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Image: A woman in a white shirt looking at her phone instead of her laptop, procrastinating.

4 Strategies to Stop Procrastinating and Start Living

Let’s be clear from the start: as much as society likes to tell us the opposite, productivity does not equal happiness. But why then, when we’re unproductive and putting things off, are we so unhappy? What is the real root of this feeling of dissatisfaction that comes when we procrastinate? And if we understand why we procrastinate, can we use that knowledge and understanding to stop procrastinating and ultimately live happier and more fulfilled? 

Tim Urban, whose research on the procrastinator in all of us has launched his TED Talk to the podium as the 4th most viewed TED Talk of all time, has a humorous answer to this question. 

Image: A woman in a white shirt looking at her phone, trying to stop procrastinating.
Source: Unsplash

Inside the mind of a master procrastinator… 

When 34 year old Tim Urban was asked to do a TED Talk in early 2016, he thought and thought about what his topic would be. He realized that after writing a humorous and light-hearted blog post about procrastination on his blog Wait But Why, he received responses from people who were deeply affected by procrastination. 

So, what better to write a last minute TED Talk on than… procrastination? 

As of the date of writing, his humorous TED Talk discussing the very real impacts of procrastination on our lives is in the fourth most viewed TED Talk of all time, with 58.9 million views. The popularity of this talk is for good reason: its humor and insight is relatable to everyone, and if you let it, can truly improve your life. 

We can’t fix a problem if we don’t know what the problem is, and much less so if we don’t even acknowledge that it’s there. When we are conscious of the reasons we are procrastinating on life’s big (and small) circumstances, we can take action to change our feelings and live better. 

Here’s Tim Urban to tell us more about the funny characters who control our brain, and how understanding them can help us be happier people. 

Via: TED 1

You can find more amazing TED Talks on their website. And find more from Tim on his site, Wait But Why

The Decision Maker, the Instant-Gratification Monkey, and the Panic Monster

As Tim explains, for chronic procrastinators there are three main characters at play in our brains when we try to take on a task: the Rational-Decision Maker, the Instant-Gratification Monkey, and the Panic Monster. While the Rational-Decision Maker is supposed to be in charge, it is often thwarted by the Instant-Gratification Monkey who is much more interested in steering us in less productive directions. The only way to get the Instant-Gratification Monkey to let go of the helm is with the Panic Monster who usually comes around when there is the imminent possibility of very real consequences. It’s only then that we can start to be rational and productive.

But what about the situations when there is no deadline; when there is no hope of a Panic Monster on the horizon? Situations like reaching out to a friend or family member, changing our habits, starting your dream business, starting to exercise, getting into or out of a relationship, or finding a more fulfilling job?

“It’s this long term kind of procrastination that’s much less visible and much less talked about than the funnier, short-term, deadline-based kind. It’s usually suffered quietly and privately. And it can be the source of a huge amount of long-term unhappiness and regrets. And I thought that’s why these people are emailing, and that’s why they’re in such a bad place. It’s not that they’re cramming for some project. It’s that long-term procrastination has made them feel like a spectator, at times, in their own lives. The frustration is not that they couldn’t achieve their dreams; it’s that they weren’t even able to start chasing them.”

Tim Urban

When you stay aware of the instant gratification monkey and make an effort to understand your habits, you can combat them. You can say, “Not today, monkey!” and do something that future you will really appreciate. 

So, with this knowledge and understanding of what’s going on in our heads, how can we actually move towards changing these habits?

1. Change the emotions that have created the “Wall of Awful” you’re facing.

Have you ever heard of the “Wall of Awful”? This metaphor by Brendan Mahan can help us understand the emotions in our way that are preventing us from starting a task. Be it fear of disappointment, rejection, or judgment, worry, self-doubt, impulsiveness, or any combination thereof. No matter which way you look at it, the Wall of Awful is built of negative emotions, and to climb the wall—or take a shortcut through it—we need to find healthy ways to adjust our emotions. 

The way to climb or make it through this wall is “about sitting with the emotion that built up our wall and understanding what’s stopping us – it can often look like staring at the wall, but it’s more about gearing yourself up to get over the wall.” 2 Understanding what’s keeping you from getting going (in my case, understanding why I pushed this very article back on our schedule and didn’t actually write it until I had no other choice – ironic!) can help you start. 

Climbing the Wall of Awful and getting past our procrastinative nature is about finding ways to change our emotional state, be that by playing music (my personal favorite is a Spotify playlist titled “mario kart music make brain go fast”) a novel experience (like writing in a coffee shop or other new location), a time limit (waking up the panic monster, like Tim Urban told us about), setting clear and bite-sized goals, exercising… anything that gives us dopamine or changes our emotional state. 3 So give these strategies a try next time you find yourself procrastinating on a deadline-less task, and who knows, they might just help. 

For more strategies from Brendan on overcoming procrastination, check out this podcast episode. While his research focuses on people with ADHD, the takeaways and strategies are universally helpful. 

2. Have compassion for yourself & exchange perfectionism for joy.

A key piece of this puzzle is compassion. It’s being kind to yourself and understanding that it’s impossible to be perfect at anything 100% of the time, and by no means do you have to be. 

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly”

G.K. Chesterton

That is, brushing your teeth for 30 seconds (instead of the full 2 minutes) is better than not brushing your teeth at all on the days when you need to take a shortcut. Stretching for five minutes is better than sitting on the couch when going to the gym feels impossible. Standing on the porch for a bit is better than staying on the couch when you’ve been inside all day but don’t have the energy to go to the park. 

And might I add, we’re living in troubling times. We’re living through a global pandemic, rampant division, and terrible news almost daily. Even though there is so much getting better for our world, you’re allowed to feel frustrated and angry about the things that aren’t. These are crazy times, so be kind to yourself. My rule of thumb when it comes to self-talk is if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, you shouldn’t say it to yourself. 

3. Reframe the task and do future you a favor! 

Start thinking differently. While it may not work for everyone, my favorite way to reframe unpleasant things is as a favor for future me. This can be with big things or small, but it all boils down to “Tuesday me will really appreciate it if Monday me does the dishes right now.” or “Saturday me will really appreciate it if Thursday me does the laundry.” Clearly I have issues with household chores, but this can work for anything, be it at work or at home. Whatever you struggle with, tomorrow you won’t want to do it either, so do tomorrow you a favor! 

4. Continue to make efforts to understand yourself and adjust your habits accordingly.

One great way to understand why you’re feeling a certain way is to take personality quizzes (we promise, not the type that will tell you what pizza topping you are…but hey, if it gives you some self-insight maybe knowing you’re a pepperoni is helpful, too). Here are a few of our favorites that we as a team use every day as we interact! They help us better understand how we can motivate ourselves and each other, and how we and the people around us best receive questions, suggestions, or advice. 

Here are my two personal favorites: 

  • The Four Tendencies Quiz by Gretchen Rubin: This is one of our favorites that tells us how we’re motivated. Are you an obliger who works best when others expect something from you? A questioner who is only motivated after the purpose of a task has been explained? A rebel who thinks their way is usually best? Or an upholder who works best on the internal commitments you make to yourself? Knowing this can not only help you motivate yourself but also save those around you from a lot of frustration.
  • Love Languages: This test helps you understand what makes you feel appreciated. When those around us know what makes us feel best, be it quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, or physical touch, we can express our appreciation that way and really make people feel valued. (Note: To find your love language in the world beyond intimate relationships, take the “single” version of the quiz.)

It’s all about finding what works for you. 

Not all of the above strategies to curb procrastination will work for everyone, and there are tons of others out there that might work better. Find what works for you, and give it a go! To learn about some other ways to form habits and reframe how you think about yourself, check out these articles next: 

Forget Perfection, Here’s the Easiest Way to Form Any New Habit!

Want to create a habit that you can actually keep? This thought leader has a trick that takes the pressure off!

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
The Key to Living a Longer, Fuller Life? Ditch the Routine!

Live every day you’re alive by breaking your routine. Jed Jenkins quit his job, picked up his life, and lived each day to the fullest, choosing adventure and rediscovering childlike wonder for everything new. Read on to learn a little something about the beauty of spontaneity and the amazing things that come with a willingness to do what scares you. 

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast

We can only fix a problem once we acknowledge that it’s there and understand where it’s coming from. So keep an eye out for that monkey and develop strategies to shoo it away when you need, because we can develop the skills to be happy even when the panic monster isn’t there to keep us in check.

  • Ellen

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  1. TED. “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator | Tim Urban.” YouTube, 6 Apr. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU. Accessed 31 Dec. 2021.
  2. How to ADHD. “How to Do Something That Should Be Easy (But…Is…Not).” YouTube, 30 Apr. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlObsAeFNVk. Accessed 31 Dec. 2021.
  3. How to ADHD. “How to Do Something That Should Be Easy (But…Is…Not).” YouTube, 30 Apr. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlObsAeFNVk. Accessed 31 Dec. 2021.
Image: Ellen Allerton

Ellen Allerton

Former Chief Operating Officer

After graduating from St. Lawrence University in 2020 and returning home to Vermont, Ellen found that helping make the world a better place with the Goodness Exchange team was just where she wanted to be. You can usually find her watching television while getting crafty, on the ice as a figure skating coach for 10-14 year old's, or in her inflatable kayak named Heidi. She's quite the film nerd and quite the cook, and likes it best when those two things—movies and food—coincide.

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