Procrastination is a complex beast.
But it is far from an automatic death sentence for your dreams and aspirations. Even if it often feels that way.
No matter how bad your procrastination is, how ingrained the habit is and why you do it there is hope. Procrastination can be fixed.
If you are serious about overcoming procrastination
If you are serious about overcoming your procrastination long-term I highly encourage you to
- take the time to really understand procrastination in general
- dig deep on your own procrastination patterns
- follow a clear action plan for overcoming the habit
I am working on a 3 month online procrastination bootcamp that is designed to help you with all of that step by step. It will attack procrastination from multiple angles and used proven methods I used to help tons of people overcome their procrastination habit.
Ain’t nobody got time for this
However, I get asked all the time about a simple trick or strategy that can help you stop procrastinating right now.
Something easy that can be used anytime and does not require any extra effort or time.
And honestly, I don’t blame procrastinators for wanting a quick fix. As a procrastinator you already wasted so much time. It feels like there just isn’t any time or energy left to fix the actual problem!
So here comes one of my favorite anti-procrastination strategies: the water baby method.
The water baby method is as close to a universal solution as it gets. It works for practically any task and anyone can use it, no matter why you are procrastinating.
And most importantly, it tackles the procrastination problem from multiple angles which makes it extremely effective.
Limitations of the water baby method for fighting procrastination
There is one limitation to this method, however.
You can only use this method if you catch yourself in the act of procrastinating.
Let me explain.
Many people know that they procrastinate a lot. But sometimes it’s just a general sense you have because things don’t get done or you have a lot of vivid recollections of times where you did work last minute in a frenzy to meet a deadline.
The procrastination moment
But procrastination is all about the exact moment when one part of you knows it would be a good time to do “insert super important task here”, but you don’t do it for no good reason other than that inner resistance you feel to getting started on the task.
This moment is usually extremely brief and a lot of times we aren’t even aware it is happening.
Procrastination can be such an ingrained habit that our whole day just plays out on auto-pilot leading us to avoid our dreaded tasks without us ever really thinking about what we are doing.
So if you want to use the water baby method effectively, you need to first set up a system that will allow you to more easily catch yourself in the very moment you procrastinate: That key moment where you delay getting started on a task because you just don’t feel like it!
Setting up a procrastination awareness system
The easiest way to become more aware of your procrastination is to write a to-do list for your day the night before. It’s key that you write it the day before and not right before you want to do some work.
Having some time between “deciding what to do” and “having to do something” you are much more likely to use your rational part of the brain in deciding what would be a good idea to tackle tomorrow instead of your emotional brain (“what do I want to do right now?”)
It also helps if you decide ahead of time on a specific order in which to do the tasks. Put the one you want to do first at the top.
And finally, write down when you will start working on the list.
Write tasty tasks
And to make it easier for you to do the tasks (besides the water baby method), follow these three rules for task writing to make your tasks more appealing.
You now built the perfect trap to catch yourself in the act.
The next day you will simply try to follow your plan by starting on the first task in your list at your designated start time.
And be aware of excuses! Procrastination isn’t hurting anyone but yourself. And only when you recognize and can admit to yourself what is really going on when you delay a task can you do something about it.
Water Baby Method of overcoming Procrastination
Picture this scenario
The whole method relies on an analogy of a baby taking a bath (hence the name).
Analogies are helpful for remembering something in detail and drive home the main points.
I want you to picture a little baby (or a puppy if you don’t like babies). You are the parent and you want to give the baby her first bath. You filled a bathtub with a little bit of warm water and are holding the baby, ready to place him in the bathtub.
As a loving parent you know becoming familiar with water is an important step in the babies development and ultimately good for the baby. Plus the baby is pretty dirty and needs a good wash…
However, the baby doesn’t know any of that!
It has no concept of long-term benefits. It is simply terrified of the look of that strange water in the bathtub. The baby instinctually tries to avoid getting into that bath. It cries, screams and digs his little hands into your skin: anything to avoid touching that water.
What do you do in that situation?
Accept that the baby has decided it does not want to touch water and resolve that you now have a child that will be forever a bit stinky? I hope not!
You likely know that as soon as the baby calms down a bit and gets used to the water it will most likely be OK with it. The water isn’t hurting the baby. And long-term this is the best thing for the baby.
So you persist and try to help the baby feel calm and get used to the water in small steps to show him there isn’t anything to be afraid of.
You probably wouldn’t just throw the baby in the bathtub. You might splash some water gently on its hand to get it to realize the water won’t hurt him. Maybe dip her toes into the water. If the water truly seems to cause the baby pain you try to adjust the temperature to make it as comfortable as possible.
You show compassion for the baby who is experiencing real fear.
You know that if you give in in that moment and won’t even let the baby touch the water, you are basically telling the baby it is correct to fear the water. And next time you will be dealing with the same situation. So you don’t give up until that baby is clean and had a good or at least neutral experience with the water so next time it will be easier to get the baby in the water.
Your brain at conflict: procrastination
The baby and parent are two parts of your brain:
- Parent: the modern, rational and long-term thinking part of your brain (prefrontal cortex aka rational decision maker).
- Baby: the ancient, emotional-driven part of your brain that only cares about surviving (amygdala/limbic system aka lizard brain).
The scenario above is precisely what happens inside your brain when you are facing a task you are likely to delay.
If a task elicits any negative emotion in us, the first instinct of the lizard brain is to try and avoid it.
The problem is that we usually have a reason for wanting to do a task. Whether it is to reach a goal, keep our job or not pay late fees. But only our rational decision maker understands these long-term consequences and benefits of the task.
Our ancient brain is only focused on survival. And if something is unpleasant or unfamiliar chances are we are better off avoiding it. It likes to stick to things that we know are safe and offer a high reward relative to the energy expenditure it takes to do a task. You know, things like eating, sex, browsing the Internet and playing those addictive mobile games.
So how do we get anything done?
The good news is that your pre-frontal cortex has the ability to override those ancient instincts. And do things despite our ancient brain protesting.
Whether you end up procrastinating or tackling the task you are faced with depends on who wins: the prefrontal cortex or the lizard brain.
Think of it like an equation. The bigger side wins. It all depends on how strong or well trained your prefrontal cortex is in that moment in relation to how strong your lizard brain response to a task is.
But it often happens so quickly and subconsciously that you might not even be aware of it.
The important key piece of why the method works is that the lizard brains job is to protect you and it tends to err on the side of caution. It’s also a bit of a drama queen. If there is just a hint of uncomfortableness around a task it might think this task will kill you and try to get you to avoid it at all cost (Better safe than sorry…).
Obviously, most tasks don’t kill us and almost every time they are not even as close to as bad as we think.
How to apply the water baby method
The key point is that you should treat yourself just like you would treat the baby afraid of water when you are about to procrastinate:
Staying put (don’t move!)
When you see it’s time to work on a task and you can feel that uncomfortable feeling rising inside of you, the resistance building immediately think of the baby water scenario and stay put.
I repeat. Stay put. Don’t move.
In that moment, we often have an immediate urge to calm or distract ourselves: open a tab in our browser, pick up our phone to check or play something, walk to the fridge to get a snack or start on another easier task.
But if you walk away now and start on another activity you are reinforcing the procrastination pattern. You are basically rewarding the avoidance behavior, making it more likely the same thing will happen again next time.
It’s like giving a dog a treat right after he poops on the floor. He will link the two behaviors and associate positive things with something that isn’t positive at all.
If you play a game or browse your favorite site (high reward for the brain) right after avoiding a task, you are rewarding procrastination.
So by just doing nothing instead you are breaking the cycle.
There are three key things that happen when you stay put:
- you are not reinforcing the avoidance behavior
- you are letting yourself experience negative emotions (instead of immediately distracting yourself), which builds tolerance long-term
- you created an opportunity to engage your pre-frontal cortex and override the default response (which happens in a split second)
Try to stay calm and take a deep breath. Bring your awareness to what is going on right now. Congratulate yourself for catching yourself in the act and creating this opportunity to do something about your procrastination.
Remember to be kind to yourself. Be grateful for the brain part that is trying to protect you (even though it is misguided) from an unpleasant task. And have compassion for yourself. You are likely feeling very uncomfortable right now. Perhaps you can feel the stress or fear in your body, perhaps it is too subtle to notice. But there are stress hormones circulating around and your amygdala is creating negative emotions to try and get you to avoid the task it thinks is dangerous for you.
