accomplishing the goal--that actually retrains your brain's neurons so those benefits stay top-of-mind.
Not-obvious nugget: But what if you're having trouble valuing work more than say, playing on the Net or watching TV? Get some play out of your system. I didn't say seven hours of TV but an hour of a favorite show first and you may well feel more like working. Yes, that's the opposite of the standard advice to work before play, but my clients find that it works.
It may also help to make it harder to play. For example, if at home, you know you'd be too tempted to watch TV, cook something, phone a friend, anything but work, perhaps try, every day at a regular time of your choice, going to the library to work. Or use software such as Internet Access Controller: http://www.gearboxcomputers.com/products/internet-access-controller/index.html that, like parental-control TV, won't let you surf the Internet during work hours. One of my clients became more productive by, each evening, using his friend's office.
Everyone, even people with a great job, find some of the work boring, frustrating, or difficult. Not-obvious nugget:Winners just accept that often, they must do things that are uncomfortable. Indeed, the willingness to do the uncomfortable may be a hallmark of a good person.
Too, remember that like the drug addict who, for a, short-term pleasure, ruins their life, the momentary comfort of deferring a task is far outweighed by the long-term discomfort you'll suffer if you're a procrastinator.
It's easy to repress thoughts of doing the dreaded task. To help
you remember, write a word on your hand, schedule it on your
One more thing that can make it easier to embrace work: Most tasks just aren't as difficult as you might imagine. Get started and it may be easier than you thought.
But best of all, see if you can simply embrace work. You may even grow to prefer work to play. Some of the people most satisfied with their lives think: Not-obvious nugget: It needn't be fun. It just need get done. They love crossing things off their to-do list, their one master list they look at many times a day. Even when work isn't at all pleasant, they don't think about whether to do it. They just do it. There are worse habits you could acquire.
2. Recognize that you can be superior. Lest you think this is some Pollyannish pop psych pablum, let me say that I'm well aware that some tasks may simply be beyond you. Not-obvious nugget: But most tasks we have to do are within our ability. Indeed, you'll likely do a better job than do most people if you simply stay focused and get help where needed.
The most important word in that last sentence was "focused." The moment you feel yourself tempted to procrastinate, see if you can make yourself get back to work. Force yourself to focus. Focus is such an important word.
Sometimes you can make yourself focus--until you reach a hard part. Generally, if you haven't made progress on a stumbling block within just one minute, you're unlikely to, even if you work at it for days. So it's often wise, after working at it for one minute, to decide whether it's wisest to keep struggling, whether you can do the task without solving that stumbling block, get help, or, yes, defer it--Sometimes, looking at the problem with fresh eyes can help. See? I don't always discourage you from procrastinating.
So many people do a poor job because they don't focus or because they refuse to get help. You can do better than that. Might you gain motivation simply by remembering you can be superior?
3. Do it the fun way.Not-obvious nugget: Some people lack motivation because their perfectionism makes tasks so odious they avoid the task altogether. Or they tackle tasks in the "best" but too daunting way.
For example, if they have to write a report, they stare at a blank screen until some brilliant idea, indeed, the entire plan, comes clear. Then they write it the "best" way to avoid any possible criticism: long, filled with tables and citations. The result is they're more likely to procrastinate the whole project until right before the deadline when, ironically, there's time only to do a slipshod job. The perfect can be the enemy of the good.
If instead, that person said, "How could I do this the fun way?" and so made it shorter, based more on interviewing a few experts and presented attractively, it won't have been as rigorous as if it done the hard-slog way but it would likely be better than a last-minute cram job. And who knows, perhaps making it short, attractive, and based on expert interviews might make it moreuseful than if it were a tome.
Sometimes, just asking yourself, "What's the most fun way I could do the task?" can be enough to get you to do it. For example, is there an easier way to get that report done? Should you listen to music while working? Exercise with a partner?
Another way to do it the fun way is to work in short stints. A client of mine, an actress, had a major audition and was overwhelmed by how much she had to do to improve her audition monologue and thus procrastinated. I asked her to spend just 15 minutes a day for each of the 10 days until the audition. I'd be dishonest to tell you that she started with 15 and then, having gotten into it, increased it to two hours. But she did put in that 15 minutes a day, most days, felt great about the audition, and is waiting to hear if she got a callback.
If you enjoy the adrenaline rush of trying to get it done last minute, alas there's less grade inflation in life than in school. Here's how you might get that adrenaline rush while having enough time to do the project well: Start the project early but tell yourself things like, "Okay, I'm going to see if I can get this part done by 8:00." Or compete with a friend on who can, for example, make the most calls--the loser has to write a check to the other person's favorite charity.
