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From Procrastination to Progress

From Procrastination to Progress

Impulsiveness is a big component of procrastination for some people. The nearness of today’s temptation takes precedence over tomorrow’s distant, abstract goals, and we lack progress.

Fortunately, we can implement strategies to “tone down the [brain’s] limbic system and pump up the prefrontal cortex” [Piers Steel, The Procrastination Equation, p. 144*] to reduce impulsivity and procrastination.

Results of impulsivity

Getting a handle on one’s impulsivity is important not only for reducing procrastination, but also for gaining greater control over one’s life generally.

Unfortunately, impulsivity is strongly connected to

  • dysfunctional relationships
  • poor leadership
  • suicide
  • substance abuse
  • violence.

For people with ADD or ADHD, impulsiveness can be particularly challenging for getting things done and achieving progress toward what matters most to you. Most of us, however, have areas of life where we’re more or less impulsive. The good news is that reducing impulsivity and gaining control in one area of life often leads to greater control in other areas.

Steel has identified several strategies to tone down impulsivity and decrease procrastination.

“Throw away the key”

Pre-commit to some action that will help protect you from impulsivity. For example, take a limited amount of cash and leave your credit card at home. Maybe for you it would involve giving away all your cigarettes or candy or unhealthy snacks. Or maybe you need to delete solitaire or other games from your computer.


Steel’s recommendation here is to attend to basic needs first. If you tend to impulse buy at the grocery store, eat before you go so that you’re not hungry, and take a list of what you need. If you’re trying to lose weight, drink a glass of water and eat a salad or some fruit before you eat the rest of the meal. All of us need recreation, so mark those times in your calendar first and then schedule your chores.

“Try poison”

Impose some huge consequence if you neglect to do something. Steel gives examples, such as paying a friend $10,000 if you gain weight or start smoking again, and a gym that gives free memberships provided you never miss your weekly gym session.

 “Making paying attention pay”

From the inside out – changing what we see and how we see the world

If you pay close attention and change how you see something, it shifts a stimulus (e.g. cigarettes, candy) from the [impulsive] limbic system to the [controlling] prefrontal cortex which considers things in the abstract.

For instance, if you describe your laptop’s physical characteristics in detail, it can help to shift your desire to check your e-mail (or play a game) towards your intention to limit your computer time.

Another strategy is to see close things as distant, and distant things as close. The report that’s due in 3 weeks? See it in detail this afternoon. The cake that’s calling to you right now? See it as a reward for later when your work is done.

Yet another way to change how we see the world is to pair a temptation with an undesirable image. For instance, when you get a hankering for ice cream, imagine how its fat is clogging up your arteries, or adding fat to your belly.

From the outside in – removing or reinforcing external cues to change the world we see

Eliminate external cues and distractions, such as getting rid of clutter. On the other hand, develop cues that stimulate desired actions, such as a bowl of fruit on the table (and cookies hidden out of site).

If you’re vulnerable to on-line gaming instead of working, have one laptop for work and one for gaming, or use one room for work and another room for gaming.

Is your garden crying out for attention? Get started by changing into your gardening clothes, which will cue you to do your gardening chores.

“Scoring goals”

I really like the saying, “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard”. This can be so helpful to getting a handle on impulsivity, and helping you achieve progress.

Goals need to be meaningful to you, somewhat challenging, specific, and with a short time frame. Here are some examples.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I will do my strengthening and flexibility exercises before breakfast. This is more oconcrete and doable than a vague goal of improve my health.

On Friday afternoons for one hour after lunch I will set work goals for the coming week. 

I rather like 10-minute goals. This can help us get started on something we tend to put off. The limited time makes it feel doable, and frequently gets us working longer than 10 minutes.

For 10 minutes every night before I go to bed, I will tidy up the living room.

For 10 minutes right now I will search for information for section 3 of the report.

“Full auto”

Make explicit intentions to act to help the desired behavior happen, as the sample goals above suggest. Such routines get stronger with every repetition. If you persevere, they will turn into good habits. If you slip up once in a while, just repeat your intention and try again tomorrow.

Use the “If…., then…..” strategy to help you steer in the direction you want to go. If the meeting offers only cookies for snack, I will have tea or a drink of water instead. If I write for 3 hours this morning, then I can read a novel for an hour after lunch.

Putting it all together

If you think you will succeed, you are less likely to procrastinate. If you can inject some reward or meaning into life’s responsibilities, your procrastination will drop. And if you get a handle on impulsivity with the strategies in this article, you will not only procrastinate less, but experience greater control and progress in other areas of your life.

Each of these three contributors to procrastination may be more or less relevant to you. Combined, they make up your procrastination profile. I hope you will now have greater understanding about which of these three factors is most relevant to you, and know which strategy you will start implementing today!

* 2010. Piers Steel. The Procrastination Equation. Random House Canada, 253 pp.

  • Cheryl Reid O'Hagan
    Posted at 12:10h, 01 November

    Your and Piers Steele’s suggestions are wonderful ! Especially the 10 minute thing… inch by inch. I’m going to ask you about your lyre. Could I have a centimeter of your time to get a couple of shots of it and you holding it and playing a chord or whatever for a documentary film maker Christopher DeVanney and I are doing on the Celtic Harp in Nova Scotia and I would like the audience to see how a lyre is of the same family but different from the harp which developed later. This is a question people often ask me and we are so lucky to have you in our midst … what are the stats on how many lyre players there are in any one community in Canada ???? Looking forward to hearing from you. Cheryl (Reid O’Hagan)