Procrastination

How to Break Your Procrastination Habit in the Next 21 Days Without Using Willpower

The first step is identifying why you procrastinate in the first place.
How to Break Your Procrastination Habit in the Next 21 Days Without Using Willpower
Image credit: PhotoAlto | Eric Audras | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Founder of SuccessClinic.com
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Do you ever procrastinate? Do you sometimes put off doing things you know would improve your life and/or business?

Related: Finally Stop Procrastinating With These 4 Simple Steps

When I ask this question in my keynote speeches and live workshops, 80 percent of the hands in the audience go up. The rest, of course, are waiting until later to answer the question. (A little procrastination joke for you, there.)

Now, most people would agree that procrastination will not only not bring you closer to your goals; procrastination will, in fact, often prevent you from reaching your goals in the first place.

The logical question, then, is: How do we stop procrastinating? The problem with that question is that humans aren't logical. (Just ask Mr. Spock.)

The question behind the question, then, is what are babits and how can we change them? In the late 1990s, a group of neuroscientists at MIT discovered that habits are formed in the brain, a process that The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg calls "the habit loop":

First, the cue

The first element of the habit loop is the cue. The cue is the thing that causes a habit to happen. You could also call it the stimulus.

For example, let's say that you're sitting at your desk, and you're thinking about doing that "thing" that would help you grow your business. You might be thinking, "You know, I really should write that article ... or call that prospect ... or craft that sales pitch ... or finish that training video ..."

So there you are, thinking about doing that action that would actually help you make more money or grow your business.

Related: 11 Ways to Beat Procrastination

Next, the routine

Then we come to the next element of the habit loop, called the routine. That's the thing you do after the cue occurs.

In this example, you are thinking about doing that activity that will help you make more money. So, what's the very next thing you do after the cue occurs?

Here's where it gets interesting. The human brain is highly efficient. That's the good news. However, it's also the bad news. Why? Because your brain is so efficient, when it finds a way of doing things, it doesn't want to change.

Which means that when you start doing something (e.g., form a habit), your brain tends to want to keep doing it, even if you -- the owner of said brain -- want to do something different. 

For example, you consciously know that procrastination is not a good habit, and that doing this habit is, in fact, costing you time and money. However, because your brain is so efficient, your brain is essentially saying, "Hey, I've got a good thing going here. Why change?"

So, you have the cue (you think about doing that thing that will make you more money), and then you do ... something else. Watching cat videos on YouTube, checking Instagram, turning on Netflix, going to the kitchen to grab a snack, checking Instagram again ... the distractions -- er, possibilities -- are endless!

Related: Procrastination or Contemplation? Why Procrastinators Will Rule the Business World.

Then, the reward

The third element of the habit loop is called the reward. After you do the routine, the MIT neuroscientists found that the brain releases "happy hormones" including endorphins. Endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. It's like your brain says, "Ahh! Thanks, I needed that."

Think about that for a moment. When you are doing something you enjoy -- something you are used to, also called a habit -- your brain actually feels better. And that is the very problem!  Because over time, if you keep doing this habit, you're going to tend to keep doing it (unconsciously) -- even though you know consciously that this habit won't get you where you want to go.

But, guess what? Your brain doesn't care! Because your brain produces a reward (e.g., endorphins) for doing things that feel good, your brain doesn't want to start doing things that might make it uncomfortable (and therefore might cause pain).

Bottom line: When you try to change your habits using the old method of "willpower," you're really trying to fight your own brain. Do you see now why that almost never works?

Related: 7 Surefire Techniques for Overcoming Chronic Procrastination

Why willpower is not enough

Traditional success teachers focus almost exclusively on the "how-to's" of success -- that is, how to change your behavior in order to get different results. And that's perfectly logical, right?

However, my experience over the last 20-plus years of coaching thousands of entrepreneurs just like you from around the world has shown that when people try to use those traditional "how-to" programs to change their habits, it's like trying to drive a nail in the wall ... using a chainsaw.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a chainsaw -- if you want to chop down a tree. However, if you want to drive a nail into the wall, it's the wrong tool for the job.

The point is, while there's nothing inherently "wrong" with trying to use willpower to change your habits, scientific studies have shown that willpower is a limited resource -- one that is, ironically, ill-suited to the job of habit change.

Related: 4 Reasons People Procrastinate and a Cure for Each One

Why you're closer than you think

The great news is that you're closer than you think to being able to break the procrastination habit without using willpower.

How do I know? Because my guess is that you've already spent lots of time, money, and effort on all those traditional "how-to" programs.

From now on, stop trying to use willpower to change your habits, and instead use my "R.I.S.E.S. Method": 

1. Recognize your cue. What is the stimulus that triggers this habit? Over the next seven days, notice exactly what happens in your life that causes you to procrastinate. For example, do you procrastinate because you feel fear? Do you surf the internet because you feel lonely?

2. Isolate your routine. What exactly do you do after the cue happens? For example, when we feel fear, we tend to run away from the thing that's causing us to feel that emotion. So, if you're afraid of calling that prospect, an easy thing to do is surf the internet, so you don't have to confront that fear.

3. Sense your reward. For instance, procrastination may cause you to feel safe, so you don't have to face your fear of what might happen if you actually did that thing you're thinking of doing. What's the reward you get from doing this habit?

Related: The 6 Factors That Lead to Wasted Mornings (and How to Curb Them)

4. Expose your belief. Every habit produces a corresponding belief -- for example, a chronic procrastinator might believe, "I work better under pressure." What beliefs are you holding onto that are stopping you from letting go of this habit?

5. Substitute a better routine. Rather than mindlessly surfing the internet, what if you actually called that prospect or finished that report? What would happen if you actually did the thing that scares you?

Of course, when you do this, you're going to have to face your fears and challenge your beliefs. And that's decidedly uncomfortable -- which is why most people won't do it.

However, if you want to reap the benefits from breaking the procrastination habit, you may find that, in the words of philosopher and author George Addair, "Everything you've ever wanted is on the other side of fear."

More from Entrepreneur

David provides constructive insight to help businesses focus on their company growth, build brand awareness and know when and how to raise money.
Book Your Session

In as little as seven months, the Entrepreneur Authors program will turn your ideas and expertise into a professionally presented book.
Apply Now

Are paying too much for business insurance? Do you have critical gaps in your coverage? Trust Entrepreneur to help you find out.
Get Your Quote Now

Latest on Entrepreneur

My Queue

There are no Videos in your queue.

Click on the Add to next to any video to save to your queue.

There are no Articles in your queue.

Click on the Add to next to any article to save to your queue.

There are no Podcasts in your queue.

Click on the Add to next to any podcast episode to save to your queue.

You're not following any authors.

Click the Follow button on any author page to keep up with the latest content from your favorite authors.