Procrastination sucks. Lack of motivation sucks. It would be great to procrastinate less; if only you were motivated… right?
In fact, you already are; you just don’t see it yet.
We look to the rich and popular; we idealize the lives of the great achievers. Instagram and Twitter makes us wonder how they get so much done and where their motivation comes from. Meanwhile, we struggle to get out of bed and start living the lives of which we dream. We end up powerless and don’t get things done the way we know we should.
Does this sound like you? If it does, don’t worry, you are not alone. I had trouble finding motivation for much of anything when I first started studying productivity.
Once I started understanding motivation and where it came from, everything changed. I began procrastinating less, and even found more enjoyment in my daily tasks.
This is not an article on how to stop procrastinating, per se. I wrote this to enlighten many on the principles of motivation. But by the end, you will have seen how to transform your attitude on procrastination.
I used to experience a lack of motivation much like everyone else; I procrastinated more than I admit. When I had a task to complete that was not fun, I would push it back and stand by until I had higher motivation.
I’m here to tell you: motivation is bullshit. What you need, is to understand motivation differently and start with action.
What is Motivation?
Most people live their lives believing that motivation exists, and it does, but not in the way you expect. Many view motivation as the precursor before having the willpower for a task—before accomplishing a goal that is, for the lack of a better word, motivating and fun.
When doing something you enjoy, you first recognize the motivation leading up to it. If you imagine yourself about to play your favourite game, you can picture the rush of emotions you would get before your ass even hit the chair. You attribute the rush of emotions to your motivation for playing that game. Your cognitive schema, or how you depict things in your mind, tells you that before you get the fun result (B), you have an action (A) and motivation (M).
Simply put, most people believe that motivation is the first step before acquiring a result which they want. Motivation represents their willingness to achieve that result. And they are not right or wrong, I’ll explain.
Note: If you want to skip the psychology behind motivation, scroll to the How to Procrastinate Less section or use the Table of Contents at the top.
Maslow’s Theory of Motivation
How we are viewing and defining motivation is at fault. Motivation is everywhere around us, and in everything we do. If you eat an apple, it’s because you were motivated to do so. Supposing that we are motivated only when we are working hard or advancing a larger goal of ours is wrong. Everyone is constantly motivated. That’s where the beauty lives.
To illustrate the idea, I will present a well-known theory of motivation: the hierarchy of needs.
Hierarchy of Needs
Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that humans were programmed to better themselves through self-actualization and by attending to different levels of both physiological and psychological needs. The theory proposed an argument for motivation which posits that anything we do results from an underline motivation to fulfill a need.
Needs drive us to achieve something we want and require for successful living. Maslow arranged the needs in a hierarchy. Eating, safety, and other physiological needs are lower-level needs in the hierarchy; they are attended to first. These are your basic needs; you can seem them as the first two blocks of the pyramid below. They affect your ability to survive—if you don’t eat; you die. If you are unsafe, you are more likely to die, and so forth.
Other needs include psychological needs that arise later in life, such as social connection, self-esteem, and self-development; they represent the top three sections of the pyramid above. These are important too, but according to Maslow, we attend to bottom-level needs first, and progress upwards through the pyramid.
The same cognitive structure as earlier can apply to an example of Maslow’s theory. Imagine eating an apple. Hunger motivates (M) you to eat, you reach for an apple, eat it (action, A), and become satisfied (fun result, B). Now I’m sure you’ve heard no one say that they were motivated to eat an apple before, right? But eating an apple is motivation—just expressed differently.
Higher-level needs are closely linked to our basic needs. Increased security, social connections, and self-development can offer more food and security; so, attending to your high-level needs indirectly attend to your basic needs. This is the idea behind modern societies. There are less immediate threats to your basic needs, so we are free to focus on our higher development and actualization.
Why then, do we procrastinate? Why do our brains lag and refuse to find the motivation we need to achieve our dreams and help us become the person we want? Given that this indirectly satisfies our needs for survival and social connection?
Why do we Procrastinate?
Maslow’s argument that humans are self-actualizers helps explain why we have trouble finding motivation. Your greater goals might fulfil a higher-level need for achievement or self-esteem, but the smaller tasks you carry probably do not. It is these tasks we push back.
Graduating University is potentially a goal of yours. Or perhaps starting your own business. Whatever your goal, there will be smaller and more annoying tasks you need to complete. Students need to spend hours studying and working side-jobs; entrepreneurs need to sit and develop sound business plans and execute lots of busy work.
The problem with these smaller tasks is that on their own, they lack intrinsic worth and do not cater to your needs.
A student who spends hours sitting in front of his books might dislike studying, despite his need and wish to become a doctor. The material is interesting, and he wants to become a doctor; he just does not describe his emotional response to studying as motivating (I’m sure most students prefer to be out with friends or relaxing). His larger goal is to become a doctor, but spending his time studying is difficult and tiresome; it is just a task he is required to do if he wants to achieve his dream. Studying for hours every Friday and Saturday does not attend to any need directly, but his larger goal tend to self-development needs. Given that studying stems from his larger goal, and does not directly affect his needs, he is more likely to push it back.
You can always break bigger goals and projects into smaller tasks. Often these will be dull, frustrating, difficult, and by themselves, not motivating. These are the tasks we are most likely to push back.
Compare your goals to building a wall. The wall could grant you security and a sense of achievement; both are valuable needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. You could describe your need to build the wall as motivating.
What we cannot realize is that to have our wall, we need to learn how to build it ourselves. We need to choose the brick colour, buy the equipment, etc. And even once all this is done, we need to spend our days laying the brick and building the wall slowly. Procrastination happens during any of those smaller steps and could be enough to deter many from ever building their wall. You could say, they lacked the motivation to build their wall, but in truth, they lacked the willingness to do the minor things needed to build their wall.