Of course, no task can be fun if you're tired. Get that oft-urged 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Take a power nap. Even a few-minute brisk walk can be energizing. All tasks are more fun if you're feeling fresh.
Still another way to make a task more fun is to promise yourself a reward on completing a milestone. It needn't be food or you might find yourself with tasks done but an extra ten pounds around your middle. Ask yourself what will motivate you? A three-minute walk around the block? 15 minutes of chatting on the phone? Okay, a little ice cream.
Finally, picture how much better you'll feel if you got it done and done well. Compare that with how you'd feel if you procrastinated. Usually, you'll find that having deferred your pleasure yielded you more pleasure.
4. Use your fear of embarrassment.Many of us will go to great lengths to avoid being embarrassed. So when you're at risk of procrastinating a major project, consider telling your goal and deadline to one or more people, even a child in your family. To avoid the embarrassment of telling them you didn't do the task, you may gain willpower.
A variant on that is to do the task for someone else's benefit. Would your child benefit from seeing you land a great job? Do it for him. Would your spouse be delighted you made those calls? Do it for her. Would your parents be proud if you made that speech? Do it for them.
Another approach to becoming accountable is to ask a person or a group to check in with you daily or weekly. That is one reason 12-step programs and Weight Watchers often work. For example, you might try this structure: Each person gets 10 minutes in the hotseat to describe her or his goal, get input from the group on how to achieve it, and then commit to doing X by next week's meeting. The next week, each person reports on their progress. The fear of having to tell the group, "I procrastinated," is motivating. Also, you get practical ideas and emotional support from the group.
Stickk.com offers an online approach to making yourself accountable. You state your weekly milestones on a project you're facing: a sales quota, landing a job, losing weight, cleaning out your basement, whatever. If you don't meet your weekly goal, the amount of money you specify in advance, gets sent to a charity you dislike. For example, if you're a Democrat, it would go to the Reagan Library. To boost your motivation further, Stickk.com allows you to select people who will verify that you've met your milestones. The beauty of Stickk.com is that it utilizes pre-commitment: in one moment, upfront, you've built-in something that pushes you all the way until you've completed the task.
Or try do the task in a way that avoids embarrassment. For example, if you're afraid to tell others you're looking for a job, paint it positively, for example, "I've decided to finally look for the job I really want. (insert your work goal.)
A related example: If you're afraid of asking someone for a job lead for fear of imposing on them, remember that people have stopped you for directions many times. Did you feel imposed on? When you take the 30 seconds to ask for a lead, you're asking for no more time. If the person chooses to give you more, he's not feeling imposed on.
5. Break it down into baby steps.That advice has become a cliché. It was even a core joke in the hit movie,What About Bob?, in which the psychiatrist's main advice to Bob was to take baby steps. So we see Bob, for example, at the elevator saying, "Baby step onto the elevator... baby step into the elevator... I'm in the elevator. [doors close]
Cliché or not--sometimes advice becomes a cliché because it's so often useful--breaking a task into baby steps can be key to not feeling overwhelmed by it. "Well, I can do that little step."
It's like, if I'm at the base of a steep hill and look up, I'd probably say, "Ugh, that's overwhelming." But if I---to use the Buddhist maxim--stay in the moment and simply put one foot in front of the other, I'm more likely to build momentum and keep going. Have you ever climbed a mountain or at least a hill and then looked back and thought, "Wow, I didn't realize how far I had climbed?!"
When I feel myself resisting a task, I ask myself, "What's my first one-second task?" It could be as basic as "turn on the computer." But that often gets me going.
My wife, when facing her doctoral dissertation, was intimidated by the task's enormity. One thing that helped her get it done was something we calledthe thermometer. You know, when a nonprofit is trying to raise money, it often posts a sign with a thermometer, and every time a milestone is reached, more of the thermometer's "tube" gets filled with red. Well, my wife and I taped to the refrigerator a piece of paper with a crude thermometer drawn on it, with all the little dissertation milestones listed on the side. Every time, Barbara met a milestone, we colored-in that part of the thermometer tube in red and I gave her a kiss. Whenever you're facing a big project, you might try breaking it down into baby steps, maybe even using the thermometer technique.
But what if you don't know how to break your task into the right baby steps? That's the time to ask for help. Not only will that get you the needed guidance, you'll feel accountable to the person, which may make you more likely to get the task done and done well.
Not-obvious nugget: When you reach a hard baby step or other roadblock, The One-Minute Struggle can help. When you reach a hard part, struggle to overcome it for just a minute. If you haven't made progress by then, you're unlikely to. At that point, get help or figure out a way to get the task done without that hard part.
6. Find inspiration. Most people are more motivated when inspired. Sources? Certainly an exciting goal is one. Our friend Goethe said, " Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of people."
Or some people are motivated by the opposite: people who champion you, cheer you on. Don't have a cheerleader? Make finding one a goal. In the meantime, might you find inspiration from a famous person? For example, I'm inspired by Winston Churchill. He was terrible in school, his father hated him, he suffered a horrible defeat in World War I's Gallipoli campaign in which 140,000 allied troops were killed or injured, went broke in the stock market, lost two elections in a row, and despite being key to winning World War II, after, lost again, yet Churchill remains is one of the most influential, respected people of the 20th century. Might it help you to actually post a picture of your role model on your desk? Or, for example, if you're trying to lose weight, a current photo of you alongside one when you were thinner?
Speaking of losing weight, I got inspired by something negative--being confronted. I'm finding myself more motivated to lose weight since my doctor said, "You're not cosmetically fat but you're getting medically fat. Your BMI is 27."
Not-obvious nugget: At the risk of sounding touchy-feely, some people find inspiration from an affirmation. Sometimes, simply picturing yourself always getting started early and following through can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's not as airy-fairy as it sounds. Picturing yourself as that follow-through person replaces neurons that tell your brain, "I'm lazy," with neurons that say, "I'm a go-to guy/girl."
Another example: At the moment you're deciding whether to work or procrastinate, you might try having a preset mantra that you say aloud with expression:, for example, "If I do it, I'll feel so much better." Affirmation may even have a scientific basis. Saying it aloud with feeling may gradually changes the neurons in your brain, it becomes top-of-mind, so to speak. It's like forming any new habit: Practice it enough and it becomes automatic.
Here's another way to be inspired by the negative: proving someone wrong when they say you can't, or even that you're a loser. For example, a few years ago, I developed a rare hand condition that has rendered me a seven-finger pianist. The doctor, who knew I play the piano, said "I'm sorry you won't be able to play much anymore." That somehow motivated me to prove him wrong.
Now, here are six ways to help conquer a psychological or physiological barrier that inhibits your willpower:
1. Is your procrastination and lack of drive rooted in fear of failure?Sometimes it is, but people, even some psychotherapists, too quickly leap to that explanation. So look dispassionately ask yourself: At that moment of truth when you're deciding whether to do the task or get a burrito, is it really fear of failure that's stopping you?
If itisfear of
failure, decide, "Is that fear justifiable?" If indeed you lack the
skills or ability to do the task, don't just put the task out of
your mind. Affirmatively decide: "Is the risk/reward ratio of
trying the task worth it?" For example, let's say that
you've just spent two years trying to meet Mr. Right and you're
still single. Mightn't you still feel better for having tried?
Won't your friends and family respect you more for having
As I mention in another section, most successful people operate from Ready, FIRE, Aim. After quickly deciding if an action has a good risk/reward ratio, they try it, and revise if necessary. A sailor will never get from California to Hawaii by premapping the course. He must get started and continually readjust as conditions dictate. If he sees a hurricane ahead, he can turn back.
If you've decided that the risk/reward ratio of tackling the task is good enough, it doesn't mean you need to do it on your own. Should you get help? Training? Delegate it? Or should you tell your boss it's too difficult?" I know that's scary but sometimes is wise.
But what if your fear of failure is irrational: You have the ability and skills to do the task but, irrationally, you're still scared into inertia.
It may help simply to break the task into those baby steps, but if not, ask yourself, "Will I be better off having not done the task or having tried and failed?" Usually the answer is , "Better to have tried and failed." Remember, not trying often ensures failure not only onthattask but starts to establish a pattern of not trying things that aren't clearly easy. That's a formula for career and life failure. When in doubt, try.
Related to a fear of failure is a fear of rejection. Successful people are rejected a lot. They learn from failures and force themselves to move right on. No wallowing. As Mary Kay Ash said,: “Fail forward to success." And remember: being ignored is the new rejection. It's not that you're worthy not even of a rejection.
2. Is your procrastination rooted in excessive perfectionism. Like its cousin, fear of failure, perfectionism is less often the cause than many people claim. Such people or their therapist claim that because it paints your procrastination in a positive light.
But if you sense that excess perfectionism is a cause of your procrastination, do recognize that if you demand your work be perfect, you may make tasks so odious that you procrastinate doing them. The perfect is the enemy of the good: Most tasks are wisely done to the 70-90%, not the 100% level because the benefits that derive from perfect work are usually outweighed by the time and pain required.
And even if a task needs to be perfect, you might want to create whatever first draft you can create easily, even if it's just half as good as it needs to be. As a friend of mine says, "Write crap. Then revise." Why? Because it's far easier to revise your way to perfection than to come up with it out of thin air.
