Why Do We Procrastinate So Much?

Okay, I’m tired of hearing shit like “you’re not disciplined enough” as well as taking extreme military-like measures that take the fun away from life.

Just so you know, even “disciplined people” procrastinate.

It’s a flaming fact that we see successful people as “disciplined people”, so let’s have some as examples. Victor Hugo had a publishing deadline for his new novel. As a professional writer, it’s safe to assume he takes his work seriously. But what you didn’t know was he didn’t act the part. Hugo struggled with procrastination; in order to counteract it, he had to force himself to work by locking his clothes up and wearing an old gray shawl. Or maybe he didn’t have clothes at all — I don’t know. That strategy allowed him to finish his novel two weeks early and would give birth to one of the greatest stories of all time–The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Bill Clinton was described as “Chronic Procrastinator” by Time Magazine after doing a speech last-minute when it was given a full 6 weeks of leeway. I wasn’t able to find news about how he did it, though…

As you’ll later discover, as long as the human brain doesn’t change into a fully robotic mode, then the tendency of procrastination is still going to remain.

Our paleolithic brains haven’t evolved that much yet, and it’s precisely the reason why we procrastinate.

You’re not “lazy” or “up to no good” just because you procrastinate a lot. Well, if you think you’re procrastinating in the first place, doesn’t that mean you really want to do something (but your emotions just won’t cooperate)?

I’ve suffered from chronic procrastination myself—putting off my exam preparation until the last minute, putting off buying things I actually need, putting off going to the gym and making silly excuses…

Think of 101 ways to procrastinate and I might have just done 102. I’m serious.

But things have changed when I learned about how to work with our brain rather than against it.

Since then, I’ve beaten procrastination like it’s nothing. What the hell, I even have a new problem of becoming so workaholic because I’ve beaten procrastination so easily.

And I think maybe you just haven’t learned the proper way to work with your biology.

As a quite lazy person myself, I’ve been bombarded with vague pieces of ‘disciplinary advice’ to beat procrastination. But I strongly believed that there was an easier way to do it.

What I found was contrary to popular belief:

  • You don’t have to rely on your self-discipline.
  • You don’t have to rely on your motivation.
  • You don’t have to rely on your willpower.

But don’t get me wrong—they are, in fact, helpful for beating procrastination. All I’m saying is that there is a much, much easier path to take (which I’m going to describe later on).

In this guide, you’re going to learn how to make your self-discipline (or lack thereof) irrelevant to becoming a more productive version of yourself.

But first, let me educate you about what’s really going on with your brain.

Enter Hyperbolic Discounting

I talk about this behavioral economic concept briefly in my free book, but to give you the basic idea:

How many people do you know are aware that exercise is good for the body yet they don’t even spend time on it?

How many people do you know are aware that smoking is bad for your brain and body yet they’re notorious for doing it?

There are dozens and dozens of people you could think of, right? And it’s all because of Hyperbolic Discounting—an irrational decision-making process of the brain.

Back in the savannah thousands of years ago, when we’re just living the good ol’ hominid dream, the only thing we cared about is whether 1) we live the next day and 2) we can reproduce.

And so, the human brain had, for a very long time, this system of preferring instant rewards rather than long-term ones. Heck, even animals have these—have you seen a hungry cat gathering cat food for retirement? (Me neither.)

Hyperbolic Discounting, basically, is what our YOLO instinct does. (I think that explains it really well)

Whenever we prefer immediate rewards rather than long-term (and even more satisfying) rewards, that’s hyperbolic discounting in action.

Certainly, this isn’t always the case.

You can prove this because we still have the ability to make logical decisions. When we feel angry, we don’t kill our friends. When we feel hungry, we don’t eat our family members.

In short, there’s the presence of self-control, which is controlled by the logical part of your brain—the self-control center called prefrontal cortex.

That means, if the prefrontal cortex gets “shut down,” we lose the ability for self-control. Thus, we revert back to our biological tendencies.

Now, there are two serial killers of your capacity for self-control, according to Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal.

These two are the most common thing you’ll encounter in your daily life, and they’re what make you procrastinate even more in the first place.

But first…let me ask you a question: how was your sleep last night?

Sleep deprivation

I’m actually mostly guilty of this one…and I think I should eliminate screen time during the night and install a blue-light filter for my phone. (Better yet, don’t use the phone at night)

But despite the productivity benefits of sleep, it rarely gets some love.

Our body punishes us for it.

Here’s Dr. Kelly McGonigal via The Willpower Instinct: (emphasis mine)

“Why does poor sleep sap willpower? For starters, sleep deprivation impairs how the body and brain use glucose, their main form of energy. When you’re tired, your cells have trouble absorbing glucose from the bloodstream. This leaves them underfueled, and you exhausted. With your body and brain desperate for energy, you’ll start to crave sweets or caffeine. But even if you try to refuel with sugar or coffee, your body and brain won’t get the energy they need because they won’t be able to use it efficiently. This is bad news for self-control, one of the most energy-expensive tasks your brain can spend its limited fuel on.”

That means even after you eat a lot of “brain food” (comes from carbohydrates, mostly) your brain won’t be able to use them properly compared to when you’re well-rested. (reference)

And when it doesn’t get the right amount of fuel, your self-control center—the prefrontal cortex, loses its strength to manage your primitive desires and impulses.

In addition, studies show that the lack of sleep causes you to become even more prone to stress (which, by the way, is another enemy of your self-control).

