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How to Stop Procrastinating

The vividness of your mental imagery can influence your decisions.

Life is full of possible distractions. You are probably reading this while knowing you should be doing something else—your day job, your tax return, maybe your child's homework. But you are wasting time on the internet instead.

There is no shortage of self-help advice on how to beat procrastination. Set deadlines, avoid distractions, unplug the internet. And while some of these may work locally, the more general problem is that procrastination works a bit like the Whack-A-Mole game. When we push back one way of wasting time—say, checking our Facebook feed—we will quickly find another.

Anyone who is offering a silver bullet to beat procrastination is lying, because there is no such silver bullet. But there is one very useful shortcut in these situations, which has a fair amount of empirical support.

Experiments in the “construal level theory” paradigm show that when we choose between two options, the vividness of these two options is the most important predictor of how we decide. If a smoker is deciding between smoking a cigarette and not smoking one, the smoking option brings up very vivid and detailed (and emotionally charged) mental imagery. