A Realist’s Guide to Overcoming Procrastination: Three powerful ways to get work done

Procrastination is an age-old problem. The ancient Greek philosophers even had some strong opinions about it too. In this blog, find out exactly where procrastination stems from and how to conquer that feeling of “not wanting to.”

Despite the plethora of productivity blogs you’ve poured over, or the number of time management videos you’ve watched on YouTube, we all still struggle with procrastination.

Need to finish something for work? It looks like the spice cabinet needs reorganizing. Assignment due tomorrow? Just one more episode of The Office.

It happens.

This is no revelation either. The ancient Greek philosophers even had a word for it, “akrasia.” In this sense, it’s when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. 🙋‍♀️ Guilty

Although it has ancient roots, procrastination is probably more prominent now than ever before because we’re faced with so many more distractions (hello phones, internet, and Netflix).

Today’s blog will deep dive into procrastination, from the origin stories to three ways you can overcome the feeling of "not wanting to."

Let's embark on this odyssey together!


Procrastination Origin Story: Akrasia

Akrasia comes from the Greek word ἀκρασία, which roughly translates to “lack of self-control” or acting against your better judgement. You could say that akrasia is what prevents you from following through on what you originally set out to do.

And it was a highly contested topic in ancient Greece, grabbing the attention of Socrates and Aristotle.

In terms of akrasia, Socrates wondered whether knowledge is something that can be “pushed around by the other affections,” like passion, pleasure, pain, love, and fear.

Say for example you have the choice between a cupcake and a plate of broccoli. Even though you know the veggies are healthier, you have a deep love for desserts. So you decide against your best interests.

But Socrates also believes that "no one goes willingly towards the bad," which means that people do choose to do what they judge to be best. And if there are consequences, it's all about miscalculation.

Wait before you eat that cupcake! Socrates is nicely saying that if you cannot make 'good' decisions, then you're a straight up dummy. You don't quite know what's best for you. 🤦

Que Aristotle’s eye roll.

Aristotle disagrees. He explains akratic behavior in another way, looking at passion and weakness. Essentially, passion may cause a lapse in reason or irrationality, meaning, when people are overcome by emotions, they make questionable decisions.

For example, you have a super important assignment at work. You know that it'll take time and energy to get it done, but you suddenly experience a whirlpool of discouraging thoughts - What if you can't meet your teams expectations? What if your colleague does it better? - All this emotion is too much to handle, so you cope by doing something else (procrastinating). Your emotions are getting the best of you so your decision making abilities are impaired.

Okay mini philosophy lesson over. But now the question that arises is why do we procrastinate?

It turns out that you're holding yourself back.

The Curse of Present Bias

Present bias is the idea that you can set a goal for yourself in the future, but it is your present self that actually has to do the action to get there. So when you’re given the choice to workout or binge watch Game of Thrones, your present self will prefer short term gratification of becoming a John Snow megafan over the long term goal of becoming a Hulk-like gym rat.

The fancy reason behind this decision making process is best understood as a form of self-regulation failure that involves the “primacy of short term mood repair” and emotion regulation “over the longer time pursuit of intended actions.” This essentially means procrastination is all about satisfying your present self and pushing the problems until later because it makes you feel emotionally safe in the present moment.

Tim Urban describes this situation perfectly in his TedTalk “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator.” He explains that in the head of a procrastinator, there is a rational decision maker, and he’s driving bus. But there is also a “gratification monkey,” who distracts the rational decision maker from making rational decisions.

The monkey says “lets look in the fridge for a snack or see if there’s an update on Instagram, or read the entire Wikipedia page on the history of caramel corn because I remember that I love it. After that, we are going on a Youtube rabbit hole starting with the new Adele album and ending with drunk butterfly compilations which sorta means we aren't going to have enough time to do anything actually productive today, sorry."

But the thing is, we can’t always afford to procrastinate, even if we really really want to or if the gratification monkey is distracting us. So we’ve come up with a formula to help you overcome this feeling of akrasia, aka emotional insecurity, aka procrastination.

How to Overcome Procrastination (and akrasia too!)

Remember when you promised yourself that you’d wake up at the crack of dawn to run around the block, journal your dreams, or start being productive? And why? Because some millionaire said that their trick to success was an early start? Our advice likely deviates from that of the Internet’s most beloved gurus, but hey, this is a realist's guide after all. 😃

1. Get the ball rolling

Easier said than done, right? You’re probably thinking, but I don’t have the motivation to even start. But there’s a funny thing about motivation that you might not know about. Most people think that you need motivation to get something done, but it actually works the other way around. You get stuff done and the motivation follows.

Flashback to 10th grade physics: If you put a ball at the tip of an incline, it won’t roll down unless something gives it a little nudge. But once it gets going, the ball continues to roll because it gains momentum. That’s the same idea when it comes to motivation. You have to start to get it.

“the fire that starts burning after you manually, painfully, coax it into existence, and it feeds on the satisfaction of seeing yourself make progress.” - Jeff Hayden from The Motivation Myth.

So really it’s not the work that’s hard, but just the starting.

💡Tip: Try the two minute trick to help you begin. Tell yourself that you’re going to work on your given task for two minutes. If you still don’t want to continue working after time’s up, then put it away for another day. But in most cases, in just two minutes, you’ll find enough motivation to carry on.

2. Do easier tasks until you get into your workflow

Whether you try the two minute tick or not, a great way to start working (to kick off that motivation) is to tackle easier tasks first. It will get you in the swing of things so that motivation can easily follow.

If you’re feeling intimidated by a large task, breaking down that assignment into smaller and more manageable goals might be helpful too! Starting small is a good way to begin!

3. Manage your energy, not your time

Your energy comes in waves throughout your day. You have times where you’ll be more productive than others. You know, the midday, after lunch slumps. Figuring out which times of day you work best is the first step. Then you can do your work when you know that your productivity is at its peak.

That's it, really!

If you procrastinate, you definitely aren't alone. Even the most motivated of us struggle to get things done sometimes. And whether you agree with the Greek philosophers that procrastination stems from "lack of self control" or with more modern perceptions that it has to do with regulating emotions, there are methods to help you overcome the feeling of 'not wanting to."

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