Procrastination: Book Overview (Lenora Yuen and Jane Burka)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Procrastination" by Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Lenora Yuen and Jane Burka’s Procrastination about? What’s the key message to take away from the book?

In their book Procrastination, psychologists Lenora Yuen and Jane Burka argue that we procrastinate to experience short-term relief from our fear of working on certain tasks. Fortunately, they claim that you can beat procrastination and learn to live a more fulfilling life if you accept reality’s constraints and learn healthier ways to manage your fears.

Below is a brief overview of Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now by Lenora Yuen and Jane Burka.

What Is Procrastination, and How Does It Harm Us?

The Procrastination book authors claim that procrastination is postponing a task. They argue that there are positive, neutral, and negative forms of procrastination. It’s positive or neutral when you delay less-important tasks to attend to important ones. For example, it’s a good idea to procrastinate on mowing the lawn so you can visit an aging family member. Positive and neutral forms of procrastination have little to no long-term, negative consequences.

(Shortform note: Other experts on procrastination also argue that there are positive forms of procrastination. In A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley adds that procrastination is positive when you intentionally delay a task to reflect on how best to begin it. For instance, you might intentionally procrastinate on starting a report by looking back at feedback on your previous reports and determining what writing skills you should focus on improving.)

By contrast, procrastination is negative when you delay tasks to the extent that you delay living a fulfilling, healthy life. Negative procrastination leads to any or all of these four issues:

First, it leads you to perform poorly on tasks. Procrastinators often save tasks for the last minute or miss deadlines altogether, leading to poor performance at work and school. 

(Shortform note: Some people believe that when we procrastinate, we perform better on tasks because we’re under the pressure of an encroaching deadline. However, research confirms Burka and Yuen’s claim that people perform poorly on tasks they procrastinate on. For instance, one study shows that people who procrastinate work at a slower pace and make more mistakes on timed tasks compared to those who don’t procrastinate.)

Second, procrastination causes you to miss important opportunities. Procrastinators often delay life-improving decisions, such as switching to a better career.

(Shortform note: It seems counterintuitive to procrastinate on something that would improve your life. Procrastinators may postpone life-improving decisions because many life choices lack precise deadlines. For instance, there’s no specific age at which you must switch careers. Without the pressure of a looming deadline, it’s easier to procrastinate on such choices.)

Third, procrastination strains your relationships. When procrastinators delay chores, assignments, and decisions, they frustrate and disappoint their colleagues, friends, and family. 

(Shortform note: Another way procrastinators negatively impact others is through secondhand procrastination: when your tendency to delay tasks creates more work for others. For example, if you procrastinate on contributing to a group task, your groupmates have to complete your portion of work. This may cause them to resent you and could jeopardize the task.)

Fourth, procrastination compromises your physical health. Procrastinators’ health suffers when they avoid exercise, fail to plan healthy meals, and postpone doctor visits. 

(Shortform note: Arguably, one of the most harmful ways procrastinators compromise their health is by delaying their bedtime. This harms their well-being and reduces their sleep quality. Research suggests that there’s a link between smartphone usage and bedtime procrastination.)

Finally, procrastination hurts your self-esteem and mental health. Many procrastinators feel guilt and shame about their tendencies, which degrades their self-esteem and mental health.

(Shortform note: In The Now Habit, Neil Fiore claims that when we feel guilty and shameful about procrastinating on work, those feelings propel us into a cycle that only makes us procrastinate more. According to Fiore, this happens because there’s a societal belief that work is tedious yet virtuous. Our belief that it’s tedious makes us avoid it, then our belief that it’s virtuous makes us feel guilty and shameful for avoiding it. This guilt and shame lead us to procrastinate further.)

Throughout the rest of this guide, we’ll focus on understanding and solving negative procrastination, specifically. 

Why People Procrastinate

In their book Procrastination, psychologists Lenora Yuen and Jane Burka argue that we procrastinate to experience short-term relief from our fear of working on certain tasks. In this section, we’ll examine three common fears behind procrastination.

(Shortform note: Why do we sometimes choose short-term relief from fear over the long-term gains of persisting through daunting but important tasks? Experts argue that prioritizing short-term relief is one instance of humans’ present bias: our habit of emphasizing our short-term needs over our long-term ones. We deemphasize our long-term needs because we tend to think of our future selves as someone else. In the same way that delegating a hard task to a coworker brings us relief, delegating a hard task to our future self also provides relief.)

Fear 1: Losing Love

According to the authors, some people procrastinate on tasks because they fear their performance will make others love them less. Let’s explore two different ways this fear manifests.

Fear of performing well: Some people fear that if they perform well on a task, others will envy or resent them for their success. For example, a gymnast might procrastinate on practicing because he’s afraid his sister (who’s also a gymnast) would envy him. Furthermore, he worries her envy could weaken their close bond. 

(Shortform note: People who are afraid of performing well often hide this fear because they’re ashamed of it. They’re aware that most people generally value success, so they worry others would dismiss their fear of success as silly.)

Fear of performing poorly: Some people equate their performance on a task with their lovability, so they procrastinate on tasks they could fail. For example, a doctor’s daughter might procrastinate on applying to medical school because she fears her mother will love her less if she doesn’t get in. By delaying her application, she delays facing her mother’s disappointment.

(Shortform note: People who equate their performance with their lovability may have particular trouble meeting their need for love—which could prevent them from achieving their full potential. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, feeling loved is a basic human need, and you have to satisfy this need to achieve self-actualization. Self-actualization is when you reach your potential by pursuing and developing your interests and goals. People who think they will only be loved if they perform well may have trouble meeting this need for love and reaching self-actualization because it’s impossible to always perform well. When they inevitably fail, they may feel that they’ve lost others’ love—even if that’s not true.)

Fear 2: Imperfection

Second, some people procrastinate because they fear imperfection. People with this fear are perfectionists. They set high self-expectations because they believe their abilities are exceptional. However, these self-expectations are often higher than their actual abilities. The authors argue that perfectionists procrastinate because they fear learning that their abilities won’t actually meet their high expectations. Although procrastination makes them seem disorganized, they prefer to appear disorganized over revealing to themselves and others that they’re imperfect.

For example, imagine a perfectionist was praised for their above-average writing abilities throughout their high school years. When they go to college, they discover that college writing is harder than high school writing. They procrastinate on completing their writing assignments because they fear confronting the idea that they’re an average writer. They’d rather get a bad grade for failing to turn in an essay than for turning in completed, average-quality essays.

(Shortform note: Perfectionism leads to other serious issues beyond procrastination. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown claims that perfectionists experience chronic shame because they repeatedly fail to meet their impossibly high self-expectations. Research also reveals that perfectionism compromises your mental health, leading you to burn out at work or school.)

Fear 3: Restrictions

Finally, the authors claim that procrastination helps some people experience a sense of freedom. It’s a strategy for dealing with their fear of restrictions. Let’s explore two ways this fear manifests.

First, some procrastinators fear restrictive rules. They think others’ rules limit their freedom, so they procrastinate on tasks to reclaim their independence. For instance, imagine a child who thinks her parents have overly strict rules for how clean her room should be. She procrastinates on cleaning it to send the message that she gets to decide how her room looks.

(Shortform note: Communicating your fear or dislike of rules by procrastinating is an example of passive aggression. Passive aggression is when you express your anger by showing it rather than communicating it directly. People engage in passive aggression because they’re scared of communicating their anger and they feel more in control when they express their feelings indirectly. Research shows that over time, passive-aggressive communication harms your relationships because it leaves others feeling disrespected and confused.)

Second, some procrastinators fear time’s restrictions. They have trouble accepting that certain opportunities in life have deadlines. They procrastinate on committing to opportunities that have deadlines out of fear that this means giving up on other opportunities that also have deadlines. For example, someone may procrastinate on starting a family because they’re not ready to abandon their aspiration of someday becoming an actor.

(Shortform note: In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman warns that avoiding commitment eventually makes you unhappy. He argues that when people refrain from commitment to keep their possibilities open, they miss out on the pleasure commitment brings. For example, someone who dates multiple people at once may miss out on the pleasure of building a close relationship with just one other person.)

Why Some People Procrastinate More Than Others

Various factors in our lives influence to what extent these fears make us procrastinate. According to the authors, your biology, self-esteem, upbringing, and degree of cultural marginalization influence your tendency to procrastinate. Some of these factors exaggerate the fear you experience when you face a task, and other factors reduce your ability to start and finish tasks. 

In this section, we’ll explore four factors that influence how much an individual tends to procrastinate.

Influence 1: Biology

First, the authors claim that your biology—both your bodily needs and brain wiring—influences your tendency to procrastinate. Let’s explore three ways your biology can cause procrastination.

First, some biological conditions heighten your fear. Some people’s brains are wired to exaggerate threats. Because they experience fear at higher intensities, they’re more desperate for the relief procrastination provides. For example, people with anxiety disorders are more likely to procrastinate, as anxiety makes tasks seem harder than they are. 

