This article is a sub-topic of the ultimate guide, How to Stop Procrastinating (Even If You’re a Lazy Bastard). Check it out if you’re interested.
If you typed in “best self improvement books” on Google, you’re guaranteed to see 7 Habits of Highly Effective People on the list.
Why? Because habits don’t just give you results—they give you compounding results.
For example, which would you choose—a penny that doubles every day for 30 days, or $1 million today?
Unless you can 5X your $1 million in 30 days, then the penny would be the best choice.
Why? Because a penny, $0.01, after 30 days, will become $5,368,709.12.
Habits work the same way. At the start, you won’t even see any noticeable results, but if you let it compound for a longer period of time, it brings massive changes to your life.
Now, if you’re not building good habits and are just relying on instant gratification schemes, then you might be losing $4,368,709.12 equivalent of results.
What does this have to do with procrastination, anyway? Think of Habits as Mercenaries.
Habits, when they get paid by your inner procrastinator (we all have it), will kill your results.
On the other hand, when your habits side with YOU and work with YOU, then it will kill procrastination INSTANTLY.
In fact, a 2018 study proves that automatic behavior (habits) leads to decreased chances of procrastination.
And it’s because habits decrease decision-making—they’re automatic!
Furthermore, a study published in the European Review of Social Psychology has found that people who develop their habits accomplish more and procrastinate less.
The thing is, though, building habits is a rather difficult task.
For starters, it does NOT take 21 days to build a habit.
A study published in the European Review of Social Psychology reported that it could take a minimum of 18 days to build a habit and a maximum of 254 days, with 66 days being an average.
Don’t be discouraged, though, as the beauty of building habits lies in our ability to hack our behavior.
The 4 Laws of Behavior Change does that perfectly. It’s a concept I learned from James Clear, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Atomic Habits.
According to James Clear, the easiest way to form a habit is by making it:
The first three will make the habit possible and easy to do, while the last one will reinforce the habits into your system by introducing a reward.
However, because procrastination is a “bad habit” (sometimes, it’s good), we will use the Inverted Laws of Behavior Change for this purpose:
Now, let’s get on with the “How-to” part.
Exploit the Habit Triggers: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Habit triggers, also called cues, activate our craving for the habit.
By making them invisible, we can stop the craving associated with procrastination from activating in the first place.
And you want to take every cue for your bad habit out of your sight—here’s how to do it.
Step #1. Determine the cues for your bad habit so you can do something about it.
Let’s say you have a bad habit of staying in bed to use your phone.
If you use your phone as an alarm clock, then after you wake up, you will immediately see your phone (the cue).
Next thing you know, you’re 30 minutes sucked into Facebook.
However, if you replace it with an analog alarm clock, then you probably won’t be able to use your alarm clock to scroll on Social Media.
Step #2. Make your cues effectively invisible.
Once you’ve determined the cues that trigger your cravings for the bad habit, then you could effectively replace them with something good.
I now have a book near my bed so whenever I feel the urge to use my phone, I can grab my book instead.
As for your phone, lock it away in another room, cover it with something, put it in your bag—what have you.
The point is to keep yourself from seeing cues for bad habits.
This way, you work with your brain and avoid feeling like you’re fighting against the devil all the time.
Exploit Social Approval: Social Media Does This, So Should You
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter of the brain, is released when we anticipate a reward that makes us feel good.
Social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are exploiting this “reward system” of the brain to make us spend more time using their services. (Related: Persuasive Technology)
Habits, even bad ones, are usually adopted from three social groups:
- The Close – whom we spend the most time with (the way they talk, facial expressions are some)
- The Many – we acquire habits that are seen as normal to our “tribe”, as explained by the Social Proof Principle
- The Powerful – we acquire habits from people that we see as authoritative or powerful
The human desire for social approval is responsible for creating habits we adopt from the “tribe”—if our habits can get us approval, respect, and/or praise from the “tribe”, we find them more attractive [to do].
This explains why the “Like” button feature of social media gives us a dopamine hit every time we get them and keeps us coming back for more.
Because this is the case, here are some specific action steps that you can take:
- Join interest groups that promote good behavior and despise the bad habit. Physical Groups, in my opinion, is far better than online forums or groups for this purpose. (Usually contains all 3 Social Groups)
- Consume content that highlights the benefits of better habits. This tactic also plays with our confirmation bias—a psychological bias that reinforces our prior beliefs and rejects conflicting ones.
