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10/08/2015 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

4 Ways to Use Goals and Rewards to Beat Procrastination

Christina Reichl Photography via Getty Images

Co-authored by Mickey Gast, language coach and staff writer at Avelist

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Procrastination is the monster of our over-connected times. We seem to have so many things to do, yet never find the right mood or time to do them all. We put off what seems boring and what causes us discomfort, and it piles up quickly. Then we blame it all on our weakness of character. No, that's not the real cause. Procrastination is a learned behavior. The good news is that the monster can be slayed just by re-learning how to deal with nagging tasks.

1. Set realistic goals. Often when we look at a project before actually starting it, we're overflowing with good intentions. We know exactly what we need to do and the deadline to do it. We set goals for our future self and are confident that it will get done. Wait a minute! Get done by whom? Oh, our future self, that's right. What if our future self can't carry all the load our present self has assigned? What if the assessment of the required workload wasn't realistic? Current ambitions are not good predictors of future goal achievement. This is called projection bias, and it means that we assume our future self (the one who will carry out the project) to have the same preference as our current self (the one who sets the goal). That's not always the case. Lofty goals are good. Lofty goals with low chances of completion are detrimental to our motivation and our morale. If you want to beat procrastination, start at the very beginning. Set realistic goals. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to take a first step towards the goal today.

2. Set up a continuous rewards system. You've probably heard many times before that setting a reward for the end of the project will help you beat procrastination. You tried that, but most of the work piled up at the end of the project. Or was it pushed there? You finished the project, rewarded yourself, but still felt like you were exhausted, moody and that you cut corners. Let's face it, you could have done better if only you'd started earlier. Associating the reward with the final goal is not going to help you when you're unmotivated sometime in the early stages or in the middle of the project. To better endure periods of boredom and discomfort, we need to regularly reward our accomplishments. This piece of advice from psychologist Alexander Rozental is based on the theory of industriousness, i.e. learned diligence, a term that was coined by Robert Eisenberger, professor of psychology at University of Houston. Instead of only rewarding ourselves at the end of a task, the trick is to also reward our progress along the way. This way, we shift focus from rewarding the final product to rewarding the performance itself. Through combining effort and rewards we can learn to associate work with something desirable.

3. Simultaneously tap the "power of fun". I'm sure I'm not the only one who plays podcasts when doing the dishes. It makes a not-so-exciting task more tolerable. It allows my brain to be stimulated and challenged by new information, rather than lather-rinse-repeat cycle. It helps me not to procrastinate on dish duty because I know I have something fun to look forward to. Psychologists have found that if we associate tasks we avoid with an activity that feels rewarding, we will have an easier time finding the dreaded tasks more appealing. "By combining long term achievements with something that provides an immediate reward our work becomes more appealing, which in turn lessens the risk of procrastination", says Alexander Rozental. How can you make unenjoyable tasks more appealing? Couple them with something you enjoy. Study in your favorite place; meet with a friend to go running together; dance while you're folding laundry; have a lavish chocolate bar while you're stuck at the office working on that report.

4. Mini goals are your friend. It takes so long for me to get started on a project I'm not keen on. I'm an excellent project finisher, but I usually have a hard time getting started. That's the struggle with most people who procrastinate. We think a lot about the thing that we have to do. As we discover that we find it boring or uncomfortable, we avoid it as long as possible. Here's when mini goals are helpful. They use the fleeting power of emotion to help us get started. And sometimes getting started is half the battle. It lowers the pressure we put on ourselves for the entire project, and it seems that just the act of getting started doesn't take a lot of motivation. So set mini-goals for yourself by having a really easy and achievable sub-task as your first step. For example, if you have to write an article or a proposal, create a blank document and name it. That wasn't so hard, right? Let's see what else you can do. Now start brainstorming in writing for five minutes. Painless, right? Keep going! As mentioned in tip no. 2, remember to regularly reward your progress.

The recommendations in this article are based on The Psychology that Gets Things Done, a bite-sized course by Alexander Rozental, a licensed psychologist, author and researcher at Stockholm University. To sign up for this free course and many others, go to DailyBitsOf.com.

The course is based on scientific studies by leading researchers in the fields of motivation, goal setting and procrastination. At the end of each lesson, you will be provided with exercises and principles of treatment from cognitive behavioral therapy within areas such as stress management and procrastination.

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