Victor Hugo faced a major problem in the summer of 1830. He had promised his publisher a new novel by February 1831, but had spent most of the last twelve months finding every reason to do anything other than write. He had entertained friends, pursued other interests and generally created every distraction he could think of to take him away from the task at hand. With his back against the wall, he eventually came up with a most unusual plan. He asked his assistant to take all of his clothes away and lock them in a large chest. Left with nothing to wear other than a large shawl, he was forced to stay indoors and write. The result? The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published two weeks early on 14 January 1831!
I suspect that there is something of Victor Hugo’s behaviour that resonates with most of us. Humankind has been practicing procrastination for centuries. We act against our better judgement (and obvious common sense) even though we know we should be doing something else. Call it loss of self-control if you want. But what is it that makes us behave this way? Part of the reason is that there is a gene in us that prefers instant gratification over future gratification when in the present moment. Those who are able to resist the pull of instant gratification are far more likely to be successful in life.
So, how does one bridge the gap between where you are and where you would like to be? Here are some thoughts on practical ways to avoid procrastination:
Create a “commitment device” – find ways to automate your behaviour beforehand, rather than relying on will power. When I was a youngster studying for my final qualifying exams, I moved away from my apartment (which was close to the beach) to another home far from any beach. The reason was because I loved going to the beach back then. The beach was a place where my friends went, there were touch-rugby games, girls in bikinis, etc. I knew if I was close to that place of distraction, I would find it hard not to forfeit study time in favour of a day enjoying a sun-filled beach. So I took that temptation away. I automated my behaviour beforehand.
Reduce the “friction of starting” – it is not being in the work that is hard, it is starting the work. Once you get started, it is less painful to do the work. Put another way, “on a moment to moment basis, being in the middle of doing something is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating”. Build a habit of getting started; put your efforts into building a ritual that makes it as easy as possible to get going.
Utilise implementation strategies – this is where you state your intention to carry out a specific action at a specific time in the future. For example, I will go to the gym on [DATE] in [PLACE] at [TIME}. It may sound too simple, but studies have shown that by physically recording your implementation intentions, you will be two to three times more likely to perform an action in the future.
The article above draws from the thoughts of James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits.