Fight Programmer Procrastination! A Simple Hack From Bevahioral Psychology

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How to overcome procrastination?

Procrastination may easily be the reason number one why you are not reaching your goals.

With good intentions, you set your alarm clock in the evening and expect your future self in the morning to get up, go to the gym, do some sports, eat healthily, maybe code a little.

Fast forward a few hours, the alarm clock goes off, but you ignore it and keep sleeping. You’ll be late to work again.

As bad as it is for your personal ambitions, procrastination is even more devastating in the world of investing. You know about compound interesting: “if you take $200 every month and put it into the stock market, you’ll be worth millions in a few decades”. That’s everything you need to do to completely fix your retirement worries. It’s very easy to do. But it’s even easier not to do.

“What’s easy to do is also easy not to do.”

Jim Rohn

That’s the problem with procrastination. You expect your future self to be a perfect, strong, healthy person. But your present self will seldomly live up to this potential. You are just the sum of your experiences of your present selfs — your future self is only an image in your head — so, you may find yourself actually accomplishing very little.

Here are some examples of the power of compounding actions:

  • If you are a research student in a Ph.D. program and you just write 300-400 words every day on your current paper, you are virtually guaranteed to finish it successfully.
  • If you want to write your book and you just take 10 minutes every day to write a few words — and you are keeping this habit for many years — you’ll write tens of books and likely earning a full-time income within a decade or less.
  • If you dream of becoming a great coder and code one line per day (to psychologically trick yourself into writing a second one and a third one), you’ll finish huge code projects with massive success.

But still, people procrastinate on these simple things.

A Behavioral Science View on Procrastination

Today, I watched a TED talk from Dan Ariely, the famous behavioral psychologist.

Ariely points out that in order to overcome procrastination, you need to implement an element of instant gratification into the activity you want to perform on a regular basis.

He gives an example from his own life. Having a liver problem, he participated in a test program for a new medicine which must be taken three times per week for one and a half years. Each time he takes the medicine, he would predictably experience pain for a day or so. So it turns out that after one and a half years, he successfully took the medicine perfectly on schedule. Surprisingly to him, he was the only person in the test group who managed to do this. So what did he do differently?

He felt that he wasn’t smarter, and hadn’t more energy or willpower. His unique strength was that as a behavioral psychologist, he knew about the weaknesses of people. He knew that the huge long-term benefit of living healthy in 10 years will NOT be enough to motivate him on a daily basis (and overcome the short-term suffering). The long-term benefit is not strong enough because we heavily discount future benefits in our heads. We are much more motivated to do tasks with short-term benefits — even if it’s completely irrational.

So what did he do? Because he loves watching movies, he decided to associate taking the medicine with watching a movie. It’s that simple. He associated a short-term benefit to the thing he needs to do which makes it immediately more attractive to him. Then, he carried the movies around and made it a habit to celebrate watching them as a reward for taking the medicine.

Associate Instant Gratification to Your Keystone Habits

You can apply this simple technique to achieve anything big in life that you want.

Set the big goal like becoming a master coder, break it down into a small daily habit like writing at least one line of code, and associate an immediate reward to it to get instant gratification.

This could be a “Coffee Break Python” (reading my Python email), watching a YouTube video (maybe a TED talk), or reading a book. Find a reward that’s useful and positive (smoking a cigarette would not fall into this category).

Action step: identify your goal, break it down into a daily habit, and associate instant gratification.