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Dear procrastinator
560 points by edo on Aug 15, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 139 comments
Dear procrastinator,

Procrastination has nothing to do with disciplining yourself or 'just doing it' This is the most common misconception about procrastination and will instead achieve exactly the opposite of what you want. Let me explain:

The reason why human-beings procrastinate is to feel in control of their life. The act of rebelling against an oppressor, an authorative figure telling you what to do, is your way of regaining mastery over your own fate. Very much the same way kids throw a tantrum when their parents order them to do something, the procrastinator puts off tasks because he has come to harbor resentment against the thing to be done. Why, you ask? Because in your admirable will and ambition to achieve your goals, rather ironically, you have created the only thing that can stop you from reaching your goals: a separate mental authority figure causing unneccessary internal strife. You have created a bully out of yourself.

Start listening to the way you talk to yourself; Instead of punishing yourself for not following up on things, you need to learn to let loose. Adopt the belief that you have the natural tendency to work productively and act creatively. Nobody needs to man up, shape up, or be disciplined. Stop framing the world as if it is a constant struggle to get things done, instead start viewing life as a sequence of awesomely fun and exciting things to work on.

Good luck, Edo van Royen

edit: Humbled by your comments, thank you all. I write pretty regularly, just never on a public forum like this.

note: I notice my writing could use some nuance. Painting an extreme is just a style of writing which helps bring across a point. Obviously there are things that are objectively less fun to do.

I'm sorry to disagree, but I do. My own battle with procrastination is completely due to laziness. No one likes to do difficult things, and sometimes even things we kind of enjoy. The reality is that we, as humans, never procrastinate when we really, really want something. Not once in my life did I have to "trick" myself into playing a video game a few extra minutes or watch a big basketball game.

In short, we accomplish what we want to accomplish (meaning, the 'fun' stuff), unless we push ourselves.

Silverbax, thanks for your comment.

What makes you really want to play a video game and dislike doing the dishes? Is it something objective about the thing to be done, or does it have to do with your mental framing of the task at hand? I feel it is the latter. A friend of mine reviews video games professionally, and he procrastinates on playing games. I think it's because he is told to play games. An authority figure is pushing him to do something and he rebels by putting off playing.

Pushing ourselves only leads to ourselves pushing back.

Cheers, Edo

Anything that we perceive as hard or boring is a task for procrastination. We simply don't want to do it because it isn't fun. I am not a games tester; therefore video games are still fun. But when I was first starting as a programmer, I did it because I was having a blast, and it made me successful. It has nothing to do with being told to do something, and it has everything to do with our brains - especially creative people - being bored and only wanting to satisfy our ID. We really do want to dream all day. But as I've gotten older I've learned to reign that in and also how to balance it out.

We must push ourselves if we want to improve. We must ask ourselves the hard questions. I have often called this 'throwing myself to the wolves' when I embark on a new endeavor...I know it will be hard. I know I will fail, badly. I know the established community will tear into me. But I will push myself and keep fighting and eventually, what was once hard will become easy.

Many times, my cause for procrastinating is usually due to a sense of fear. That if I start, I will not know what to do, or that the direction I must take on a task is too unclear for me to feel comfortable starting... Many times, the quickest way to fix this is just to write a todo list and do a few items. Every few hours I'll just compile a new list and keep going off that.

One of the best anti-procrastination hacks I ever heard was right here on HN: When you absolutely cannot get motivated to finish something, make a detailed list of exactly the steps needed to finish the task/project. Once the list is complete you will automatically begin working on the first step.

Not my idea but it works for me 100% of the time.

how often do you procrastinate on making the list? by the time you've started making the list, you weren't going to procrastinate any longer anyway.

it turns out, never. Making a list is one of the things we, or at least I, do as 'busy work' to avoid real work. In this case, it turns out that once we have a detailed step-by-step course to resolution, hard tasks suddenly seem quite easy.

That if I start, I will not know what to do, or that the direction I must take on a task is too unclear for me to feel comfortable starting...

That doesn't sound like a well examined state; go looking for why you fear "not knowing what to do", there's bound to be one or many things hiding behind that description.

Going along with the thread that was started here.

When I play a video game, it's the game I want to play at the time I want to play it and with the goal that I picked for that session.

If I have to review a video game then I have all these choices largely made for me. The goal is to review the game rather than go for whatever I might want out of the game.

The reality of our lives force us to do things which don't always align with what we really want to do. That's when I procrastinate.

If I have to review a video game then I have all these choices largely made for me.

Which plays into the whole "authority figure" thing that OP is talking about.

My immediate reaction was to be skeptical, but I am starting to think OP makes quite a bit of sense.

I think, for me, procrastination has to do with projecting complication into things. So, if I want to cook something new, I imagine needing to find the perfect recipe with the perfect ingredients, for example.

But, then, there are times when I just decide to do it even if I'm missing ingredients or have not come across a recipe which makes sense to me. Powering thru.

I think for the video game tester, if I were them, I'd project difficulty onto it. Finding the bugs, etc. Feeling like I might not be up to finding anything interesting. It's a bit of a fear of failing, in a way, till I felt, "I'm up to the task now."

I think, for me, procrastination has to do with projecting complication into things. So, if I want to cook something new, I imagine needing to find the perfect recipe with the perfect ingredients, for example.

Need to... or else what? Instead of forcing onwards, ask yourself why you don't want to go forwards...

Else fail. A kind of set up fear of failing, I guess.

That doesn't go far enough to do any good as an answer. What happens after (or during, or because of) failing that you are afraid of. What is it about failing that you are afraid of?

(I'm not asking so you can tell me, I'm prodding you to ask yourself. To think "hey, I don't really know the answer to that. I wonder why I do feel this way?)

I don't think its about if something is hard or boring. I enjoy hard things more than easy things, for example.

I think its about the goal: doing the dishes stands in the way of the goal of having clean dishes. Playing video games, on the other hand, is the goal itself. Sure, there may be a goal within the game, the same as there will be obstacles and also boring things in the game, but playing the game itself is fun, and a goal in itself. Dishes are purely an obstacle to a goal.

I find I procrastinate a lot over the obstacles, but rarely over the goal itself.

