An Unlikely Cure for Procrastination

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” —Nelson Mandela

We all have tasks that—for whatever reason—we just don’t want to do.

They might be as mundane as organizing the garage or as grandiose as building the next Facebook. Small or large, easy or complex, self-rewarding or based on the obligations to others; regardless of what needs doing, I noticed something recently that consistently helps me break through cycles of procrastination and stay focused on the tasks that matter.

My “ah-ha” moment of introspection about procrastination came when a coworker said, “I’m addicted to working on this project.”

I didn’t doubt that he was telling the truth. People have been addicted to far stranger things than software projects. But the remark made me wonder: Can I improve my productivity by channelling my inner addict?

The answer was a resounding yes. I use and re-use “addiction training” (for lack of a better term) any time I find myself resisting some task that I don’t want to perform.

In order to understand why this works for me—and may also work for you—we need to understand how someone becomes addicted. The word addiction carries with it some serious baggage. Everyone knows how dependence on hard drugs or alcohol can lead to financial and emotional ruin, the destruction of relationships and sometimes even death.

Most people also know that addiction is not a character flaw; rather a person’s brain chemistry changes related to how “rewards” get processed. A shallow dive into neurology explains the chemical nature of addiction, beginning with the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with logic and decision-making. At first, we consciously set “goals” of getting drunk or high (or working out or having sex) because those things feel good. After a relatively short period of time—with some drugs, just a few doses or with “good” habits, some say 21 days—the motivation to continue the nascent behavior moves from a logical, conscious place to a more Pavlovian one. A new part of the brain takes over: the anterior dorsolateral striatum, wherein we process rewards-based learning.

“In rats seeking cocaine, additional evidence supports the hypothesis that seeking behavior is initially goal-directed, but after extended training becomes habitual and under the control of the anterior dorsolateral striatum (aDLS).” [source]

Once the aDLS has taken over, addicts will feed their addiction at all costs, even if they can knowingly reason that “smoking is unhealthy” or “alcohol is ruining my life.” It’s literally beyond their logical control.

The chemistry of addictive drugs, stimulants in particular, facilitates the transition of using drugs from “goal-based” to “habitual.” But how does this apply to my software project—or cleaning my garage?

Here’s what I do when I find myself procrastinating:

  1. Set up an extremely small reward challenge (to trigger the aDLS), e.g. “I’m going to install RVM/ruby and create my Rails project, then I’m going to have a bowl of ice cream.”
  2. Do the extremely small task. (Okay, that was easy and it took less than five minutes.)
  3. Eat the ice cream. (That felt good.)
  4. Go back to procrastinating.
  5. Repeat.

By associating the smallest level of effort with a reward, we can begin to trigger the reward processing module of our brain, effectively feeding our nascent addiction. (Bonus points for substituting “eat a bowl of ice cream” with “go for run” or some other healthy habit.) After repeating these steps several times, you’ll likely find yourself autonomously attracted to the work you logically don’t want to do. There’s a lesson to agile product owners here too: Stories reduced to the smallest atomic parts can give developers little “slam dunks” wherein the reward is baked into the process of moving the story along the agile board.

It’s important not to create additional negative addictions during this process—and equally important to keep the aDLS on its “toes.” Give yourself a huge reward for doing very little. Then give yourself a small reward for doing something huge. Sometimes, give no reward. Or flip a coin and if it’s heads, eat the ice cream; tails: Go back to work! This “random” nature of the rewards helps cement the working addiction using ideas from something (anecdotally) more addictive than cocaine: gambling.

This method for training an addiction might work better for some than others. One study claimed that 47% of the population carried a genetic marker for addiction. Even so, we all have an aDLS and we can all learn to train it to our advantage.

Having trouble exploiting your addictive tendencies to become more productive? What other techniques have you tried when you need to break out of a procrastination rut?