Can You Set Procrastination-Proof Goals?
A recent study in psychology suggests some methods for how to set procrastination-proof goals, which I expand upon from a practical perspective.
Present-bias, hyperbolic discounting, short-term thinking, delayed gratification. These are all names for the same phenomena – our natural preference for quick and immediate payoff. This has been discussed for decades in economic theory, with an emphasis on how present-biased preferences can lead to procrastination when costs are immediate, and payoffs are delayed.
Dr. Yiming Liu, an economics researcher at the Berlin Social Science Center, has gone one step further to suggest that most, if not all people, are present-biased. However, he believes this present bias can be overcome.
His 2019 study explored the role goal setting could play in reducing present bias. Dr. Liu and his team modelled a test to find out whether narrow or broad goal setting could be used to counteract present bias. 118 participants were evaluated to find their personal level of present bias. Then they were made to “work” – performing tasks for a couple of hours over the course of 3 days. Participants had the choice of working to earn 12 cents per correctly done task or to rest to earn 3 cents per minutes. There were two options for receiving payment – immediate or delayed and participants were also asked to set either narrow goals (e.g. daily targets) or broad goals (e.g. an overall target).
Broad Goals: One big long-term goal that doesn’t involve the smaller steps needed to achieve it. Example: Complete a work project by the end of the month.
Narrow goals: Multiple small goals that can be done in the short-term, can be set to eventually achieve a large long-term goal.
Example: Find sources for the project; discuss work with teammates; prepare part 1 by the end of today etc.
Results showed that narrow goal setting significantly increased worker output when the payoff was delayed. Participants worked for longer time periods and made less mistakes. Meanwhile, broad goal setting had no significant motivational effect under delayed payment and even led to procrastination, compared to the group who set no goals at all.
With broad goals, only the version of yourself that will exist near the payment sees the benefit of your effort. Hence, at the present point, you are only motivated by the loss of that future self and not any benefit to yourself. On the other hand, when setting narrow goals, your present self is incentivized by the gain-loss introduced by the goals.
Neuroscience research shows that when we set and complete goals the reward system of our brain is activated, and our brain releases the “feel-good” neurotransmitter dopamine. Although this a very simplified description of what goes on in our brains, it explains why setting multiple smaller goals can be good for motivation – your brain gets a lot more dopamine simply by choosing to monitor your responsibilities on an interactive basis.
Why are these findings important?
Most people work in jobs where they only get paid once a month, which means that most of the time the payoff for our effort is delayed. This means that we can be prone to procrastination because the benefits are too far away to feel motivating. Setting goals seems like the obvious solution However, from this study, we know that not all goals are created equal.
In the study, participants were never prohibited from setting goals, even in the no-goal group, yet people only showed a significant increase in the number of completed tasks in the narrow goal group when payment was delayed. This shows that people often need to be reminded to set goals. One potential policy implication is that we should nudge people to set goals and suggest the best way of doing that.
Based on my coaching experience, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but I’ll offer a structured planning approach for you to test that could get you going.
However, you actually have to take action for it to work!
Step 1: Write in a stream of consciousness about the ideal outcome of whatever project you have in mind so it’s an illustrated representation of your desired end state.
• You might find it’s easier to start by writing freehand so it feels less like work and can access a different mode for creativity.
Step 2: Make an unorganized list of all the ‘stuff’ that needs to get done in order to realize that end state.
• I’d move to digital form here to save time.
Step 3: Organize your list into thematic categories.
• I used a table with categories at the top of each column and your listed items organized below them.
Step 4: Decide how long you want to give yourself to accomplish the end state.
• It is critical to be realistic and kind to yourself here. Leave plenty of time for all the other stuff you’ve got going on.
• For a 1-2 month project, organize your timeline into 3 phases (i.e. relatively equal, sequential segments)
• 3-6 month project = 4 phases
• 7-12 months = 6 phases
o This is a long time to keep up progress so it’s worth asking yourself whether the project can be limited in scope to fit 6 months max.
Step 5: Now the hard part but you’ll be nearly done once complete: Break all themed tasks down to the most granular actions you can think of.
• In other words, takes no more than 30 minutes to do and then decide which phase the task should be in, in relation to the others. The more you struggle with distractions/procrastination, the less time each task should take. Coming up with 5-10 minute actions works well for some so test and learn what serves you best.
Step 6: Schedule 1 task per day from Phase 1 in your calendar and get them done.
• Just like with restarting a running regime, it’s not advisable to push yourself on Day 1 but better to establish a consistent rhythm that’ll be easy to achieve and prove you can stick to it before ramping up over time.
Bear in mind, all these steps are a one-off. The key is to set it and forget it, pivoting to a bias towards action. Let the plan get messy and refine it through progress. You can always update and polish it once a month.
1 Liu, Y. (2019). Effort Provision under Present Bias: Optimal Goal-Setting as a Commitment Device. [online] . Available at www.yimingliuecon.com/uploads/1/2/2/7/122790501/goal_setting__1_.pdf.
2 Salamone, John D. and Correa, M. (2012). The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. Neuron, [online] 76(3), pp.470–485. Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4450094/