You can’t beat procrastination with endless planning. I discuss how to tackle the problem of procrastination pain free.

Length: 1992 words, 10-12 minute read

Subject: I discuss how to tackle procrastination without falling into the trap of paralysis by analysis. I present novel approaches to procrastination backed by research in self determination theory.

Disclaimer: I make reference to my new app Self Discipline Sensei. The app can help with the problem of procrastination and automate many of the processes here, but it is not a requirement to understand this material. Product links are affiliate links – these cost you nothing, but support the blog when used.

Nihilist's dilemma

Step 0: Be wary of the nihilistic trap that can lead to procrastination by amotivation

I’ve read a bunch of popular articles on combating procrastination and they always seem to focus on the same thing – defining new methods of planning to help you keep on track. A novel to-do list or way of structuring your time.

It’s true that your first step should be defining your goals and your plans to achieve them. Lists help you make those plans concrete and stop you from spending time figuring out what to do next when you’re working.

But lists and plans can create problems in themselves.

They’re easy to do and they’re a legitimate expenditure of time, which can be seductive – many will become trapped in paralysis by analysis simply because constant planning is much easier than the actual doing. So procrastinating via playing video games / browsing social media / (your own personal poison) is only replaced with procrastination via planning.

Even if you can overcome the trap of over planning, with traditional task tracking systems you’re never far from having to replan. You need to break down everything you want to achieve into tiny steps and rank those by priority. Missing a step or misjudging a time estimation can throw your projections off.

This is the cause of the planning fallacy phenomenon, which describes how providing accurate estimates for how long something will take is usually impossible, because of an optimism bias and an inability to preempt problems due to high complexity. All programmers know this intuitively, yet it is never considered in the planning stages.

And priority ranking tasks has a strange effect on motivation. You gain more pleasure as you mark off the high rank tasks. You want that pleasurable feeling as fast as possible, so a secondary priority manifests in your head – you attack high priority easy tasks first.

This is much more pronounced in a traditional to-do list with no priority ranking – you mark off the easy tasks like taking out the rubbish and cleaning your room before you tackle the cognitively taxing work, because the easy tasks give that hit of pleasure faster. We’ve all experienced the sudden desire to do some cleaning to keep us from having to study or do homework.

This is an imperfect model.

Ideally we’d like the most pleasure to come from the most important tasks, regardless of difficulty. And even better would be if that pleasure was available throughout the process of work, rather than just at the completion of a task.

In Scott Adams’ book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”, he presents a new model for task tracking that works in exactly this way. Adams suggests that rather than working on goal based tasks, we instead consider work as if it were a system that required constant input to create output.

For example, a goal I have is to learn Japanese. A person following a traditional task based method to manage his progress in learning Japanese might sit down at the start of the week and spend time on a long to-do list, defining everything he wants to learn that week. This requires somehow trying to preempt what would be useful to learn and making sure the list is both long enough to keep him going all week and not so long that it’s a struggle to get through.

If, at the end of the week the to-do list is unfinished, the task based person feels bad about their progress. They take a blow to their motivation. If the to-do list is finished, but they finished it half way through the week, they are happy but a little dissatisfied, left with a feeling that they could have done more. Only if the to-do list is perfectly planned do they feel perfectly satisfied – a case that the planning fallacy largely prevents.

So instead, I take a system based approach. I have a system in which I spend 1 hour a day practicing Japanese flash cards, using a program called Anki, which I mentioned previously in an article on learning. I spend minimal time on planning: I started with memorizing hiragana and katakana characters, so I downloaded a flash card deck and learnt a few everyday. Then I moved to memorizing kanji, then jukugo, then sentences. I try to complete the queued cards every day, but I don’t sweat it if I can’t. I aim for 15 new characters/words/sentences memorized a day, but I don’t beat myself up if I can’t do that many, or if I do none at all.

Because I’m using a system, Japanese practice is still fun for me, day after day. There is no pressure that I might fail. Even doing 1 card is a small success. And I know that the more time I put into my system, the more good stuff comes out. I can understand more comics, or tweets from my favorite creators, or dialogue in video games.

Constant, daily output is the key to rapid improvement

I memorized the core 1750 kanji I needed for reading in just 8 months. This year (9 & 1/2 months to date) I’ve memorized 1819 new words and 116 new kanji. And that’s just my Japanese decks. Would this be possible with a task based approach?