(Shortform note: Research suggests that the anxiety some people experience when they dread a task fills them not only with psychological pain but physical pain as well. One study found that some people who have math anxiety feel physical pain when they dread math-related tasks. This research may explain why people with anxiety procrastinate: They may be seeking relief not only from their fear of a task but also from the physical pain of dreading it. This research also suggests that an anxious person’s fear of a task declines when they begin the task: The participants didn’t feel the same pain when they actually started working on those tasks.)

Second, some people procrastinate more than others because their brain wiring makes it harder to accomplish tasks. For instance, people with attention issues such as ADHD tend to procrastinate more. Their distractibility impairs their ability to begin and follow through on tasks. 

(Shortform note: Research reveals that women experience ADHD differently than people of other genders, so women with ADHD engage in different forms of procrastination. For instance, women with ADHD are more likely to procrastinate on sleeping so they can devote time to pleasant activities (such as reading) that they lacked time for during the day. Over time, bedtime procrastination leads to sleep deprivation, which worsens their ADHD symptoms.)

Finally, biological conditions such as depression decrease your energy and motivation. People with depression procrastinate because they lack the energy to start and finish tasks.

(Shortform note: Research reveals that there’s a link between these biological conditions and procrastination, but it’s unclear whether depression and sleep issues are a cause, an effect, or both a cause and effect of procrastination.)

Influence 2: Self-Esteem

Second, the authors argue that people with unhealthy self-esteem tend to procrastinate more than people with healthy self-esteem. To better understand why, let’s first contrast healthy and unhealthy self-esteem. When you have unhealthy self-esteem, you possess a distorted view of your strengths and shortcomings. Furthermore, your sense of self-worth heavily relies on others’ opinions of you. By contrast, people with healthy self-esteem have a realistic sense of their assets and weaknesses and they possess a stable, internal sense of self-worth independent of others’ opinions.

(Shortform note: People often equate high self-esteem with healthy self-esteem, but research reveals that some forms of high self-esteem are unhealthy. High self-esteem is as unhealthy as low self-esteem when it’s “fragile,” meaning it sinks when others doubt your abilities or worth. In such situations, people with high, fragile self-esteem easily become defensive. By contrast, high self-esteem is healthy when it’s “secure,” meaning it remains stable even when others doubt you. Given that people with unhealthy self-esteem tend to procrastinate more, these findings suggest that people with fragile, high self-esteem may be more likely to procrastinate than people with secure, high self-esteem.)

People with high, unhealthy self-esteem procrastinate because they set unreasonably high goals for themselves. They think these goals are the only ones worthy of their abilities, which they believe are extremely high. However, these lofty goals are difficult. They procrastinate on these goals because they’re afraid that if they don’t achieve them, it’ll reflect poorly on them. 

By contrast, people with low, unhealthy self-esteem procrastinate because they believe many tasks are too difficult for them. They procrastinate because they believe it’s not worth trying or finishing a goal they’re bound to fail.

(Shortform note: Research reveals that multiple factors influence your perception of a task’s difficulty, suggesting that changing these factors could make people with unhealthy self-esteem less likely to procrastinate. For example, research shows that when you’re tired, you perceive tasks to be more difficult. Therefore, a person with unhealthy self-esteem may be less likely to procrastinate if they’re well-rested. Furthermore, you’re more likely to think tasks are easier if you’re in an environment that aligns with your cultural norms—for example, if you’re going to college in your home country. Therefore, someone with unhealthy self-esteem may procrastinate less if they seek out an environment that matches their cultural values.)

Influence 3: Upbringing

A third influence on procrastination, your upbringing, also involves self-esteem. According to the authors, your upbringing shapes both your self-esteem and fears, influencing your tendency to procrastinate. Let’s examine three family situations that intensify these fears and lead you to develop unhealthy self-esteem.

Neglectful families. Some people raised in neglectful families develop extremely low self-esteem. Neglectful families deprive children of care or convey that they’re inferior. Because these children believe they’re unworthy of care, they also believe they’re unworthy or incapable of success. Convinced they’ll fail any challenge, they avoid difficult tasks. By contrast, other people raised in neglectful families feel they need to earn attention and care by being perfect. They develop unhealthy self-esteem dependent on the opinions of others and a fear of imperfection, both of which cause procrastination.

