Just Do It: 3 Scientific Ways to Finally Stop Procrastinating

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I’ve had my W-2 for a month, but I keep putting off doing my taxes.

It’s not that I think they’ll do themselves… it just never feels like the right time.

Why would I sit at my computer crunching numbers when I could be hanging out with friends, planning my next adventure or catching up on Master of None?

As a former psych and neuroscience major, I know it’s all my brain’s fault.

Because doing my taxes doesn’t feel fun, my brain votes to procrastinate in favor of something more enjoyable.

But I do eventually need to appease the IRS, so I have to figure out how to outsmart my brain. If you’ve been putting off doing your taxes, making a budget or saving for retirement, you’re probably wondering the same thing.

Behavioral scientist Bob Nease explains exactly how to stop procrastinating — using science! — in Fast Company.

The Real Reason We Procrastinate

Basically, we weigh the benefits of a particular decision against the costs using a part of our brains called the neocortex, Nease explains.

But once it’s time to actually take action, another part of the brain — the limbic system — gets involved.

And that’s when the trouble starts.

See, the limbic system only cares about the here and now.

And if the decision requires more effort or hassle than the immediate benefits are worth, it’s not happy.

When they disagree, the neocortex plays the role of the angel on one shoulder (“Exercise, it’s good for you!”) while the limbic system plays the tempting devil (“Relax pal, that exercise sounds like a lot of work”).

The disagreement can have a whole host of negative consequences, from putting off mailing a birthday card until it’ll arrive too late, to paying fees for late credit-card payments, to waking up close to retirement with no savings.

So How Do You Outsmart Your Brain to Stop Procrastinating?

Nease suggests three strategies to help you break the limbic system’s hold on your actions, so you can finally stop procrastinating.

1. Eliminate Hassles by Automating as Much as Possible

Paying bills and saving for retirement are no fun — why many of us put off these tasks.

Instead, automate them.

Sign up for autopay for your bills, whether for utilities, credit cards, student loans, mortgage payments or anything else.

Set up automatic withdrawals for your retirement savings, emergency fund and future goals, like a wedding or vacation.

A tool like Acorns can help you automatically save spare change, too.

2. Make the “Now” More Fun

It’s easier to get your limbic system on board if the present is enjoyable.

So spice up that unpleasant task!

Make cooking at home more fun than ordering takeout by cranking up the tunes while you cook. Or, try a new recipe from one of these awesome free cookbooks.

Turn saving into a challenge by making a bet with a partner or yourself. Nease suggests trying an app like stikK or Beeminder, but you can also just use a simple spreadsheet.

3. Start Small, Then Build

Instead of tackling a huge goal right off the bat, aim for a smaller one.

Rather than deciding to save half your income, pick an achievable number — maybe it’s $25 a week — and start socking it away.

Once you’ve adjusted to saving that amount, it’ll be easier to boost it to $50 a week or more — since you’ve already proved to yourself you can do it.

As for me, tonight I’m going to turn up my favorite music and pick one of these free tax filing systems.

Then I’ll have no excuse not to fill out the form and finally file my taxes.

Your Turn: What have you been putting off? How do you stop procrastinating?

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Heather van der Hoop (@Heathervdh) is senior editor at The Penny Hoarder. When she’s not reading or writing, you can usually find her playing along with Jeopardy! or climbing rocks, mountains and trees.

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