- Try to influence people close to you into doing a ‘substitute habit’ that replaces your procrastination habits. (Tip: Talk in terms of what benefits they will get, and you’ll be more likely to persuade them)
- Find a mentor that came from your position, and got to where you want. Most successful entrepreneurs have mentors. If you don’t have one, then read nonfiction—treat them as virtual mentors.
Exploit the Path of Least Resistance: Habit Roadblocks and Habit Highways
Since our willpower is limited, we must expose ourselves less to actually resisting temptations to do our bad habits and more to actually inviting us to do our good habits.
In other words, make our bad habits extremely difficult to do by creating what I call habit roadblocks.
Habit roadblocking is basically a method that prevents you from doing a bad habit mindlessly, for instance:
- Putting junk food at the trunk of your car, so you have to really make an effort to get them
- Putting your smartphone in another room while working (better yet, turn it off and set an extremely long password)
- Throwing away your lighter so you can’t immediately smoke
- Extreme case: Having someone lock your clothes away to force you to finish your work at home a la Victor Hugo
Creating habit highways is just the opposite; just remove the extra steps needed to access that habit or create an extremely tiny version of the habit.
- Get your study materials ready the night before, and then just commit to reading for 5 minutes
- If you want to read more, get your book outside of the shelf and put it where you can immediately grab it first thing in the morning and read for just 3 pages (Tip: Make it easier to get than your smartphone)
- If you want to meditate more, (based on personal experience) when you enter the bathroom and enter the shower, take only 20 deep breaths while focusing on your breath.
- If you want to work out more, then prepare your gym clothes before sleeping, so that the next morning you won’t be able to procrastinate on it.
Establishing a habit only means that you “show up”, not do the entire thing once and never again.
And you can’t improve something that does not exist.
Regardless, if you want to stop procrastinating, following this rule is the easiest way to do it.
Exploit the Reward System: Accountability and Tracking
Since reward reinforces the repetition of a habit, we must give our all to exploit it.
Usually, our bad habits provide INSTANT rewards, while good habits provide DELAYED rewards.
Smoking causes instant stress relief but causes long-term damage.
Meditation is fucking boring, but the more you do it, the better your sleep, stress, mental health, productivity, awareness, and even social skills will get.
This is a huge problem because the brain prefers immediate rewards more than those you can reap later on—even if the reward is larger, as I’ve discussed in my article on why we procrastinate.
Similarly, loss aversion theory says that the brain dislikes losing something and would rather avoid it rather than pursue gains. This is good news for us.
It’s easier to break a bad habit when you end up losing something after doing it.
And the key here is to make sure you lose something immediately after doing a bad habit.
Here are ways to do it:
- Habit contracts – better done if you’re actually signing a contract that makes you pay $100 if you don’t stick to your habit. Some of my friends did this trick to stop using strong language by giving a set amount of money whenever they swear—it totally worked.
- Have an accountability partner – Have someone that will keep you responsible. You’ll easily find them in interest groups, or even subreddits on, well…Reddit.
- Hire a coach – if you have the money, then you should hire a coach—a strict one, to help you stick to your good habits and avoid the bad ones, once and for all.
- Use BeeMinder – BeeMinder is a website that makes you spend a certain amount of money whenever you don’t stick to doing something about your goals. I learned this one from Thomas Frank.
Personally, what I did was imagine what I could be losing whenever I procrastinated—putting off an article today will make me lose an equivalent of 1 day of income if that article turned out to be a hit.
This strategy won’t work for everyone, but it did for me.
In fact, that’s also how I was able to quit social media because I realized it doesn’t make sense for my productivity and mental wellness.
My productivity suffered, and most of the time I thought I was losing an equivalent of 30 minutes of knowledge if I had spent that time reading a book instead.
Bottom Line: Break Your Procrastination Habit!
When it comes to beating chronic procrastination, brute force simply ain’t gonna cut it.
We should stand on the shoulders of giants—behavioral psychologists, motivation and willpower experts, and habit coaches.
That said, if you’ve got any value from this post, make sure you share it with your friends or sign up for my newsletter (and get a FREE book!) if you want more good stuff like this!