Like gexla said (and like you said in the OP), its about being in control. I have little choice in doing the dishes - if I don't do them, they pile up and the place looks dirty, but I never really decide I want to do them. On the other hand, if I play video games, this is my choice and I'm in control. I can just as easily not play. Thats my choice. On the other hand, if, like gexla said, I had to review a game, then its out of my control and I could see myself potentially procrastinating over it (unless it happens to be a game I wanted to play anyway).

To further your video game example - psych studies have shown that if you pay someone to do something they like, they start liking it less. Great post, edo.

This sounds like a conclusion in search of evidence. It's also possible (and more likely) that your friend finds it harder to play a game with the greater rigor needed for reviews. Note taking and exploring all the boring stuff most people skip can take the joy out of gaming.


You ever practiced something like Tai Chi?

I think we should also discuss two widely recognized fears which, in my experience, are frequently related to procrastination: fear of failure and fear of success.

Both usually go, somewhat amusingly, hand in hand, but I think they should be linked to the "mastery" discussed in the topic. Fear of both failure and success are, in short, fear of change, fear of losing control, fear of not being a master anymore.

It is indeed quite common to trade a, sometimes illusory, feeling of easiness with the known current situation for the potential uneasiness of an unknown situation given as one the possible outcomes of the failure/success. Particularly in the last case, I have seen that it is not unusual to rationalize that we have already gained achieved should not be "gambled" against the changes that would result from the success of the activity we are procrastinating.

In short, the "I'll do it tomorrow" is usually a "I'll do it when I will feel confortable with outcomes I now consider most likely". I personally have discovered that focusing in the positive aspect of the outcomes I consider most likely, even in case of failure, is usually my best weapon against procrastination.

I agree with this, but would also like to expand on it with something I've observed in myself and others that I believe is the root of fearing failure/success.

That thing is a lack of comfort with vulnerability. I believe this is because most of us hold onto dysfunctional value systems and we also live in reactionary state where we make decisions based on avoiding invalidation from our peers and authority figures, rather than striving to receive validation by becoming "better".

This is good. Brains are engines of prediction and they avoid doing things which will cause us harm.

The only answers to procrastination are "are you motivated to do it?" and "is that overridden by a negative motivation against doing it"?

Avoiding invalidation is much more of a strong and personal negative override than I ever thought years ago. It can hit you as the OP implies - fear that if I'm not in control of my life people will think I'm a weak and submissive person, or if I'm not in control thats like my childhood and makes menfeel invalidated by comparison to a helpless child - or like other people in this thread are replying - fears about doing something well (will people think me a swot?) or doing badly (my spouse will scorn me?) or all sorts.

The most common factor among the replies here is stopping asking he question "what bad thing am I avoiding by procrastination" far far too soon, and/or accepting far too vague and unhelpful 'answers' as soon as they are thought of without realising they are unhelpful.

You have surrendered to the ideology of laziness. But there is no such thing.

The energy enters you, you transform it and then you use the transformed energy to suit your needs.

In this chain, something is broken. People tend simplify this by calling it laziness when they need to put a tag on someone they don't like.

But the real reason for you inability to accomplish tasks at hand is that something in the chain I have described earlier - is broken.

You either struggle to get enough energy (food, sleep, emotion), or you struggle to transform it (usually abundance of low-quality energy sources and inability to improve their quality)

The only way out of this state (which is not permanent) is to revise your routines and methods. Improve and rationalize everything you do, so it won't call to those 'woeful' associations when you start working on something.

No, again, it's completely because humans have a desire to avoid things that are not considered interesting. We must get our kids to school on time, so we push ourselves to get up early, get them ready, and either drive them to school or get them to the bus stop. What all of us would rather do is read, or play games, or watch TV. Laziness is part of our human makeup, and our success in combating it makes the difference in our lives.

You actually don't "have to" do any of that. If you don't wake up early tomorrow or take your kids to school, you will not be hauled off to jail and the world will still go on.

What you're really doing, if you stop and think about it, is making a deliberate choice - between the cost/benefit of sleeping in and taking it easy, and the cost/benefit of employment/income/future of your children. You may not think of it as a choice, but it is. Plenty of people decide its not worth it, and don't take their kids to school or hold a job. For you, the inconvenience of your morning is offset by the value of a more secure future.

So when you say you "have to" do these things, that's false. I wouldn't even call it "pushing" yourself. You actually want to do it, because you value it on some level. The fact that its not pleasurable or emotionally exciting doesn't even enter into the equation of deciding.

The most effective combat tactic is not to struggle, but to make things in your life _interesting_.

One of the tactics is to simplify exercises, the other involves rationalization. When I feel in control - I do not need to force myself to do something, I just do it because fills the structure of my life and because I understand how consequences of my actions build this structure by relying upon each other.

So I do not respect the success in combating laziness only through sheer will, I prefer to divide big tasks and find meaning in small ones.

Not once in my life did I have to "trick" myself into playing a video game a few extra minutes or watch a big basketball game.

I can't speak to what's going on inside your head, but I think people trick themselves into playing those few extra minutes all the time. I know I do:

- "I've got plenty of time. A few extra minutes won't hurt."

- "I didn't really need to get that done today anyway."

- "If I stay focused I can catch up."

- "If I blow off some steam now I'll be able to focus better later."

- "I can do this and watch the big game at the same time."

Those are all rationalizations to allow us to do or continue to do what we really want.

This thread has devolved into semantics.

The OP had an original and insightful point about motivation and the process of getting things done. OTOH, you're contradicting him without, I feel, adding anything to the discussion.

I think you've dismissed his point without showing that you actually considered it. Your conclusion that you're lazy and need prodding is exactly the thing Edo is talking about. He laid out a passionate account of procrastination and self-talk, and compelled his readers to consider that it's not productive to berate one's self for failing to accomplish goals in a timely manner. That perhaps there are better ways to relate to yourself and your goals.

And your response is essentially, "Nope, I'm lazy -- period, full-stop."

I think this is exactly what he means. People make excuses to continue playing a video game.

I believe the type of "trick" he's referring to is exemplified by this statement: "just think of working out as a game and try to beat your old score." While I generally like the benefits of working out, it's not something I'm in the mood to do every day when I come home from work. I have to push myself through that invisible barrier sometimes, i.e. I have to 'trick' myself into doing it, even if just for a few minutes.

After a long day at work, the first thing I want to do is play a video game when I get home. I only time I've had to trick myself into playing video games was when training in a fighter game, trying to grind out my reaction times so I could beat my friends.

Actually, i do that with reading blogs,books,hacker news(anything involving reading)..always a few more extra minutes.

My version of procrastination is not as simple as 'I'm lazy, I'll do it later'. I think the whole problem is in starting. Starting is key, reason many of use will procrastinate is because we know that we will enter a mode where our muscles (mental or physical) will not be idle anymore. Moving from idle to movement is very hard for our minds sometimes, its deceiving. For example, You are sitting down on our couch watching TV and your girlfriend asks you to get something from the kitchen, you know is super simple but you wont do it immediately, because just standing up puts you a little wall of effort that is impeding you from doing it quickly, but you know that if you where standing up it would be much easier. In terms of work, in many cases people don't start things because their environment is not setup, you have to open these files, close these other ones and enter that different mindset where you are not idling anymore. For me, if you beat the "starting" process you are on your way to getting lots done. So in other words, automating your starting environment to avoid that change of hot water to cold can be your key to beating procrastination.

I have had several instances in my life where I dived into what were difficult things for me with gusto - for example when I was in school and was trying to write a program in C to calculate all the anagrams , I did not even have a computer but was up almost all night writing it on a piece of paper and rushed in the morning to a place with access to a computer to test my program on paper.That was just an example - I have had several such experiences.Almost makes me think maybe you just can't "trick' yourself into anything but just have to find something genuinely fun for you to do!As long as it is fun - it doesn't matter if it is hard or not!

Einstein is an extreme example of such a case - when I read his biography the thing that caught me as very interesting is that he was able to immerse himself in physics irrespective of all the problems in terms of not finding a job, his mothers bitter opposition to marrying his first wife etc.You can hardly trick yourself into such concentration.He must be the lucky few who find such deep interesting topics that life is a pleasure even with all the hardships around!

Einstein's sister, Maja, recalled "...even when there was a lot of noise, he could lie down on the sofa, pick up a pen and paper, precariously balance an inkwell on the backrest and engross himself in a problem so much that the background noise stimulated rather than disturbed him."


You could also argue that Einstein was procrastinating from dealing with the hardships in his life by immersing himself in physics. He was using physics as an escape from the troubles of his life (job, parents, etc).

Not that it really matters, but it is useful to look at the situation in both lights. There have certainly been situations where I stopped procrastinating on one task because a newer, more unpleasant task presented itself. "Boy, I bet I should clean my room instead of deal with these taxes!"

When asked how he simultaneously maintained a law practice; made groundbreaking discoveries in Proto-Indo-European linguistics; maintained fluency in 41 languages; translated many of the major works of Sanskrit literature into English for the first time; and wrote treatises on law, history, botany, poetry, geography, astronomy, and music, Sir William Jones replied: "A change in labour is a species of repose."

I completely agree.

It's far easier for me to sit here and dream about a perfect future than it is to execute with less than perfect results.

I wouldn't say that I am scared of failure, I'm not, but I believe that if I didn't do something correctly that I will have wished that I never tried it at all.

But did you ever really only want to play video games or relax in other ways, or did you sometimes really want to do "real" things? I think your statement becomes tricky quickly once you start thinking about what it means to really want something (unless you define it as things you can do without procrastinating).

Attributing one's own procrastination to mere laziness could also be a way to avoid facing the real issues.

We've built LazyMeter to help with procrastination. We think the main cause of procrastination is an overhwelming to-do list, and therefore a lack of focus. When people know what they're doing, and have a goal for the day that they're working towards, they get a lot more done. I left Microsoft to build LazyMeter because I was a procrastinator and I thought I was lazy; I've learned that I was wrong - I was just overwhelmed. The idea that people are inherently lazy is absolutely wrong. www.lazymeter.com

Off-main-topic, but I tried visiting your site (on my mobile) and was presented with only a login form. What was your purpose in linking to it? I was curious about the tool but will not likely return (if I even remember it later). A reminder (to myself mostly): You usually get one chance; make it count.

Activation energy is a factor. If I'm already playing a video game, it's easy. But I've actually had the experience of not playing video games I'd wanted to try out (Humble Indie Bundle) because it was too much trouble to stop aimlessly reading reddit.

This is not true for myself at all!

Actually I think in my case all the stuff you read about procrastination does not really aplly to my procrastination:

I think I am one of the worlds worst procastinators and it took me about 10 years to figure out what might be the main reason for my behaviour. It has nothing to with all the stuff you read in all these procrastination books. It's not about the fear of failing, it's not about the fear of winning, it's not some kind of rebellion against some outside force as you pointed out. It's something completly different:

I never learned to do (unpleasant) stuff!

When I look back on my childhood now, it's very obvious what went wrong: I grew up as a very very spoiled kid which never had to do anything "unpleasant". Did not want to clean up my room? No problem. Did not want to help my parents with preparing lunch? no problem. Did not want to do homework? no problem.

From all those years growing up I can remember only one occasion at which my mother tried to force me to do something. But since I was already 12 or so that this time, she gave up after 10 minutes.

I never learned to endure the "stress" or "pain" of all those unpleasant things I have to do (washing clothing, cooking, ...) so it's very hard for me to do them intstead of just browsing the internet and get instant satisfaction.

In combination with some above average intelligence and a very big portion of luck I was still able to study with good grades and I'm currently in my second year of a PhD thesis. For me it's hell on earth! Giving lectures, preparing papers, filling out forms, applying for grants, ... I postpone all of this stuff all the time not because I am afraid i could not do them or because they are pushed on me from the outside. I postpone them because I never learned to actually _do_ unpleasant stuff.

Does this makes sense? English is not my first language and the topic is quite hard to describe.

I grew up having to pull my weight. I'm one of 6 - it was just not possible for us all to get the attention we "deserved" without helping out. I was cooking meals at the age of 9 and helping out with the laundry shortly after. I cleaned my room, helped look after the pets, babysat younger siblings, etc.

And yet I STILL hate having to wash clothes and cook for my family. I know that they need doing, but I too will often procrastinate instead. I would rather be at my computer than at the cooker, at my daughter's side than at the dishwasher...

Is it my mother's fault? Did she push me too hard, or not enough? No, it is MY laziness that is the problem.

Stop looking for a cause, looking for someone else to blame: you are responsible for your own path.

> Stop looking for a cause

Actually I stopped looking for the cause a few years ago because I found it ;)

For me, finding the cause was very important, because for years I only knew what I did wrong but not why. I read a lot of books and articles about procrastination and never felt any connection to the explanations given there. Am I afraid of failure? Certainly not. am I presured from the outside into doing stuff I do not like? Yeah, sometimes, but this only explains 10% of my procrastination. There are a lot of explanation but none of those I read about did fit my specific behaviour.

Only after I found the explanation I gave in my original post, everything felt in place and I understood why I am procrastinating. This was a very liberating moment since everythin suddenly made sense and enabled me to work on changing my self.

How are you changing yourself, now that you know this?

Sounds to me like everything fell into place because you shifted the blame to someone else; absolved yourself of responsibility. IMO this achieves nothing in the long run.

But whatever makes you happy, I guess...

Can you learn to do unpleasant stuff? What does that mean - that your will is broken? Unpleasant stuff is after all unpleasant.

I managed to see some positive things, for example when I do the dishes I enjoy the clean state of the room afterwards. Or in general I try to see cleaning as a workout. But you can only trick the mind to a degree...

If procrastination really is there to prevent us from doing stupid tasks, maybe it is not desirable to learn to do unpleasant stuff. It would mean circumventing that protection.

Thinking about it, maybe the way to learn doing unpleasant stuff is really to look at the bigger picture and why it makes sense to do the unpleasant stuff. If it doesn't make sense, not doing it might be the right decision.

Can you learn to do unpleasant stuff? What does that mean - that your will is broken?

I would say that it generally means the opposite, that your will is strong.

Getting yourself to do something unpleasant can be difficult, even if you know the long term benefits are there. It takes a strong will to make yourself do something unpleasant without the threat of an external punishment hanging over you in the short term.

Yes, although I think procrastination (just like any psychological problem) is very complex, and I fear that we waste too much time trying to analyze these, therefore making the saying "just do it" or "suck it up" an appropiate response, which as you rightly discovered, got lost on modern parents. Sure, there may be some combination of emotional and logical constructs that will perfectly explain why I'm procrastinating..but then what? If logical reasons could convince us to work, we'd all be working at our top performance.

"[...] therefore making the saying "just do it" or "suck it up" an appropiate response, which as you rightly discovered, got lost on modern parents"

I had a discussion with my mother about this. To make a long story short she raised me this way because her father was a very very strict person. She had to work all the time in the household and therefore did did not have a nice childhood at all.

When I was born she decided that i should have a much better childhood... The result: I had a perfect childhood (from the viewpoint of a child) but now I am plagued with some serious procrastination problem. In contrast my, my mother is one of the most organized and reliable persons I know.

It's never too late to start being proactive. It's tempting to find scapegoats when things get tough, but that's actually of little help. Better to take control and start doing. (it sounds like oversimplifying it, but actually industry breeds industry, while laziness breeds depression).

So start small, and do one proactive thing right now :)

I would be careful about jumping to that conclusion. Perhaps you would procrastinate just as much if you had been forced to do unpleasant chores. No way of knowing for sure.

Sorry but I don't see how you got through a degree (and a masters) without having to do unpleasant stuff.

I think there are some reasons for this:

- I am always very lucky. Even if I put almost no effort in any kind of project it always comes out at least ok.

- My bachelor course was more or less a joke. The description of the single classes always sounded totally impressive but in the end most it was just rubbish and very easy.

- The master course I attended was a pure joke. If I had put any effort in it it would have been possible to pass it with almost perfect grade.

- I got my PhD position through pure luck and some personal connections.

- I am VERY good at pretending that I am actually working

So all in all I just perfected the art of procrastination. For example, when I was in the military service (not US), I more or less had to smuggle myself into a local military base for a few weeks because I was just to lazy to get a new id card.

when I was in the military service (not US)

So, how did you make it into the military service without learning to do unpleasant things?

I totally forgot about this: This whole military thing itself was just the result of procrastination.

Getting in the military was not the problem. Not getting drawn and doing something alternative was just too much effort for me at that time.

You know, in some countries you're still drawn into the service, no questions asked

I'll second janjan's comment. I can completely believe that you can get through a degree being a total procrastinator.

Somehow during the course of my university I've perfected my skills of presenting projects. I recently realized that I can get even a totally half-baked, barely working project to get a good grade, just by talking and spending an hour more on design than everybody else[1]. It wasn't until recently that my friend pointed out that I've learned to subconsciously depend on this and thus not working hard on anything.

Also, I find doing presentations, talking, doing design touches, or implementing weird things (like animations in MATLAB[2]) - pretty much anything except what I'm supposed to be doing at the moment - much more pleasant, much more fun. And I see that you can get far this way at university...

[1] - it's not about faking things, etc. - it's that people really underestimate how much depends on the general 'look and feel' of software, and the way it's presented.

[2] - did you know that MATLAB plot can give you stable 60FPS? ;)

Makes perfect sense to me. Those who have an inflated "Id" grew up either spoiled or neglected. Being spoiled, you get to do what you want. Being neglected, no one tells you what to do (or what not to do).

I agree completely and feel exactly the same way.


That actually resonates with me much better than anything I've read on procrastination so far. I am burning lot of my mental cycles on thinking about my own procrastination, and it crossed my mind that when I start to do things that I'm (in broad sense) forced to - by my boss, lecturer or even myself, I feel like loosing some kind of self-awareness, control of my life... I never pin-pointed the feeling exactly, but it resonates closely with what you wrote.

Also, I'm so used to my personal GTD-like productivity management methods that I sometimes feel I'm not able to think or work without using pen & paper or Emacs for organizing my thoughts. Now, the thing I'm worried about is that it doesn't really feel like I have 'boosted my cognitive skills' or whatever - it feels like I'm so handicaped that I can't think without help of external tools. I look around and see people (that look) smarter and more successful than me, and they don't seem to be using any productivity tricks at all. Maybe it's [something]-bias [1], but it gets me really worried. Anyone on HN felt something similar?

[1] - need to catch up with LessWrong on that ;).

Hey, your post resonates with me as well.

I think, the key is to go level up and turn it around. It's not lecturer or boss who force you, it's you who are using them to get something you want. (Here, ‘something you want’ might include money, knowledge, a degree, but must necessarily include plain ‘having fun’ (because the validity of any other reason is questionable—and when you question the validity of reasons to do something, you're procrastinating).)

In other words, a problem of procrastination stops to exist once you start enjoying the process. The GTD tools problem gets partly solved as well: you surely are going to get things done if you enjoy the process (although if it's hard to remember all of these things, then some sort of todo list might be handy, you'll know when you start actually needing it).

I'm not saying this is simple (although I'm sure it is, in some sense) or I know how to do this, simply suggesting that thinking about how to enjoy doing things might be a more productive way to burn your cycles than thinking about how to stop procrastinating. The former problem is clearly stated (which is important, prevents losing focus when you're thinking a lot about it) and is likely simpler to solve.

* * *

IMO, many successful people actually do use productivity tricks without knowing it. It's implicit in their life, so they don't talk about it. Many of these tricks may not like like tricks at all. And even if people did talk about them… The real productivity trick is not the trick, it's your habit, tricks become truly effective when you do them naturally, without thinking. Pick good habits. [1]

[1] Relevant: http://lesswrong.com/lw/60y/action_and_habit/

I'm not lazy, I'm not too proud to do mundane things, and I don't feel others control my life. (How would that last perspective explain procrastinating on a personal project like a painting?) I didn't understand procrastination until I understood it from this perspective (and I imagine a lot of the folks on HN are similar): I procrastinate because I'm a perfectionist. If it's not finished, it can't be judged. There's more I can tweak! Once something is turned in, published, or launched, it stands as an example of my best effort. It wears my name. And that scares the hell out of me.

My tendency for perfectionism also contributes but for an entirely different reason; I often feel it's hard to motivate my self because of the increased effort yielding diminishing returns. Yet I know once I get started the perfectionist can take over and I end up burning a lot of time with not much to show for it.

In many ways I sympathise with the OP's point of view to a large extent, while don't really understand yours. That makes me wonder if there's some even more fundamental reason that causes procrastination or whether it can be just different things for different people.

There is not a singular cause for procrastination. I've mentioned it many times on HN, but I think it's again relevant to recommend "Procrastination" by Burka & Yuen.[1]

Half the book is spent helping you investigate the root cause or causes of your procrastination, which can include fear about control (losing OR gaining it), as well as fear of success, fear of failure, fear of separation, fear of attachment. They discuss the influence of family and culture, gender, and the role of ADD & executive dysfunction.

The second half of the book is a practical guide to coping with your procrastination and habitualizing better behaviors.

If you're serious about procrastination, my only advice is to listen to the experimentally & research-backed psychiatrists.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Procrastination-Why-You-What-About/dp/...

There's something else that's a bit rarer, but not as uncommon as often thought: depersonalization. (Mark my words: depersonalization disorder will be the next ADD/Asperger's/depression as fashionable illness du jour)

In fact, as acute (non-chronic) depersonalization can be a natural response to an anxiety attack, it may be at the core of why "fear of X" can lead to paralyzing procrastination. I've been debugging mine for years with a psychiatrist now, and it's still not clear that I have DPD itself and not depersonalization as a secondary symptom of one of the many things that are wrong with me, but clearly it plays a huge part.

I'm kind of oversharing here, but it's in hope that more people are aware that depersonalization is something that exists, like headaches or muscle cramps, and like ADD (and ED to an extent) is a continuum.

I'd upvote this comment if I could.

HN will never see a more eminently clickable post than one titled, "Dear Procrastinator"

"The reason why human-beings procrastinate is to feel in control of their life."

Agree completely. Having said this, your suggested solution is incredibly hard to put into practice for many procrastinators out there.

I have bills to pay and a family to support, and working for the Man seems like the only option, at the moment, to meet my financial obligations. I don't particularly enjoy my day job, and I wouldn't do it if I didn't have to. To maintain an illusion that I am not just a slave tied to a very short leash, I procrastinate. Ignoring my email inbox full of pending tasks and spending the day outside in the sunshine instead can feel very liberating, but obviously it doesn't solve anything, and doesn't get me a step closer to greater freedom.

"life as a sequence of awesomely fun and exciting things" sounds great, but the reality is that only a very small percentage of people are lucky enough to lead this kind of life.

I would argue that a portion of that is simply the way you view things. I would also argue that you could eek out control like the method by which you choose to meet your deadlines.

Still... I have this work I should be doing...

Procrastination has many causes. I expect this is because humans haven't often needed to motivate themselves, as they have often been motivated by fear and hunger. Above $5 or $10 a day, basic nutrition and shelter is not an issue.

Here's a few reasons why I think some people procrastinate. Mix and match:

- The need to feel control. - Some urge to punish or test someone (a parent?)

- Perfectionism (high standards, the need to over-achieve, or egotism), or a fear of being judged. If it's not done, nobody has to see your crappy work.

- Laziness. Sometimes an issue for people who can pass without working.

- Habit. See all the above.

- Dopamine addiction. The internet has given rise to the junk food equivalent of achievement.

- Unrealistic expectations, leading to a lack of motivation. Sorry, but they lied when they said the course / job you are getting into is the most important one in the world. They say that about every course / job.

http://www.amazon.com/Self-Discipline-10-Days-Thinking-Doing... <-- this book pretty much sorted out my procrastination problem

Book is out of print and 33$ used.

a quick search shows that it was republished: http://www.amazon.com/Self-Discipline-10-days-Thinking-Doing...

I haven't read it, but looks interesting.