High-pressure families. This type of family also makes people feel like they need to earn love by being perfect. As a result, they develop unhealthy self-esteem and learn to fear both imperfection and losing love. These two fears increase their tendency to procrastinate.

Controlling families. People raised in families that tightly control their schedules, relationships, and interests are more likely to develop a fear of restrictions. As previously noted, some people who fear restrictions procrastinate as a way to seize control over their life.

Influence 4: Cultural Marginalization

Finally, the authors argue that people who experience cultural marginalization face additional pressure and constraints that increase their reliance on procrastination. Cultural marginalization is the experience of belonging to a region’s non-dominant culture. The authors focus on describing the cultural marginalization that immigrants and their children face.

People who experience cultural marginalization face pressures and constraints that members of the dominant culture don’t face, such as needing to learn new cultural rules and norms, working multiple jobs, learning a new language, and feeling the need to represent your entire culture. All of these demands amplify the aforementioned fears, increasing your reliance on procrastination.

For example, imagine a daughter of immigrants who dreams of becoming a poet. Her parents, however, expect her to represent her culture well by acquiring a high-paying job. When her teacher nominates her for a poetry contest, she procrastinates on her entry: She fears that if she wins, her parents will love her less for failing to meet their expectations.

(Shortform note: Burka and Yuen focus on how cultural marginalization influences procrastination, but other forms of marginalization, such as racism, also make you more likely to procrastinate. For instance, research reveals that college students of color procrastinate turning in their assignments more than their white peers. Systemic racism may explain this gap: Students of color face stereotypes that harm their self-esteem, relationship-building skills, and school engagement, increasing their tendency to procrastinate on assignments. This research suggests that efforts to help people beat procrastination must include large-scale efforts to reduce the systemic inequalities that contribute to procrastination.)

Solutions for Beating Procrastination

As we’ve explored, many of the factors that influence procrastination are outside of your control: your biology, your upbringing, and cultural marginalization. However, that doesn’t mean procrastination is uncontrollable. The authors argue that fortunately, it’s possible to beat procrastination if you first accept some realities as being beyond your control and then focus instead on controlling what you can: your behavior. 

(Shortform note: Some experts on happiness claim that accepting what’s beyond your control and instead controlling your behavior is a positive approach to life in general. For instance, in The Courage to Be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga argue that you’ll be happier if you stop trying to gain others’ approval since you can’t control others’ opinions of you. Instead, you’ll achieve happiness if you control your behavior through living in the present, setting healthy relationship boundaries, and striving to be useful.)

In the remaining sections, we’ll describe three of life’s realities that are beyond everyone’s control. We’ll also explore how you can work within the constraints of realities by practicing and repeating healthy behaviors that replace procrastination.

Reality 1: You Can’t Choose Your Emotions—But You Can Regulate Them

First, the authors argue that when you’re faced with a task, you can’t control what emotions arise, such as fear or dread. However, you can control how you regulate these emotions so they don’t overwhelm you and tempt you to procrastinate. We’ll begin this section by exploring some of the brain science behind emotional regulation. Then, we’ll share two behaviors that support emotional regulation and reduce your dependence on procrastination.

The Brain Science Behind Emotional Regulation

According to Burka and Yuen, emotional regulation helps you calm your fears rather than exaggerate them. Your amygdala—the part of your brain that processes threats—produces fear when you encounter a task that consciously or unconsciously reminds you of negative, past experiences (such as family trauma or cultural marginalization). The amygdala sometimes exaggerates how threatening tasks are, pushing you to procrastinate. However, your frontal cortex—the part of your brain that thinks consciously—has the capacity to quiet these fears so they don’t take over and lead to procrastination. In this section, we’ll explore two behaviors you can engage in to consciously calm your fears and seek out positive emotions.

(Shortform note: In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman claims that techniques for emotional regulation help you manage not only fear and anxiety but also other unpleasant emotions such as anger and sadness. One tip he offers for managing any unpleasant emotion is to refrain from rumination. When you ruminate, you passively wonder what’s making you feel bad without taking any actions to make yourself feel better. Rumination drags out the negative feeling, only making you feel worse. For example, if you’re scared, you should refrain from re-imagining the trigger that made you scared. In the next section, we’ll describe two behaviors—mindfulness and exercise—that are healthier than rumination.)

Behavior 1: Practicing Mindfulness

Burka and Yuen argue that mindfulness provides you with time and space to regulate your emotions rather than letting them regulate you. Mindfulness is a millennia-old technique that emphasizes acceptance and focuses your awareness on the present. When you practice mindfulness, you observe your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, accepting them rather than critiquing yourself for feeling the way you do. 

The authors claim that mindfulness helps reduce the feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress that compel you to seek relief in procrastination. When a procrastinator typically anticipates a daunting task, their mind fills with fear (such as fear that the task will be too hard) followed by judgmental thoughts about those fears (such as “Everything is so hard for me…I must be a loser”). To practice mindfulness, instead try to notice your thoughts and emotions without judging them. Nonjudgmental noticing is a calmer state of mind than the judgmental spiral of anxiety. You’re more likely to tackle rather than avoid tasks when your mind is calm.

(Shortform note: In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Gunaratana explains why watching and accepting the present without judging it helps you regulate your emotions. He claims that you have to accept rather than judge your present emotions, thoughts, and sensations to properly observe them. If you’re busy judging them, you’ll fail to observe them clearly. Furthermore, when you clearly observe and accept your emotions and sensations, you witness them arising and eventually passing. You realize your worries are temporary, a fact that comforts you and keeps you from becoming absorbed in those worries.)

Many practice mindfulness through meditation, but you can also practice it at any point throughout the day when you feel fear, dread, and anxiety in anticipation of a task. When you notice these feelings arising, pause for several seconds. Observe your emotions, thoughts, and sensations. Any time you catch yourself slipping into judgment, bring yourself back to the present moment by paying attention to your body (such as your breath or heartbeat). Pausing and reconnecting to the current sensations in your body halts the neural processes that amplify your fears. Lower levels of fear are easier to regulate and less likely to cause procrastination.

(Shortform note: Mindfulness takes practice, and it may be easier to engage in mindful moments throughout the day if you first hone your mindfulness skills through seated meditation. As Gunaratana explains Mindfulness in Plain English, you can practice seated meditation by setting aside 10 to 20 minutes for it every day. First, find a comfortable position, then close your eyes and take three deep breaths through your nostrils. Any time you notice your mind meandering, refocus your attention on your breath around your nose. Each time you refocus your mind on the present, you strengthen your ability to practice mindfulness in everyday life.)

Behavior 2: Exercise

Second, the authors argue that exercise gives you the energy to persist through your fear and seek out positive emotions. Let’s examine three benefits of exercise.

First, exercise boosts your mood. It releases endorphins, groups of hormones that generate positive feelings and leave you feeling optimistic that you’ll succeed on upcoming tasks. Second, exercise promotes clear thinking. Physical activity increases blood flow to your brain, helping you think more quickly and make new connections. This increases your capacity for persisting through challenging tasks.

(Shortform note: In The Miracle Morning, Hal Elrod argues that exercising should be part of your daily morning routine. Like Burka and Yuen, he argues that exercise elevates your mood and sharpens your ability to focus. By exercising early in the morning, rather than later in the day, you ensure that you experience the benefits of exercise for the rest of your day. This leaves you energized and empowered to spend each day crafting your ideal life.)

Third, exercise enables you to beat procrastination because it helps you set realistic expectations. Physical activity releases a protein that supports the formation of new neurons in your brain’s memory center (the hippocampus). A well-developed hippocampus helps you compare a present task to similar, past situations, enabling you to set realistic expectations for both your performance and its consequences. For example, imagine your fear of imperfection is causing you to procrastinate on writing a speech. Your hippocampus enables you to remember you’ve given satisfactory speeches before. Remembering this, you reassure yourself that this speech will be fine, too. 

(Shortform note: Research shows that only some forms of exercise—in particular, aerobic exercise like cycling—develop your hippocampus. By contrast, forms of exercise that don’t get your heart rate up (such as stretching and resistance training) don’t develop your hippocampus.)

Burka and Yuen provide a strategy for making exercise part of your routine: Ensure the exercise itself is enjoyable and rewarding. Procrastinators often seek activities that are immediately rewarding. If completing exercise is the only aspect of it that’s rewarding, you’re likely to procrastinate on it. To make exercise more rewarding, consider setting up a recurring exercise time with a friend. The reward of connecting with your friend will make exercising more pleasurable as you do it, not just after it’s done.

(Shortform note: Burka and Yuen’s suggestion to exercise with a friend may not be compelling enough for introverts or people whose friends don’t share their love of exercise. In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely provides another technique you can use to make unpleasant activities (such as exercise) more enjoyable. He claims that you should multi-task by simultaneously engaging in an activity you find more pleasurable—one you’ll commit to only doing with the unpleasant task. Your brain will form a connection between both tasks: You’ll feel motivated to engage in the unpleasant task, as it’s the only time you can also engage in the pleasurable one. For instance, only listen to your favorite podcast when you’re working out.)

Reality 2: You’re Imperfect—But You’re Capable of Growth

The second reality to accept is that you’re imperfect. According to Burka and Yuen, you can beat procrastination by shifting your efforts from achieving perfection to achieving growth. Growth is a more realistic goal than perfection. When you approach tasks with a focus on improvement, they appear less daunting and your need to procrastinate dissipates.

(Shortform note: In The Art of Learning, professional chess player Josh Waitzkin argues that focusing on growth over perfection also bolsters your learning and resilience. Chess players who emphasize the process of growth over the outcome of winning see mistakes as opportunities to improve their strategy. When they make a mistake on the chessboard, they learn from it and continue playing (which leads to more learning). By contrast, chess players who strive for perfect outcomes become easily upset when they make a mistake or lose a game. Because they don’t persist through setbacks, they learn less.)

To demonstrate that it’s possible to shift to a focus on growth, the authors reference the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. She argues that you can transition from a “fixed mindset” in which you fear imperfection to a “growth mindset” in which you embrace failure. Let’s compare these two mindsets:

  • People with a fixed mindset (such as perfectionists) believe their abilities are innate and that completing a task is all about displaying those abilities. They possess unhealthy self-esteem, avoid challenges due to their fear of failure, and are more likely to chronically procrastinate. 
  • By contrast, people with a growth mindset believe they can improve their abilities and that completing a task is about learning (rather than simply performing). They have healthier self-esteem, seek out challenges, and are less likely to procrastinate.

(Shortform note: A first step you can take to develop a growth mindset is to stop calling yourself a procrastinator. Calling yourself a procrastinator implies that this identity is fixed, which makes it harder to imagine yourself improving. In reality, procrastination is a behavior you engage in sometimes, not a fixed identity that describes everything you do.)

Below, we’ll describe a behavior that will help you develop your growth mindset.

Behavior: Set Realistic, Multi-Step, Observable Goals

The authors argue that setting realistic, multi-step, observable goals helps you form a growth mindset and prevents you from procrastinating on tasks. Let’s break down how these three traits each promote a growth mindset.

First, make your goal realistic. In doing so, you’ll learn to judge your success on reasonable standards rather than the impossible standard of perfection. This makes it less likely you’ll procrastinate since the task will seem more achievable from the start. 

(Shortform note: In The 10X Rule, Grant Cardone argues that, on the contrary, it’s more rewarding to set ambitious goals. The title of his book comes from this rule: Set a realistic goal, then multiply it by 10 to make it ambitious. Try striving for a middle ground between Cardone’s approach and that of Burka and Yuen: Make your first goal achievable, and then push yourself by making your next goal more ambitious.)

Second, make your goal multi-step: By breaking your goal into multiple steps, you increase the likelihood that you’ll make some progress even if you don’t achieve the entire goal. You’ll move away from a fixed mindset (which overvalues the final product) and move towards a growth mindset (which values evidence of improvement).

(Shortform note: How can you tell if you should stop working on a goal after several steps and abandon the remaining steps? Experts argue that abandoning a goal that’s no longer serving your needs is a brave choice, not something to be ashamed of. They recommend that you abandon a long-term goal for any of the following reasons: 1) if you notice it’s harming your relationships, health, or finances; 2) if the rewards of finishing no longer motivate you; or 3) if you’ve changed enough that your goal no longer matters to you or aligns with your values.)

Third, make your goal observable: Ensuring each of your steps is observable makes it easy for you to notice and reward yourself for your progress. Rewards motivate procrastinators along the road to growth.

(Shortform note: It may feel challenging to create observable steps for emotion-related goals. For instance, imagine you want to better manage the stress you bring home after work. You can make the steps of this goal observable by identifying specific actions that improve your emotional state, such as playing an instrument or taking a bath.)

The authors recommend following these steps to set and complete a realistic, multi-step, observable goal:

1. Choose a Specific Task to Set a Goal For 

Focusing on a specific task ensures you set a realistic goal. For example, imagine you want to start a garden. The goal “I’ll start a garden” is too broad: It doesn’t specify what type of garden and how large the project will be. By contrast, this goal is more specific: “I’ll start a 10-by12-foot vegetable garden.”

(Shortform note: In First Things First, Stephen Covey argues that you should consider not only what goal you want to achieve, but why. Considering why you want to achieve a goal may prompt you to set a better goal. For instance, if you realize that you want to start a garden to beautify your home, you may want to start a flower garden instead of a vegetable garden.)

2. Divide Your Goal Into Several Written Steps 

This makes your goal less daunting and builds in checkpoints along the way for you to assess your performance and reward yourself for positive progress. Furthermore, ensure your first step is easy so you don’t avoid getting started. For instance, this is an easy first step: ordering a book on vegetable gardening.

(Shortform note: How often should you work on your goal’s steps? In Eat That Frog!, Brian Tracy recommends you keep your goal relevant and maintain your positive momentum by engaging with your goal every day. Revisit your list of steps each morning and choose which one you’ll spend time on, even if it’s just for several minutes.)

3. Ensure Each Step Is Observable 

An observable step is one that provides visible signs of progress. As you see your progress, you’ll grow more motivated. For instance, “I’ll grow two cherry tomato plants in cages” is a more observable step than “I’ll learn to grow tomatoes.”

(Shortform note: Consider creating a visual progress tracker to make your progress observable, too. In Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that people build positive habits when they visually track their progress. You should place your tracker in an easy-to-spot location (such as on the fridge) so you’re continually reminded of your goal. Marking your progress on the tracker provides you with an immediate reward, which is an addictive feeling you’ll keep chasing.)

4. Distinguish “Must-Do’s” From “May-Do’s”  

Determine which steps are essential to completing your goal (must-do’s) and which ones you can do only if you have the extra time and energy (may-do’s). This step ensures you don’t procrastinate on your goal with less-essential, easier tasks. For instance, planting kale seeds could be a must-do; researching and planting three different varieties of kale seeds could be a may-do. 

(Shortform note: How can you determine which steps are more essential? In Who Will Cry When You Die?, Robin Sharma claims that you should prioritize activities that both draw on your strengths and improve others’ lives. For instance, if you enjoy connecting with your neighbors, prioritize inviting them to help you garden over researching the best seed varieties.)

5. Request Feedback 

Ask a friend, family member, or colleague to provide feedback on your goal. By seeking this outside perspective, you make your goal public (which holds you more accountable). Other people can also help you spot any unrealistic expectations.

(Shortform note: While sharing your goals with others has its benefits, avoid talking about your goals too much. In Ego Is The Enemy, Ryan Holiday argues that telling people about your goals (instead of working on them) is a form of procrastination. People engage in this form of procrastination because it often feels easier to talk about your goals than to actually work on them. Therefore, after you initially request feedback from others on your goals, resist the temptation to discuss them further.)

6. Practice Self-Compassion 

If a step toward your goal is more challenging than you expected, don’t take it as a sign that you’re inadequate. Instead, take a short break to allow your fears to pass, and return to this step later.

(Shortform note: When taking a break from a challenging step, show yourself compassion by sitting with the discomfort of that challenge. In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson claims that the discomfort of failure promotes growth. Specifically, he argues that opening yourself to experiencing discomfort makes you tougher and makes you more empathetic towards others’ struggles. Don’t think of opening yourself to discomfort as self-punishment: Instead, think of it as a self-compassionate action you’re taking to nurture your growth mindset.)

7. Reward Yourself When You Complete Steps 

Rewards release the chemical dopamine, which increases pleasure. Your brain associates this pleasure with the behavior that created it, strengthening the neural pathways linking your hard work to good feelings. This makes you more likely to rely on action rather than avoidance for future tasks. For example, you could take photos of each phase of your garden and then post them online to enjoy reading others’ reactions.

(Shortform note: Similarly to how you can encourage positive behaviors through pleasant rewards, you can also discourage yourself from negative behaviors (such as procrastination) by making these behaviors unpleasant. In Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that pairing negative behaviors with consequences makes you less likely to engage in them. For example, tell yourself that any time you avoid tending to your garden, you must spend the next evening gardening instead of watching your favorite show. This consequence will disincentivize procrastination, making it more likely you’ll chip away at your goal—and enjoy the rewards for doing so.)

Reality 3: Time Is Finite—But You Can Learn to Make the Most of It

Lastly, Burka and Yuen claim that accepting the limitations of time empowers you to use it wisely and intentionally. As previously noted, some people procrastinate because they fear time’s passage and consequently live in denial of their limited time. Accepting time’s limitations, rather than resisting them, compels you to make the most of your time instead of procrastinating. In this section, we’ll share three behaviors that empower you to make the most of your time.