I now have an intrinsic motivation for Japanese practice. It has become its own reward. Self determination theory places intrinsic motivation as the highest possible form of motivation. This level of motivation is only possible through a system based approach.

Task based approaches attempt to recreate the low level extrinsic motivation that schools and bosses use to motivate students/employees. This is called external regulation. This motivation is simple – do as we say or you will be in trouble. Meet these deadlines or you’ll be in trouble.

The implication is the same in a to-do list. Complete these tasks or I’ll be angry at myself. I need to self flagellate when I fail to live up to my own expectations because that is the only way to motivate myself.

If we take a look at a graph of the motivational spectrum, we can see how low on the scale external regulation places. And we can also see exactly what we need to move on to a more intense and powerful feeling of motivation.

The motivational spectrum

The key factor that we need to move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation is autonomy. You must have a say in whether or not your want to do this task. If you don’t make the decision yourself to work, you’ll never reach a high level of productivity and motivation.

So how can we have more autonomy in our personal projects?

We can use a technique called active procrastination. If we have multiple hobbies and projects on the go at once, we can switch between them as we feel like it. This has 2 benefits:

1.) You’re giving yourself an autonomous decision to make. If you really don’t want to do something you don’t, because you understand that forcing yourself just hurts your motivation. So you work on the thing you’ve chosen to do because it’s the most appealing.

2.) You get the same boost of energy that you get when you skip a hard to-do list task to tackle an easy one. Never will you clean the house so well as when you’re putting off a really dreaded task. To get the most out of this boost, you need to really press at something you don’t want to do for awhile, to increase the sense of relief when you decide to do something else. Don’t use active procrastination before you’ve even tried to make a start. But also don’t delay it so long that you start to resent having to perform the task.

The technique comes with a caveat of course – if you ask yourself what you’d rather be doing and the answer that comes back is something unproductive, you need to pick something else. You’re not active procrastinating if you put off chores to play video games – that’s just regular procrastination again.

So we have 2 methods to help push us through procrastination:

1.) We can use a system based approach to avoid the ego damage that external regulation and traditional task based productivity techniques induce.

2.) We can use active procrastination to move up from external regulation by giving us autonomy. Joining procrastination, rather than fighting it, also means we can use the free energy that procrastination provides.

Increasing productivity really comes down to increasing motivation and personal energy and that means moving through the motivational spectrum. The further into intrinsic motivation you can get, the more productive you will become. And success is really just a numbers game – keep producing and inevitably you’ll reach the success that you desire.

How can we achieve intrinsic motivation as fast as possible?

If you want to move through the motivational spectrum as quickly as possible, I designed Bancho’s new app, Self Discipline Sensei to do exactly that. The app uses a system based approach from the start, but adds gamification into the mix to help increase motivation.

A common problem with moving from external regulation into intrinsic motivation is the gulf between them. Japanese is intrinsically motivating for me only now that I have reached the level that I can understand quite a lot of material. Drawing is only intrinsically motivating now that I can create a drawing that looks good to me. When I was learning the basic Japanese characters and still producing awful drawings, I needed another kind of motivation.

So I created Self Discipline Sensei, which starts you off at the level just above external regulation, called introjection. It does this by making the reward system the primary motivator. The reward system simply gives you points for every second you spend on a task. This is an immediate representation of the output of the system, available long before intrinsic rewards would appear.

You use points on prizes that you choose yourself. So maybe you decide you’ll reward yourself for doing a lot of drawing by buying a nice set of pencils or equipment once you reach a certain amount of points. This is a great way to create an initial motivation and overcome the ‘beginners hell’ that many experience when they begin to learn something tough.

Self Discipline Sensei starts you at this elevated level of motivation, but it doesn’t stop there. Over time, you’ll be encouraged to focus more on the intrinsic rewards, which are displayed much like they are in a video game. As you put in effort, you’re awarded increased levels of martial arts belts to represent your progress. Systems that have received a benchmark amount of hours receive a marker to indicate their maturity. Addiction mechanics, the likes of which you’ve perhaps experienced in MMOs and mobile games, are in play. Except in Self Discipline Sensei, they’re used to get you addicted to making progress on your goals, rather than wasting time on a video game.

The result of this is eventually you care more about the digital rewards that the real life ones. Soon enough you reach a level of true intrinsic motivation – with less of the struggle than most experience as they move through the early stages of working on a new skill or project.

For more information on Self Discipline Sensei, click here.


Products mentioned in this article:

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life


Self Discipline Sensei screenshot

Self Discipline Sensei