Just do it!

Guest post by Christina Simms

Understanding why we procrastinate and how to beat it. Having trouble whittling down your To-Do list? Do you find yourself saying (albeit with confidence) “I’ll get to that tomorrow.”? You aren’t alone. Procrastination seems to be the one thing you can almost always count on people getting done. But why do we seem to keep putting off for tomorrow what we could do today? Every week I go through the same routine. I make a to-do list with the good intention of crossing everything off. I do the easiest, quickest things first; mark them off with a wonderful feeling of satisfaction and typically leave the more complex, challenging to-do’s for tomorrow. Before I know it, two weeks have passed and my list is that much longer.

People procrastinate on all sorts of things. We put off taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, doing our taxes, mailing Christmas cards. Most of the time, we find ourselves avoiding tasks because something about doing them is tedious, unpleasant, time consuming, or in some way negative. The science of behavior, specifically behavior analysis, provides not only the answers to ‘why’ but also how we can overcome our own procrastination. The science of behavior tells us that it is consequences that determine whether or not we will do something again in the future. If you receive a negative consequence as a result of something you did (ie. a behavior) then you are less likely to do that behavior again in the future.  Alternatively, if there are positive consequences associated with something you have done, then you are more likely to repeat that behavior in the future.

Many years ago, Aubrey developed a tool to examine consequences called the PIC/NIC Analysis®. Again, the science tells us that consequences can be positive or negative, immediate or future, and certain or uncertain. The most powerful consequences are the positive/immediate/certain and negative/immediate/certain ones. In this age of instant gratification, procrastination has become even more prevalent. Lots of things are competing for our attention and the ones that win are the PICs because, frankly, they are more reinforcing to us. College students turn to Facebook instead of starting their 20 page papers, kids spend hours hooked on video games instead of cleaning their rooms, and 9-5 workers choose catching up on their favorite TV shows over an evening work-out. This may sound like common sense, but if we all understood so well how behavior works, we wouldn’t be in danger of becoming Procrastination Nation. I turned to Dr. Aubrey Daniels for some wise advice about how to beat procrastination and get things done. It is tempting to start by picking the low hanging fruit, but Dr. Daniels warns against this common practice.

Instead, he suggests an alternative method to working through your To-do list. Start by making a list of everything you need to do. Next, rank the items from most desirable to least desirable. Now comes the hard part— start at the bottom of the list! If you can get yourself to do the worst half of the list first, finishing the other half will be a breeze. Dr. Daniels also recommends using the Premack Principle. Tell yourself “when I do this (undesirable task), then I can do that” (something fun and enjoyable). Of course the key to both of these solutions is to practice self-control, something that may take time to improve. Changing your habits can be hard to do, so start small and don’t forget to reward yourself as you begin to notice changes in how you approach your projects at work or chores around the house.

For more on the Premack Principle and PIC/NIC Analysis® read Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness. See also Performance Management Magazine, Volume 7 Number 2, p. 12.  

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.