3. Is your procrastination and lack of drive rooted in fear of success?At first blush, that may seem absurd--Who would fear success?
Actually, many people do. They may feel they don't deserve success--they've done bad things in their life. Fact is, even if you've been an axe murderer, the route to redemption is not paved in inaction but in trying--That gives you a shot at success. At the risk of being tough on you, if you're inert, instead of being productive and on the road to redemption, you're a parasite on society. Picture the benefits of action and force yourself into action. Consistently do that and you may well increase your drive.
Other people fear success because they worry they'll pay a price for achieving more than their coworker or spouse. Certainly, you don't want to brag about your successes, especially to someone insecure, but odds are that if you succeed without self-aggrandizement, the benefits of your success will outweigh the liabilities. And if a friend resents your success, is that really a friend?
Still other people fear success because they're afraid their reward for succeeding will be more and/or harder work. Remember that you can set limits. If you're assigned more or harder work than is reasonable, you can say no. Well, often you can.
Not-obvious nugget: If you're unsure what psychological issue is blocking you, play shrink with yourself. Keep a memo pad with you and every time you're tempted to procrastinate, write the time and the thought or feeling that's making you want to procrastinate. After a few days, review your notes for common threads. What would a shrink tell you? Often, just the act of writing your procrastinations makes you procrastinate less.
4. At this risk of sounding like your mother, stop abusing drugs. Alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs can decrease motivation. While the research is not definitive, in a series of studies led by Dr. William Slikker, director of the FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research, rhesus monkeys were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: smoking pot daily, only on weekends, or not at all. Even the just-weekends smokers lost their motivation to work all week. For example, they wouldn't paw at a wheel to get food. The non-pot-smoking group didn't. The good news is that when the pot smokers stopped, their motivation to work eventually returned.
Indeed, anecdotally, many of us who know drug abusers, for example, regular pot smokers, sense that they're more likely than others to suffer from memory loss and/or amotivational syndrome. Of course, it's possible that on average, regular pot smokers start out less motivated than the pool of people who don't. That's why I say the research is not definitive, but it certainly couldn't hurt to see if stopping or even cutting back on your substance abuse increases your willpower enough to make you want to stay off the drugs.
5. Might you have ADD? The signature characteristic of attention-deficit disorder is that the person often is too distracted to stay focused on tasks, which causes errors in the work and for the task to take far longer to complete than it should. Some of my clients have brought their ADD under control without drugs. For example, one of my clients, recognizing that while like many people with ADD, he craves overstimulation even though it hurts his work, stopped listening to music while working, indeed where possible, stopped multitasking. He had his desk moved so it faces the wall and put a stack of books on each side of his workspace to block distractions.
That said, some of my clients have been helped, even dramatically, by ADD medication: the classic Ritalin/Adderall/Concerta, or perhaps with fewer side effects, Provigil. If the behavioral strategies don't work, it's worth asking a trusted physician whether you should try medication. Studies have found that 2/3 of people with ADD find medication helps significantly.
6. Is your lack of drive really a clinical mental health issues: anxiety, depression or manic depression/bipolar disorder?
We all get anxious at times but if it is too frequent and/or intense, it can certainly cause keep us from getting things done. If you suffer from significant anxiety, you might read this article from the National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
Similarly, all of us get blue at times. But if you've long had a baseline of being sad, your lack of drive may be depression talking. Alas, antidepressant drugs work only for some people and even for them, may fade in effectiveness. Or the person finds that the side effects outweigh the benefits. The current National Institute of Mental Health recommendation is that for mild to moderate depression, the first line of treatment is moderate exercise perhaps in combination with cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is often brief. I'd add a creative outlet such as participating in a play, or simply listening to music--I find that upbeat music is a great antidepressant--and it has no side effects. If those don't make your depression manageable, you might want to see a psychiatrist to try to find a medication that works for you. The National Institute of Mental Health's overview of depression: its causes, manifestations, and treatments is at www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression.
Different drugs are used to treat manic-depression, which today is more often called bipolar disorder. And drugs are often a first-line treatment for bipolar For an overview of that condition, and its treatment options: www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder.
How would your twin get you unstuck? Pretend you have a wiser twin. Tell him your procrastination situation aloud. Reread all the techniques in this section. What would your twin say to get you motivated, unstuck?
Whatever the causes of your lack of drive, do be patient with yourself. You may have struggled with procrastination, with willpower for a long time. It may not get cured just because you decide to try a few techniques. We're not electrons that behave predictably. We're humans. Give yourself a break.
© Marty Nemko 2004-2014. Usage Rights