The next point is crucial, if you decide to just do the whole task and ignore the part of you that feels uncomfortable, you might scare yourself even more and it becomes all too much and you give in to the self soothing behavior.
Focus on “getting started”
Instead, make a deal with yourself to just dip your toes in the water.
Resolve to get started and just try working on the task for 5min (or whatever time limit feels safe). If it really feels as bad as your lizard brain tells you it will, you can stop.
Reframe things in your mind from “doing the task” to “trying the task”. The goal right now is not to finish anything. The only goal right now is to try and get started on the task despite the resistance you feel.
Again, the only goal right now is to get started on the task. Even if it is just for a minute.
Actually moving ahead and getting started on the task will really break the procrastination pattern instead of reinforcing it.
Going ahead with the unpleasant task will strengthen your pre-frontal cortex pathways responsible for overriding your emotional response. This will benefit you long-term.
Getting started on the task will also show your lizard brain that the task is safe to do making it elicit a lesser fear response next time.
The beautiful thing is that a task is practically never as bad as we think it is before we get started. So as you get into it, you will calm down and perhaps even enjoy working on it. Your lizard brain will remember this and next time around the resistance it generates will be much smaller.
Congratulate yourself every time you can effectively overcome the resistance and get started on a task you instinctively want to procrastinate. This is huge! You are now well on your way of improving your procrastination.
Again, the key is to become aware of that tiny moment where you are tempted to turn away from a task and get started on it instead. Try to do this multiple times a day and your procrastination habit will get weaker and weaker, putting you back in the driver’s seat of your life.
The importance of compassion
Remember to always be compassionate and kind to yourself every time you don’t manage to override the resistance. It takes time to rewire our brains! You are not going to be successful at doing this every time. Just try your best. Praise yourself when it works and offer compassion when it does not.
The worst thing you can do is beating yourself up over not succeeding. That just scares your poor lizard brain even more making it more reactive. There are a ton of studies that show being kind and compassionate with yourself (the opposite of beating yourself up, negative self-talk and being hard on yourself) is one of the key things in overcoming procrastination.
Remember: being hard on yourself makes your procrastination worse. So don’t do it!
Why is the water baby method so effective for overcoming procrastination?
The reason why this mental model is so effective is because it combines multiple of the most important aspects of beating procrastination:
- understanding the cause of procrastination (lizard brain being scared trying to protect you)
- breaking the pattern (not rewarding procrastination!)
- strengthening the pathways needed to self-regulate and override instincts by getting started despite the resistance
The more you do this, the quicker you will get better. It’s all about practice. But don’t sweat it when you can’t stick to the method or forget to apply it for long stretches of time. Just resolve to try again. Physical reminders like sticky notes on your computer can also be helpful to remind you to practice the water baby method.
Also published on Medium.
This has been so helpful to read! I had never heard of this method but I knew about the idea of starting with something easy for just five minutes. I had never managed to successfully use it regularly, but your article somehow made me understand how important it is to not reinforce the procrastination behaviours and I have found it much easier to start my work. And I love how readable this is, especially the little summaries. Thanks!
So happy the article helped you in some way. 🙂 Thanks for your comment. Wishing you lots of success in your procrastination beating!
Hey, this is a really cool method. I’m grateful to you for this blog.
So glad you like it! Thanks for your kind comment.
Marina Teramond @ NMPL
I completely understand you because our children are in the same situation and they are used to procrastinating, doing homework late in the evening and giving preference to their entertainment. But we can’t find the right way to get out of this situation. Of course, the most important tip in the solution of this problem is to find the true reasons which can be so different. I absolutely agree with you that we tend to procrastinate because we feel comfortable and calm in this state and the current moment, feeling satisfaction. It really bribes us. The greatest truth is that you need to start performing the tasks to feel motivation because as people say “the appetite comes with eating” and it can be applicable to all spheres of life. Also, I think that no less effective method is to be loyal and understanding to yourself because with the aid of it you can create a harmony inside and be more productive.
// Marina Teramond @ N.M.P.L.