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.
Remember that time when you procrastinated so much you felt like procrastinating on procrastination?
Okay, let’s think about it…later.
I know—we don’t want to procrastinate, but we do it anyway because of the ‘emotional brain’, as I’ve discussed in a previous article.
But surely, you’ve experienced getting a lot of things to do, feeling overwhelmed, and putting them off even more.
If you’re experiencing that more often than you’d like, then there’s clearly a recurring problem that must be solved ASAP.
It might be your habit of chronic procrastination that’s doing this (here’s how to eliminate it), or it might be the feeling of overwhelm itself.
In this guide, I’ll tell you why that’s the case, and how to eliminate this self-defeating feeling in three steps using methods backed by psychology.
Let’s dive right in.
Uncertainty: The Mother of Overwhelm
Perhaps the greatest reason why we procrastinate on our biggest goals and get overwhelmed is uncertainty.
For the emotional brain, it’s better to do something more attractive rather than focus on a task that makes you feel bad about yourself.
Your goals might be the problem
We’re always told to aim for something big, because apparently, “when you aim for the stars and you fail, you’ll land on the moon.”
Sadly, even though our logical brain likes this idea and it sparks hope within us, it rarely sparks real, lasting motivation. The emotional brain likes the results, but it despises the idea of all the dirty work you need to finish to get there.
That’s why I tell people goals are overrated.
The destination is important for the sense of direction, but the path will be made by action. Regardless of your goals, if you can’t jump over the biggest obstacle—the lack of motivation to act, then you’re inevitably going to fail.
That said, I’ll share with you the “SOS Method” for breaking your goals and tasks down into the minimum versions so you can lead your emotional brain in the direction you want.
Task too difficult/tedious
Similar to goals, when your task is either difficult or tedious, the brain sees this as a big problem; for our logical brains, big problems need big solutions.
And that’s exactly what our emotional brain hates; because it’s lazy.
What happens when the logical and emotional brain go in opposite directions? The emotional brain usually wins.
When you set out to “read for 30 minutes per day,” you tell yourself “it’s just 30 minutes.”
But you can’t fool your emotional brain. It senses the difficulty of what you’re going to do. It’s going to make you put it off until you’re faced with an easier task.
In addition, the lack of confidence to finish a huge task doesn’t make things any better.
Dr. Piers Steel, one of the leading procrastination researchers, calls this lack of confidence “Low Expectancy.” 1
Low Expectancy leads to the paralyzing fear of failure—one of the most common reasons for procrastination, according to Dr. Timothy Pychyl.2
But don’t worry, because soon enough, I’ll show you the way out of this mess.
No more inconsistency.
No more overwhelm.
No more getting stretched too thin.
Read on and discover the strategies.
How to Defeat Procrastination-Inducing Overwhelm
According to a study published in European Journal of Psychology of Education, overwhelm surprisingly causes us to procrastinate even more.3
Despite the repeated failed attempts to use willpower for defeating procrastination, a lot of procrastinators still rely on it to overcome this problem.
That, my friend, is like putting the wrong key on a wrong lock over and over again.
To solve the “overwhelm” problem, we took a step back to see why we’re overwhelmed in the first place in the first part of this guide.
And now that we see the roots of our problem, we’ll pluck them out using our strategies below.
The first strategy solves the internal problem— the mindset. You see, a simple change in belief can lead to a massive change in behavior. This is an important part of lasting change that most neglect.
The last strategy solves the physical problems — the task itself and how we approach it.
Let’s get started.
Rethink Failure: The Growth Mindset
Here’s the problem when we set goals.
It’s rather easy to think of the result rather than the work and the obstacles we’re going to encounter on our journey. There’s no fault there, it’s human.4
And when we feel like we’re going toward the opposite direction, we instantly lose motivation.
Think of trying to lose 30 lbs and seeing the scale go up. You’d think you’re regressing, but did you ever think that your weight throughout the day varies due to your food and water intake?
It’s one of the most common things on Earth. (I think it’s more common than grass.)
That’s why I’m not a fan of huge goals.
They’re causing more procrastination by making you feel like you’re not in control of your life.
Because failure is inevitable. Shit WILL happen.
Expect that when you’re spending your time and energy into something worth doing.
I’m not trying to sound cheesy and all, but every failure you’ll encounter toward your goal is not actually a downhill battle—it’s the opposite, actually.
Failures are uphill battles. That’s why they’re hard.
Why am I telling you this? Because a small change in belief can cause a massive change in behavior.
This small change is your start to developing the Growth Mindset—a mindset that unlocks your internal source of motivation.5
However, it’s not enough to just have the correct mindset and then powering through everything through sheer dedication and willpower.
Else, you’re going back to ‘motivation square one’.
You need the right tools to actually develop the Growth Mindset and actually solve the physical problems.
Use the SOS Method: Shrink, Outgrow, Success—Repeat
Behavioral problems need solutions that appeal to the emotional brain.
We behave like procrastinators when we’re overwhelmed because our emotional brains make us do so. To solve that problem, we can’t just “think” our way out of that behavior; we need science-backed strategies.
These strategies are what will actually improve your Expectancy—thus, they’re predictable ways to increase your motivation.
Step 1. Choose the most important, difficult task
Put your hand in hot water. And then put it in cold water.
You’ll feel like the cold water is colder than before. But it’s the same water and the temperature didn’t change! What’s going on?
In the book, The Procrastination Equation, Dr. Piers Steel recommends a method for eliminating your fear of failure—Success Spirals.
Success Spirals are like the “hot-cold” water experiment but applied to procrastination.
Essentially, by choosing to do the hardest task first thing in your list, you’ll gain confidence and perceive the other tasks as easier than before.
In addition, you’ll have more energy to use if you do it first.
The important part here is choosing an important AND difficult task, not just the difficult one.
As we’ve previously discussed, however, the brain dislikes doing difficult tasks and sees them as big problems.
Step 2. Shrink it down
Would you eat a huge meal in one bite? Of course not.
Then why would you do the same thing for your huge task?
Shrink your difficult task down into mini-finish lines until it becomes achievable. There’s nothing wrong with one step at a time.
Here’s what Bill Parcells, an NFL coach featured in Harvard Business Review, 6says about this strategy: (emphasis mine)
“Here’s my philosophy: to win games, you need to believe as a team that you have the ability to win games. That is, confidence is born only of demonstrated ability. This may sound like a catch-22, but it’s important to remember that even small successes can be extremely powerful in helping people believe in themselves.”
In other words, by shrinking the tasks at hand, it becomes increasingly realistic to achieve your goal and see visual progress—resulting in increased Expectancy.
Visual progress, no matter how small, is essential; it’s like shots of fuel for the emotional brain.
And you don’t need to finish everything all at once, either.
For example, you want to finish reading a book in 2 weeks. You can shrink the task by doing this:
- Count the number of pages you have to read
- Divide it into 14 days
- Divide into 2 (Morning and Evening)
Guess what? For a 300-page book, you only have to read 10 pages at a time.
Doesn’t that sound easy enough?
Furthermore, the advantage is that you’ll have the chance to step back and see if each next step is truly essential.
Step 3. Do what Steve Jobs did
“Follow your passion.” Steve Jobs was perhaps the most popular person who gave this advice.
But it seems like he doesn’t take his own medicine—Apple was NOT his passion until it grew into a massive, competent brand.7
In other words, it became his passion. It’s not a pre-existing passion.
In our case, however, we’re not going to build passions out of every task. We just want to apply the same principle on a smaller scale and apply Jobs’ secret to big motivation.
That secret is competence.
Just think of elite violinists. They don’t get overwhelmed when they try to learn a new song; they’ve already nailed the basics.
They’re already good at it so they’re not demotivated by the same problem.
Compare that to someone who’s just beginning to learn the hand positioning and the bow angles—learning a new song would be like going for a 100-swim when you don’t know a single stroke.
But have no fear, because once you’ve accomplished the two previous steps above, you’d have no trouble developing your own skills.
In fact, you could even accelerate the process by either:
- Investing time/money
- Only consuming ‘how-to’ content
Regardless, I want you to develop the mindset of constant improvement.
No matter how small your progress is, always aim to do better than last time.
- About the Theory. See “Expectancy”
- Written on an article in Don’t Delay blog.
- Grunschel, C., Patrzek, J. & Fries, S. Eur J Psychol Educ (2013) 28: 841. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-012-0143-4
- Optimism Bias – Wikipedia
- Ng B. (2018). The Neuroscience of Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation. Brain sciences, 8(2), 20. doi:10.3390/brainsci8020020
- The Tough Work of Turning Around a TeamThe Tough Work of Turning Around a Team
- From So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport