8 science-backed mind tricks to beat procrastination and do that thing you've been putting off right now
If you're reading this right now, there's a good chance you're actually supposed to be doing something else. (Isn't that what the internet is for?)
But the thing about getting things done? It's hard — especially when whatever you're supposed to be doing is daunting, unpleasant, or particularly high stakes.
And as we've written before, there are powerful reasons you might be having trouble getting started. But the bills must be paid, the work must get done, and your side projects aren't going to come to fruition on their own.
Here, we've gathered eight research-backed mind tricks to help you turn off Netflix and get it done.
Break it into steps.
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If you need to tackle something big, try breaking it into smaller pieces. Absurdly simple? Yes. Extremely effective? Absolutely.
Researchers from Penn State recently found that people seem to like getting small tasks done as soon as possible. Accomplishing something — even if it's not the whole goal, even if it doesn't actually save any time — seems to be psychologically rewarding in itself.
So break it up: If you're trying to clean your apartment, deconstruct the process into discrete tasks and knock them out one at a time.
Channel your future self.
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One of the reasons it's hard to make yourself do things that will be good for Future You is because you — and me, and all of us — tend to prioritize the desires of Present You, explains Olga Khazan at The Atlantic.
"Why put that money in your 401(k) when you want those shoes now?" she writes. "Why not eat that cupcake today when swimsuit season is still a good six weeks away?"
But psychologists Neil Lewis of the University of Michigan and Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California have identified an incredibly simple hack to bridge the gap between Present Me and Future Me: think in terms of days, not months or years.
Technically the same amount of time? Yes — but you'll be much (much) more likely to take action.
Get in touch with your emotions.
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A vicious cycle: You're anxious about a task, so you check Facebook to try to make yourself feel better. Except that an hour later, you're still on Facebook (or napping, or playing online Spades), and now you feel even worse.
Recently, several studies have shown that "negative emotions can derail attempts at self-control," writes Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal. That means you don't need a new organizing system, after all. Maybe what you need is an emotional boost.
Dr. Timothy Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and the author of "Solving the Procrastination Puzzle" has a few suggestions for making that happen. Chief among them: "just get started, and make the threshold for getting started quite low," he tells the Journal.
He also advises procrastinators to boost their spirits through "time travel" — imagining how good they'll feel in the future once they've gotten the job done.
Use an app (no shame).
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When self-control fails, turn to technology — those productivity-boosting apps may actually work.
One study, from Cornell, had students enrolled in online courses use software to set self-imposed limits on how much time they'd spend on "distracting websites" (ESPN, BuzzFeed, and Facebook all qualified). Once they'd exceeded the time, the software blocked those sites all together.
And it worked: Students in the "commitment group" — those who set their own time limits and were forced to stick to them — showed measurable improvement, getting more done and earning higher grades than their students who didn't set limits and stick to them.
(Sold? Here are a few possibilities worth considering.)
Create a 'temptation bundle.'
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Wharton professor Katy Milkman wanted what so many of us want: to force herself to go to the gym even though she really didn't want to, and to read "The Hunger Games."
Then she had a stroke of genius — those two desires could actually be combined. What if she only let herself read "The Hunger Games" while she was working out at the gym? It worked, and the concept of "temptation bundling" was born.
The idea is to link something you want to do with something you should do ("Hunger Games," exercise), thereby making difficult or unpleasant tasks more appealing. And it's more than just Milkman's personal hack — in a study she published in "Management Science," she showed that people were significantly more likely to follow through on their should-do's when they bundled them with their want-to-do's.
Impose an (external) deadline.
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Telling yourself you will finish this project by 2 p.m. or else can work (though not as well as we'd like, says Fast Company), but making an actual, external promise works a whole lot better.
At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Harvard economics professor David Laibson explained the benefits. "Creating some kind of commitment, some kind of binding promise ... that you can't get out of that leads you to the action that you want," he told The Huffington Post.
"It's up to us to create those structures that basically bind us, that tie us to the mast, so that we don't have the luxury to postpone what we know we should do," Laibson said.
Get your head out of the clouds.
Visualizing your future success can be an effective tool for beating procrastination — with one important caveat. Instead of fantasizing about the outcome of your task, fantasize about the actual process of doing it.
The problem is that when you focus on achieving wildly successful results (fame! fortune! fluency in a foreign language!), it's possible you're inadvertently "sabotaging real, obtainable goals," Lifehacker explains. Rather than seeing attainable steps, people who fantasize about results are more likely to get mired in perfectionism.
But while visualizing the results may not serve you, thinking about the concrete steps you need to take will. A UCLA study found that college freshman who imagined the process for doing well on a test did better on the ultimate exam than students who spent their mental energy imagining their ultimate grade.
Show yourself some compassion.
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Do you already do all these things and still manage to spend three hours last night looking at baby otter pictures on the internet? Forgive yourself, urges Pychyl.
The problem with feeling bad about having procrastinated yesterday, he explains in Psychology Today, is that it makes you feel, well, bad — which in turn makes you less likely to want to try again today.
In a 2010 study cited by The Wall Street Journal, he and his colleague Michael Wohl found that university freshman who forgave themselves for procrastinating on studying for a course's first exam procrastinated less on next exam.
Instead of wasting time beating yourself up for the past, focus on doing better in the present.
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