You won’t hear many people complain about not devoting enough time to TV, video games, naps, or eating junk food. But when it comes to math homework, household chores, or updating the resume, it can be difficult just to get started.
People who struggle with procrastination may spend hours distracting themselves instead of addressing obligations that require time and effort. Many of these problems can be tackled with behavioral strategies that optimize the connection between the environment and behavior. Consider the ABCs: Antecedents, Behaviors, and Consequences. To increase the frequency of procrastinated activities, change environmental antecedents to make it easier to get started, tweak the behavior itself to make the process more manageable, and modify consequences to keep going until a project is completed.
Antecedents are the cues or other events that occur before we do something. Chances are, you’re already aware of the antecedents that take you away from getting things done. These productivity killers might be entertaining friends, annoying co-workers, TV, social media, and video games, among others. To overcome procrastination, you can remove antecedents that distract you or you can remove yourself from distracting situations.
You can also work with antecedents to make it easier to start the activities you tend to avoid. Unpleasant but necessary tasks don’t get completed if you wait to be “in the mood,” so some creative signaling can go a long way here. Scheduling is one of the most important antecedents. When you plan to do something and write it down, you’ve established the project as something significant that’s to be completed, and that alone can have a big impact. Another advantage of scheduling is that, if you use an electronic calendar, you can set up reminder antecedents, like texts, emails, or pop-up notifications on your phone.
Think about other antecedents you could control to make it easier to get started. Perhaps there’s a snack you enjoy that you could place by your computer before you start working. Or maybe that messy desk needs to be cleaned before you’re ready to start office work. Adjusting lights and music might also get you prepared for a difficult project. If you’re having trouble getting to the gym in the morning, you can put your workout clothes on your nightstand. Making a commitment to start a project with a friend is an easy way to begin shared activities. If you have unpleasant household chores to do, get organized by sorting that huge pile of laundry or selecting the cleaning supplies you’ll need to tackle the bathroom. Ultimately, the more you can control the antecedents of tasks you tend to put off, the more likely it is that you’ll take the first step toward completing them.
In addition to working with antecedents, it may be necessary to give some attention to the target behavior itself. If you tend to put off responsibilities that seem overwhelming, consider the obstacles. Do you believe you don’t have enough time, energy, knowledge, or ability to address a project? Think about what needs to be done, how to make it happen, how long it will take, and whether it’s possible to break the project into smaller and more manageable pieces.
Often we avoid activities that are anxiety provoking. We may predict that we’re not able to complete a project, do it well, or cope with how unpleasant it is. This concern can lead to avoidance. If there’s a chore you put off regularly and you’d like to improve your consistency, do a little bit of work and do it often. Instead of saving a big project for whenever you finally get around to it, make productive work a regular activity. Select a time of day when you have the most energy.
Our preference for distractions over obligations is in part explained by how different types of tasks are reinforced. Reinforcement refers to a consequence that increases the likelihood of a behavior.
When it comes to responsibilities that aren’t intrinsically pleasurable, reinforcement depends on time. For example, mopping the kitchen floor isn’t reinforced as soon as you get started. The reinforcing consequence, the clean floor, occurs only after enough time has been devoted to completing the activity.
In contrast, for activities that tend to distract us, reinforcement depends on frequency. For example, if you’re studying for an exam and your phone is nearby, it’s easy to check for emails or texts. And the more you check, the more likely it is that you’ll get a message that’ll reinforce this behavior. You may not get an email or text the first time you check, but if you keep “working” at it, eventually you’ll get what you’re looking for. Channel surfing is another example—if you keep tapping the remote, eventually you’ll land on a reinforcing program.
To use consequences to your advantage, think about how you can reinforce your procrastinated behavior frequently. One option is to identify the small blocks of behavior that make up a chore and reinforce yourself as you complete each block. For some tasks, like setting up automatic bill payments, it might be easier to identify units of behavior you can reinforce. For others, like yard work, the blocks of behavior might be short periods of time. An easy to way to come up with a reinforcing consequence is to think about the activities that tend to distract you from your obligations. For example, after you complete a defined amount of work, you can watch Netflix, drink a mocha, take a bike ride, call a friend, visit a neighbor, read a book chapter, or any of the other things you’d rather be doing if you weren’t taking care of commitments.
Addressing the ABCs of behavior change is the easiest way to beat procrastination. Use these behavioral principles to spend less time thinking about what needs to be done, and watch yourself move from distractibility to productivity.