What do we Procrastinate on?
If we return to our cognitive structure, buying the bricks we need for our wall is our action (A). The question remains: where does motivation (M) come from and what is the fun result (B)?
In this example, where the motivation comes from is more difficult to define, because the task is mundane and easy; you need only to buy bricks (A). The simplest answer is that you are motivated by tending to the needs the wall fulfill (M); and the fun result (B) comes from being closer to your goal. Given the ease of the task and how little effort it takes, you are unlikely to procrastinate for very long, but if the task took effort and was more difficult, the thought of procrastination becomes more attractive.
What procrastination boils down to is realizing that you are most likely to procrastinate on the tasks you least enjoy and give you no immediate rewards. This might be a “no shit” moment for many readers. Bear with me, the interesting stuff is coming.
I know you want to know how to procrastinate less and finish your goal; we’re getting to it.
How to Procrastinate Less.
If you read until here, you must ask yourself what all this means. You are interested in learning how to stop procrastination, after all. But understanding the psychology behind motivation helps you grasp the upcoming concepts.
Before getting into it, I don’t want to sell you fairy dust and lies. You might never stop procrastinating; and that’s okay. Everyone pushes back tasks and gets distracted sometimes. The idea is to rewire how we view procrastination and do it less.
Here are my tips on how to become a better procrastinator:
1- Start Taking Action
My best tip on procrastinating less is to redefine your motivation schema. The schema we established earlier looked like this:
The issue with this representation lies in its linearity. By placing motivation first, you tell yourself that you must wait until you feel motivated before taking action. Boy, this sets you up for failure big time. As I’ve mentioned before, you might never feel motivated to do the tasks for which you have no willpower.
Instead, start believing that motivation is in everything you do, and adopt a circular schema like the one below:
By doing this, you are telling yourself that the first step can be whichever one you choose. You could start with a result. Seeing a good grade on a test (B) could give you the motivation (M) to study towards your dream (A), for example.
Or, on days you are feeling less energetic and can’t find the willpower to do your tasks, start with an action. Working on the task will lead to a result which will motivate you into further action and so forth—before you know it, you’ve gained more results; and the motivation loop starts again.
Runners and athletes can attest to this. Most days, the thought of going for a run or workout sounds like a drag, but they go anyways. They take action because they believe that action will lead to the result they want: to be lean, happy, and more energetic. Their results, in turn, fuel further motivation.
They do not sit around and wait for a feeling before working out—they just do.
2- Find Personal Value in Everything You do.
To echo a point made earlier, if you are not doing it for yourself, you will find it difficult to follow-through the more annoying and difficult tasks. You should take-on projects and new tasks for yourself if you want to find long-term success.
Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation
Reality is never so simple. You will face many situations where you complete tasks only because you will get a reward from it. This is extrinsic motivation. Those who do not believe in their own work may use extrinsic motivation to their end; they might only complete their work because their boss promised them a paycheck or a raise.
If you hate many aspects of your job, you may keep doing it because it pays the bills. Here, you are using extrinsic motivation. The paycheck is the reward which motivates you, even if you hate your job. Many workers go through their career satisfied with this approach. In fact, everyone uses extrinsic motivation during their work. This is normal. But in most cases, extrinsic motivation is not ideal if you want to see long-term changes in how you view and start difficult tasks.
If you want to achieve larger life goals and start seeing changes in your levels of procrastination, you need to find intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation means identifying on a personal level with the goals and tasks you are trying to accomplish. Aim to complete things which matter to you on a deeper level. By doing so, you will work more easily through the pain when things suck. And believe me, the day will come when a task will suck, no matter how fun or motivating your end-goal is.
The overarching message is that you should strive to do things you don’t mind suffering for. What goal do you need that you can stay up nights for? What goal would you sacrifice for? What dream do you have that you would cry, sweat, and possible, bleed for?
3- Work Towards a Goal You Enjoy.
You first need to choose a goal that is catered to your needs (remember the hierarchy). If you are reading this, I assume that you are not procrastinating on fulfilling your basic needs; you don’t lack food or safety. Mainly, you are looking for ways to stop procrastinating on your life’s biggest desires. This means you are looking to fulfill a need of self development, esteem, or connection; one of the higher psychological goals from the hierarchy.
To do so, I suggest asking yourself these questions:
How much of your days are filled with tasks you hate?
Ask yourself this, because if most of what you are doing daily annoys you, maybe your goal is not in line with your values and self. You should not struggle to get through each day—there needs to be a balance between finding fulfillment and living.
Is your goal something you really want?
Your goal might not fulfill any needs you have, but only those you let yourself believe you want. Societal and cultural pressures often make us believe we need or want things we don’t.
Are you an “A student” because your parents would only respect you if you were to become a doctor or a lawyer? Do you want to start a business only to find riches, love and respect? Think about why you want to accomplish your goals. Having a goal that ties in with your beliefs about the world and who you want to become will help you on your path to achieving it.
Do you know what needs you have?
At this point you should not look to motivation guides and productivity gurus. Instead, strive towards a better understanding of yourself and your values. Ask yourself what is important for you. Do you need to feel more connected? Are you pained with low self-esteem? What need are you trying to fulfil, and what life trajectory makes you happiest; the most satisfied?
This could be the topic of another complete article, but for now, lets focus on the topic at hand.
Reach out if you have any comments or want to share a personal story about how you stay motivated! I would love to hear from you. As always, stay happy!