(Shortform note: Unlike Burka and Yuen, some experts claim that procrastination is purely an issue with how you manage your emotions—not an issue with how you manage your time. They claim that the best way to overcome procrastination is to learn to regulate your emotions in healthier ways. Burka and Yuen treat time management and emotional management as less of a binary. They acknowledge that learning to better manage your time can help with some of the emotional issues behind procrastination, such as the fear of restrictions and our tendency to prioritize our short-term emotional relief over long-term well-being.)

Behavior 1: Develop a Realistic Sense of Time

First, the authors argue that you can build your capacity to work within time’s constraints by developing a realistic sense of how time flows. One strategy for this is estimating tasks’ duration. Before you begin a task, predict how long it will take you. After you’re done, reflect on the difference between your prediction and reality. This exercise will develop your ability to set realistic expectations for how long a task will take, which will make tasks seem less daunting.

(Shortform note: Why do people have trouble accurately estimating time’s passage? According to experts, we tend to underestimate the duration of future tasks because we possess an optimism bias. Due to this bias, we base our predictions for tasks’ duration on positive past experiences more than negative ones, and we’re optimistic that we’ll perform better in the future than we did in the past. According to experts, you can compensate for your optimism bias when planning tasks by separating long-term projects into several, shorter mini-projects. This works because we tend to be more accurate when estimating the duration of shorter time intervals.)

Behavior 2: Make the Most of Short Periods of Time

According to the authors, you can also work with time’s constraints by making the most of short bursts of time. Procrastinators often wait until they have large blocks of time to work on something. As they delay the task, their fears grow, making it likely they’ll continue avoiding it. 

Resist this tendency by making the most of brief periods of time (as short as one minute). For example, imagine you’ve been procrastinating on tidying your home. The next time you’re microwaving a meal, use those several minutes to tidy your kitchen. 

When you spend even just one minute on a task you’ve been delaying, the task seems more approachable. This is because the fear and dread you experience when anticipating a task is usually an exaggeration. Once you begin a task, you realize it’s less daunting than you originally envisioned, making you less likely to avoid it.

(Shortform note: You may be tempted to use short bursts of time to engage in distractions (such as checking Instagram) rather than chip away at a task you’ve been avoiding. In Indistractible, Nir Eyal provides reassurance that your desire for distraction usually passes soon after it arises. Even when you feel tempted to engage in a distraction during a short burst of time, commit to just getting started on a task you’ve been avoiding. You’ll become immersed in that task, and your desire for distraction will soon dissipate.)

Behavior 3: Prioritize Life’s Most Fulfilling Tasks

Finally, the authors argue that prioritizing important tasks will reduce your procrastination and lead you toward a more fulfilling life. People tend to procrastinate by avoiding important tasks (such as getting enough sleep) and wasting time on less impactful tasks (such as mindlessly flipping through others’ profile pictures). By clarifying in advance what you believe to be important and unimportant, you’re more likely to catch yourself when you’re procrastinating with less important tasks. The authors provide guidance on which tasks to prioritize and avoid:

What to prioritize: Spend time on tasks that build social connections, offer opportunities for personal growth, and support your physical and mental health. These tasks build your self-esteem (which reduces your tendency to procrastinate) and give you the energy to tackle challenging tasks.

(Shortform note: You may find that you have too many appealing options for the healthy commitments Burka and Yuen describe. How do you choose which healthy opportunities to commit to? In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman recommends you take a two-for-one approach by combining social opportunities with other commitments. That way, you’ll simultaneously meet your need for social engagement and your personal needs. For instance, if you want to begin meditating to support your mental health, consider joining a meditation group instead of meditating solo.)

What to avoid: Avoid behaviors that are unhealthy (such as excessive partying), avoid people who harm your self-esteem, and cut back on behaviors that distract you and inundate you with information (such as watching too many videos on social media).(Shortform note: Avoiding unhealthy behaviors is often easier said than done, since many of these behaviors are enticing. One expert on procrastination recommends you avoid unhealthy, enticing tasks by making them harder to access. For instance, if you’re often tempted to procrastinate on work by spending time on TikTok, place your phone high on a shelf in another room before you begin your work. The annoying effort of needing to grab a chair to access your phone again might make this temptation less appealing.)

Procrastination: Book Overview (Lenora Yuen and Jane Burka)

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Here's what you'll find in our full Procrastination summary:

  • How to identify the fears that lead you to procrastinate
  • How your biology, circumstances, and self-esteem affect your procrastination
  • How to better control how you manage your emotions and time

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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