Hint: search for book title on Google.

Very well written Edo, thanks! While I disagree that this applies to all cases of procrastination, it definitely applies to many, and was very eye (and mind) opening to read.

Curious if you have other writings posted anywhere? I'd love to read more about your thoughts on other topics.

Hi makeramen, thanks for your comment, glad it was fun to read.

I have been toying with the idea to write more publicly. If you'll follow me on twitter (http://twitter.com/edo) you will be the first to know when I do ;-).


Great post.

Relevant tactical point:

Replace "I have to" with "I choose to" and "I should" with "Would I like to?"

It really, really, really works.

Instead of, "I have to take out the garbage" - "I choose to take out the garbage." (Or alternatively, "I choose not to" - that's okay too, if you choose to do it that way.)

"I prefer not to" (Bartleby)

I think the OP argument makes a lot of sense. When I was young, my mother often asked (not exactly gently) to do some tasks and many times I refused just because I was obligated.

In the school and in the college it was exactly the same behavior, I refused to study but when I found an interesting topic outside the college (like programming) I had a lot of will to study it by myself. I never really learned anything in the school class, I am 100% autodidact. The single fact that I was obligated to learn something made me completly ignore that stuff.

There are tons of interesting books I bought, but I have kept on procrastinating reading, since I know that I can always read them later. That feeling IMHO - that I own something and can process it later - is major cause of procrastination for me.

same way my browser windows are a mess with 70+ tabs open. Most of them are only open because the content is too interesting to close and I am too lazy to read!

Wow, this is such good advice. You're right, I'm constantly having stern talks with myself about being a mature, clever guy and so why the heck am I wasting time, etc etc. Thankyou.

That doesn't seem to answer anything. If human beings procrastinate to feel in control, what of soldiers? They can be happy and fulfilled, work damn hard, and be only doing exactly what they are told.

The next question, for you perhaps, is "what do you fear so much about the idea of not being in control of your life?"

A soldier is programmed to be the way they are, their lack of procrastination is beat into them as a response to fear, primarily the fear of death. Do what you’re told or your squad mates will die, your commanding officer will die, and by extension "you" will die. Death is one of the ultimate motivators.

That said you get a soldier outside the army life and he finds ways and methods of procrastination that rival the rest of us.

I have always fought with procrastination, and it always has boiled down to feeling forced to do things. If something is not happening in the moment, if it’s not feel spontaneous then I balk at doing it.

The analogy of rebelling against a virtual or fictitious oppressor self is very fitting, for me, and my natural reaction to this internal dictator is only heightened when it is influenced by an external entity.

I might internally procrastinate about doing dishes for example, but if my wife dares to even suggest or ask if I’d be willing... that procrastination will flare into an outright rebellion against doing that “THING” that is “required” of me. Not saying I externalize the conflict, but mentally that part of me that was causing me to procrastinate is now engaged in guerrilla warfare.

My morning was just ambushed by this small bit of writing btw. I'm "supposed" to be doing some programming you know. Deadlines are looming, people are getting anxious and I'm writing about my penchant for procrastination. ;)


I have always fought with procrastination, and it always has boiled down to feeling forced to do things. If something is not happening in the moment, if it’s not feel spontaneous then I balk at doing it.

That's no more an answer than saying if a painting is has too many chairs in it you balk at looking at it. Balking at not-spontaneous things is a description of what you do, but not why you do that behaviour, right?

that procrastination will flare into an outright rebellion against doing that “THING” that is “required” of me.

This is not explaining that you procrastinate because you feel controlled, this is observing that you feel controlled and observing that you procrastinate, both when (something unspecified) is the case.

Feeling controlled -> procrastination is not a link which must exist, is it? You can imagine people without that link, right?

I think you are replacing one extreme claim with another.

Becoming better at something means that either your body or your brain have to do do something that it's not used to and doesn't feel comfortable with. It doesn't matter how much you love what you do it's still going to feel harder and thus there are a million other things you would rather do.

When I were young I practiced the guitar 10 hours a day for a long period of time. I loved (and still love) music but it was hard even with this love for my field.

If I wanted to I could simply have been playing things that I already knew. Playing around and not getting any better.

But to become better at something you need to get the discipline to get on with it and that will "hurt".

There are no easy ways to become better.

I don't really see where that contradicts what he wrote... could you explain what you mean?

"The act of rebelling against an oppressor, an authorative figure telling you what to do, is your way of regaining mastery over your own fate."

Surely you jest.

Oh, sure, some people will procrastinate as rebellion.

Just as sure, some people procrastinate a simple matter of choosing from a menu: choosing steak over fish is for some a simple preference, not weighed down with rebellion against diet or splurging against budget. At a given moment I have the choice to do interesting thing X or less interesting thing Y; I choose X not out of the oppression of why Y is an option at all, but just because it is what I would rather do.

You may struggle against authority an procrastinate as an act of rebellion. Others because it's just what they would rather do.

Great post. Many great things can be achieved with a short burst of energy/focus, but these things are often temporary and unsustainable, which is why the Man Up approach gets trumped by the I Will Continue To Do Better approach once real life kicks in.

> The reason why human-beings procrastinate is to feel in control of their life. The act of rebelling against an oppressor, an authorative figure telling you what to do, is your way of regaining mastery over your own fate.

The academic literature disagrees that procrastination is about rebelling, and 'efficacy' is only one factor; see http://lesswrong.com/lw/3w3/how_to_beat_procrastination/ and especially its reference section (Luke is great about jailbreaking PDFs and hosting them; I'm slowly reading through those specific PDFs).

First off, Nice post. But I disagree slightly out of experience from my own toils with procrastination. I find that I, among many other humans simply want to remain in a state of comfort, whatever that means to each person. Every little thing that deviates one from constant comfort becomes a bump in the state of mind, this bump can be smoothed out in 1 of 2 ways, You can do what you should do, the task at hand, or you can put it off in exchange for a moment of instant gratification, or some distraction action. Now in behavioral theory, there is much less mental strife or tension involve in procrastination (initially), and if the competitor action to inaction a mentally or physically longer journey requiring more energy to complete, the natural response would be the shortest of the two. Instant gratification is powerful! Its a tug-of-war calculation between actions, we will do whatever we can do that's easier or more enjoyable unless we fear the outcome of inaction so much so that it out-ways the positives of the other. We are fundamentally powerless against this. For all you fellow entrepreneurs out there, we simply love building things more than anything else. My procrastination for example consists of working on projects or prototyping a new app. I will default to that when countered with options of going to the movies, eating out, or playing video games. One could argue however that fear of failure motivates one above all others to strive for success. Just my 2 cents.

Dear Procrastinator,

Go read up on the topic of procrastination, because it's actually an interesting field of research within psychology. I know you want to, because that way, you can procrastinate even more!

I'm appalled that nobody has yet mentioned http://procrastination.ca — home of the Uni Ottawa procrastination research group. Also home of the excellent iProcrastinate podcast: http://iprocrastinate.libsyn.com/

It turns out that procrastination is an immensely complex and multi-faceted issue, and no one single solution is going to help everybody. I like the OPs advice, but don't think it applies to every procrastinator! Also, it might be the right advice for you if you want to combat your procrastination, but it won't help you combat other "bad" aspects of your psyche, and eventually, you're going to fall into your old habits.

I'm talking out of experience here: I originally went to a psychiatrist because my life wasn't working out anymore (it was really that general.) Several (mostly inconclusive) diagnoses and 2 years of psychotherapy later, I feel like I'm finally starting to grasp why and how my life went wrong.

Not everybody who procrastinates has serious mental issues. But just as a hint: if, for a prolonged period of time, say, a year, you aren't able to get back on track, or you aren't able to fulfill your dreams or expectations, try a therapist, if you can afford it. (I happen to live in a country with free health care, so I didn't have to deal with that, gladly.)

This is the first time I've heard someone speak of procrastination in this light, have to say its impressive. "Regaining mastery of your own fate" makes almost too much sense haha. It's eerily true, kid throwing the tantrum is a good example. We don't feel like doing it, but ;now we have to, so we build up stress and despise the fact that we have to. Very good advice!

Actually, I know the problem:

It's with our right hemisphere, it's the one of you that is creative, that had hopes as a child to really do something useful for the world, the one that is out of control, seeks freedom.

The thing is that you aren't doing art/music(that's what people frequently do with it) and art/music is well known as freedom, what you are probably doing is:

A stupid startup to proove yourself, make some money and shit. Even if you own twitter or facebook, it's still shit compared to art, believe me. It's shit.

If you were doing something that would eradicate some sickness in africa and would save millions of people or had anything altruist in it, i doubt your heart wouldn't be pumping from the second you started.

Believe me, it's because what you do is shit, your brain knows and it wants to free you from this bullshit.

I don't procrastinate to wash dishes for my girlfriend, no matter how much it's boring, i fucking love her. But you know, if i had to wash it for ME, i would procrastinate all day. You need love.

I like how this meshes with Cal Newport's ideas on procrastination. As I understand it, he views procrastination as the mind's natural tendency to avoid things it doesn't trust: that crappy plan you came up with for getting that project done? Yeah, you don't trust it, so why would you actually try to implement it?

The OP's point is a good one but it is not the whole story. People procrastinate for various reasons, as others have already attested.

Personally, I found a simple habit cured me of 50% of HN and Reddit addiction and let me work on things I had procrastinated for a long time:

First thing when I do every morning when I sit down at a computer is e-mail a simple TODO list to myself and also send a report of what I did on yesterdays TODO list.

This e-mail is very simple, a few items and simple descriptions. Only caveat is making the items "actionable" that is something you can do, not something you can just try or consider.

Also, if I do not complete every item on the list, I do not beat myself over it.

This takes a few minutes of time and was very easy to make a habit of using a Don't Break a Chain technique. After a week or so, it doesn't feel forced at all anymore.

I'd be interested in exploring the ascetic dimension of procrastination.

That may ring the wrong religious bells but the problem of procrastination in the West was first of all, and there's a lot of documentation surrounding this, a religious problem. Saint Jerome is the first to directly speak of idleness but it's even there in Paul's letters: How do you secure a base of pagans for your Judaic sect in a world swimming with very similar cults and mythologies? Keep em busy with your sect.

This is related to the consistent demand for communal surveillance stretching throgh all the church fathers; everyone should make sure everyone else is busy being faithful. So I wonder how and at what point that discussion of procrastination transforms into the modern formulation?

Just got done reading "The Now Habit", and the book concurs with this prognosis. The book also suggest several ways to tackle these issues that cause procrastination. Anybody have any recommendations/pitfalls from "The Now Habit"?

VERY rarely do I stop and think "Wow. I was worng!" This is one of those times. GJ!

Eckhart Tolle's ideas have a deep similarity of meaning with your idea: that the mind is part of you, and you are not defined by your mind. You need to control it just like any other part of your body. This concept has helped me immensely in casting off procrastination.

When I procrastinate, it is quite often a task I do want to accomplish for whatever reason. But I put it off because I'm tired, just don't feel like it, etc. The authority figure you refer to is the voice of wisdom telling me that if I don't go ahead and do it, I will regret it later (this figure is right 99% of the time).

My personality is a high 'C' (for compliance), meaning that I have an appreciation for authority. I think your original essay misses the fact that we all have different personalities and motivations.

Reading all these comments, I'm starting to believe that something like Alcohol Anonymous would not be a bad idea for chronic procrastinators... Procrastinators Anonymous?

Yeah, sometimes you can't just think your way out of it.

Hopefully one day we'll have a repeatable, very high success method of letting people get work done when they consciously desire it.

Note to self: read this article in your copious free time...

I have two forms of procrastination:

1. Virtual procrastination. This happens when I want to achieve more than I can physically do. The end of the work week is here, yet I don't have the sense to just let go and pick it up again next week. I feel burdened by my inability to complete the surplus tasks.

2. Vanilla procrastination. I hired an assistant. She helps me stay on track. I am a fan of this.

I've had similar, fleeting thoughts brewing for a while. Seeing this stated together like this crystallized it. Thanks for sharing.

Next task - start listening to the way I talk to myself. I'm going to get to it right after I check the twitter. Honest!