Talk about a downward spiral!

I’ve noticed this myself—when I try to make articles late in the evening, I usually get insomnia. Probably because of combined stress and the blue light exposure.

Anyways, the day after, my performance becomes even worse.

Ever since I realized this, I always stopped working past 6pm.

And I recommend you do the same if your schedule allows it. There’s no sense telling you to “sleep early” if we don’t talk about the causes of your unsleepiness, is there?


Or you may just be feeling stressed

Aside from sleep deprivation (that causes stress), stress itself is the enemy of your self-control.

Notice what most people do when stressed:

  • Binge-eating (or stress eating)
  • Window shopping
  • Watching porn
  • Getting drunk
  • Binge watching

I think you’re noticing a pattern here: Stress turns us into the worst versions of ourselves.

And it’s because it directly attacks our prefrontal cortex.

That’s why you don’t usually see angry people getting anywhere with their arguments—their prefrontal cortex gets effectively shut down.

On a wider scale, if you look at the statistics, those at the lower-end of the income spectrum tend to have the least tendency to quit smoking. The reason? Stress.

Now, there are surely different ways to relieve our stress, but out of so many ways to do it, our brains don’t tend to lead us to what is most effective in relieving it—as Kelly McGonigal says in The Willpower Instinct.

And that’s why we tend to cling on binge-watching or binge-eating. These indulgent acts give us a bit of anticipation to a relief—but they don’t give us relief.

In the book, Kelly McGonigal says that we can actually relieve stress using ways proven by science:

  • Meditation
  • Walking outside
  • Exercising
  • Reading
  • Socializing

Personally, I think doing some of these things will surely help regulate your stress levels.

But I strongly believe the best way to prevent getting stressed is to stop giving fucks like it’s candy.

I don’t mean to tell you to stop caring—that’s called indifference.

You SHOULD care—everybody cares, but do it only for the things that matter.

In my perspective, you should often remind yourself to stop caring about things outside of your control—heavy traffic, your colleague’s stupid work ethic, why the government still hasn’t given you unicorns, etc.

Easier said than done, I know.

But there’s one book that helped me the most with this kind of philosophy and it completely changed the way I think about circumstances, goals, and even my values.

I think you’ve heard it—it’s named The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson.

When I first read it, I thought it was some kind of “I’m so fucking cool” type of thing that the author made up by himself.

But hey, I found out that most of what he teaches in this book resembles a school of thought back in Ancient Greece called Stoicism.

It’s basically philosophy—but in the most enjoyable way to read.

One of the best things I’ve learned in this book was the different times we become entitled in our own lives. It’s perhaps the major causes of our stress—our expectations of what will happen, what people will say—all of that stuff.

I highly suggest you check it out.

How to Work WITH Your Biology: Choice Architecture

Now, imagine what would it be like if you didn’t have to rely on your self-control all the time.

Imagine that you didn’t have to rely on your motivation all the time.

Wouldn’t that be a productivity fairy tale? (well, it would be if you get proper sleep)

But you don’t have to imagine it anymore because there is a way to make your progress effortless and inevitable.

The answer to all of these problems is hidden in plain sight—points and lines.

The shortest distance between two points is called a straight line.

Now, what happens when you don’t follow this path? Well, first off, it is not straight (duh).

But more importantly, it becomes less efficient to go from point A to point B.

Your brain wants to save energy—it’s lazy af, you know.

And to save energy, it follows shortcuts when it guides your judgment.

What if we could somehow modify this path so it leads to what we want to do?

You actually can.

Here are some pretty interesting examples according to PsySci:

Amsterdam airport put fly-shaped stickers on their urinals to reduce spillages by 80%

The American Grocery store put arrows on their floor leading to the aisles with fruits and vegetables—9 out of 10 shoppers bought more fruits and veggies.

In a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers were able to increase sales of healthy choices and decrease sales of unhealthy choices in a cafeteria simply by making healthy choices easier to access.

The best part? They all did this despite no one telling them what to do.

The best way to do this is to reduce the number of steps needed to do what you need to do.

For example, when I started building my reading habit, I noticed that placing my books in the bookshelf for the sake of being “organized” actually hurt my progress.

The number of steps needed to access the book simply wasn’t appealing enough—stand up, reach the book, rearrange the chaos after getting the book—it simply took a lot of freaking steps.

When I realized this, I then put my book on the table near my bed. (I think I’ve discussed this already in my free book??? lol not sure)

By doing that, I was able to stick to reading every morning for 23 days now. All without effort nor thinking.

That’s the power of the Path of Least Resistance.

Now, I want to leave you with an activity to do to create your own choice architecture that suits your goals.

Think of how you will make what you need to do easier.

And then do it.

Summary: Why do we procrastinate so much?

Again, it’s not entirely our fault.

Our biology makes it really hard for us to do the right thing, especially when we don’t understand how it works.

You may just be sleep-deprived and/or stressed—and these two are what ultimately lead us to failure.

Sleep is NOT for the weak. NOT sleeping is what makes you weak.

Also, stop giving fucks like it’s candy because it’s making you stressed. Read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck to learn how.

With so many cues in our environment, it makes sense that we should at least do our best to control these cues that make us unproductive.

What’s your greatest takeaway from this article? Let me know in the comments! 🙂

And while you’re at it, I want to send you my free book that contains zero-effort ways to learn faster and beat procrastination. If you’re interested, you can get it here.