18 February 2008

How to stop procrastinating

I’ve been reading Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus.

One of the things the book discusses is that the parts of the brain responsible for abstract goals and evaluating long term priorities are relatively recent additions to our ape brains. It was a big deal when scientists discovered that crows could make tools, because it demonstrated that they too could engage in a complex form of reasoning, continuing to work at something in spite of lack of positive outcome, in order to bring about a longer term goal.

But we’re not always as smart as crows. Our deliberative task juggling faculties require conscious engagement, and are easily sidetracked by the possibility of more immediate gratification. I speak of procrastination; as Despair, Inc put it in their Demotivator, Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now. Sometimes we sit and watch TV instead of doing our taxes, or reach for another slice of cake while we think about whether to go out for a run.

In his book, Dr Marcus suggests a way to reduce the problem of procrastination. The brain has a much older mechanism for motivating us to do things, and it’s a lot more powerful than prioritizing the contents of our to-do list or considering our long term life goals. The trick is that the more primitive goal processing part of the brain only understands motivations of the form if I do [some action], then [some immediate outcome] happens.

This is the kind of reasoning all animals can do, the kind that lets squirrels learn that humans will give them treats, or lets you teach dogs that they’re not allowed on the furniture.

Part of the reason why GTD works is that by making sure all your to-do items are actionable concrete next steps, you make them processable by this primitive goal processing engine. But now you add the second trick David Allen hasn’t included in GTD yet: you give each next action an immediate payoff.

It’s something I do all the time. If I go to the dentist for a checkup, I get myself a doughnut. If I sell some junk on eBay, I immediately buy myself a new video game. When we file our taxes, we go out for Thai curry. If I do some yard work, I buy a Frappuccino.

OK, you’re saying, but what’s to stop me from buying the Frappuccino anyway?

Nothing. That’s the best thing about this technique–it doesn’t matter if you buy a Frappuccino anyway without doing any work, so long as when you do perform the task, you get the reward. (Yes, two Frappuccinos in one day, if necessary.) The primitive goal engine isn’t advanced enough to work out that you could have gotten the reward anyway; it just registers that the unpleasant action resulted in the reward, and then it helps subconsciously motivate you to perform similar actions in future.

Of course, you have to be a little careful that your rewards aren’t all high fat sugary ones, or expensive ones. You might think that there aren’t enough healthy ways to reward yourself, but it doesn’t appear to matter whether the reward is something you would do anyway. I would play video games anyway, but if I do so immediately after tidying the house and consciously think of it as a reward, it becomes easier to motivate myself to tidy the house. Since normal activities can be rewards, this vastly increases the number of things you can use to motivate yourself. Maybe you could reward yourself with a hot bath, an afternoon nap, or your favorite TV show.

The only thing you have to remember when setting rewards is that they have to involve immediate gratification. Money doesn’t work; it’s too abstract, the animal brain doesn’t understand it. Affirmations and other good thoughts don’t work either, they’re a tool of the deliberative mind. Forget self esteem, you need to think of a treat that appeals to you at the animal level, you need to indulge in it fairly immediately after performing the unpleasant task, and you need to think about the fact that the reward was because the task was performed.

Maybe this method won’t work for everyone, but it seems sound based on the information about how the mind works in Dr Marcus’s book, and I’ve been using the technique on myself for years with a good degree of success. If it changes your life, feel free to shower me with gratitude.

© mathew 2017