Dead on! Thinking in terms of "choosing" to do things rather than "needing" to do things has really helped me recently.

Ashamed when I read something and learn that I'm causing these perceived issues all myself. Thanx good post

amazing. eloquently describes some Truth I've been banging my head against the wall trying to explain to people but not able to find the words. It's the same dichotomy of inner-authority and genuine-self that drives people to force themselves to diet and then cheat on their diets etc

What about scheduling some time (daily or weekly) for doing the things that you would normally consider your procrastination activity? Has anyone here tried that? How did it work out? The more details you can provide, the better.

Wow. Mind: Blown. What a great insight.

Words can't describe how well this resonates with me.

So true. This was exactly my way of dealing with the deadlines in college.

Or you are simply experience "Resistance" as mentioned in the "War of Art".


The simple truth about procrastination is that it happens because you delay your happiness. The act that you are procrastinating or putting off is motivated by a risk of your final reward.

I think that procrastinating is beliving there is an easier way to reach your real goals. If your real goal is to enjoy and do nothing procrastinating is the right way to go.

I put this together a few years ago with some similar insights... http://antiprocrastinator.com/

The Now Habit is a book that explains that exact idea... I do procrastinate a bit less after reading that book.

I'll finish reading this article later.

I actually won't reach this comment without searching. I was going to read the whole thing later.

tldr: "The reason why human-beings procrastinate is to feel in control of their life."

The other parts are contradictions.

I procrastinate because I can get away with it. Any solution for me is derived entirely from that.

I find that preventing myself from reading HN works wonders for reducing procrastination.

Usually I procrastinate when I don't have a clear goal or not sure about it.

I'm not a procrastinator, I'm an anticipation junkie.

There is a colon where a semicolon belongs, and a semicolon where a colon belongs.

Dear Edo,

Since you directly addressed me,

thanks for the insight. Do share more.




The other day I tried to use "LazyMeter". I got a few things done using it, but I felt extremely uncomfortable. The feeling was familiar: the same feeling I had in my previous job. I felt suffocated and deprived.

Of all the anti-procrastinating advice I've ever read, this is the most succinct and the most helpful. Thank you.

[citation needed]

A citation is not needed.

It's obvious that he is expressing an opinion. Those who disagree with him can express an opposing opinion. Just because someone says something, doesn't mean that they need to back it up in any scientific way, especially in a community based around discussing ideas and sharing opinions.

At the risk of repeating myself: the "opinion" he is expressing is actually a theory of procrastination. When you make broad statements like "the reason why human-beings procrastinate is to feel in control of their life", you are declaring your belief about why a widespread phenomena occurs of the type which is either right or wrong (or partially right).

Making such statements without providing any evidence for them is not only intellectually vacuous (since if there is no need to provide evidence, then any claim can be made), but it leads to bias in others where people assume that because an argument was not made, that the information is "well known" or the person providing the information is an expert.

There's nothing wrong with sharing opinion. I'm guessing that the reason he came to the conclusions he did was based on personal experience (probably mixed with some reading); if so, then he shouldn't have said "the reasons why human-beings procrastinate is to feel in control of their life", he should've said "I noticed that I seem[ed] to procrastinate not because of (...), but because I didn't feel in control of my life". If his evidence wasn't introspective, then he should have shared whatever his evidence was. If he didn't have any evidence other than plausibility, then he should've framed what he was saying as a hypothesis (and ideally still explained his reasoning).

You don't have to back up everything you say with scientific evidence, but you shouldn't make sweeping claims, especially in fields like this one where the jury is still out, without either providing evidence or qualifying your claim. (And I don't buy the "it's too much extra writing" argument; he could've inserted "I have a hypothesis:" after "Dear procrastinator" and had it completely covered.)

And no, I'm not just being nitpicky; a number of well-known biases like the primacy effect, confirmation bias, the "trusting the confident statement" bias I mentioned earlier (which I can't remember the name of for the life of me), and wishful thinking (in this case, wishing for a solution to procrastination) mean that humans are very vulnerable to forming irrational beliefs when ideas are presented in this way. An ounce of prevention, in the form of stating the reason you believe what you believe at least when you're making new or potentially controversial claims, is surely not too much to ask given how easy it is and how far it goes.

Humble suggestion: Instead of complaining, you could be constructive, posting an opposing point of view with appropriate support, as most of the other dissenters have done.

It's frustrating that you see me as complaining, because my original goals were to (constructively!) get people to 1) remember to check the evidence for a claim before accepting it and 2) remember to either present evidence for your claims or label them as hypotheses. Pointing these things out is definitely helpful because humans have a whole bunch of biases that make us fail to notice a lack of justification and believe things before they are justified. I've been saved from making this mistake a number of times by "[citation needed]".

(Perhaps "[citation needed]" came across as snarky? Next time I'll write "What's your evidence?".)

The rest of my posts weren't complaining, either; mainly, I was arguing for the importance of getting people to do 1 and 2 above, and against the notion that it wouldn't be better for opinions (of the "claims you believe to be true" variety, not preferences) to be either supported or marked as hypotheses when they are expressed (at least in this sort of context).

I was definitely not dissenting; my criticism would be exactly the same even if I agreed with the expressed claims 100%.

Positing an alternative is not required (in any sense) when asking for support to an argument.

It's self-signed... Even if the idea isn't completely original, I would assume the writing is.

Or if you're doubting the factual evidence behind it, I don't think he's presenting this as fact, despite his tone. This is the same tone of many self-help books, even those backed by "real" evidence and data who cite sources. Still doesn't mean they work for everyone.

If you disagree, then don't take his advice.

I don't take claims without evidence as a rule, and he didn't present any evidence. His case is especially problematic because he is making strong claims about a fairly well-studied field in which there is not a clearly dominant theory.

If he's not intending to present what he's saying as fact, he should say so.

He is clearly presenting his opinion. You are clearly nitpicking for no good reason other than to nitpick.

You're right. I added a note to the original post:

note: I notice my writing could use some nuance. Painting an extreme is just a style of writing which helps bring across a point. Obviously there are things that are objectively less fun to do.

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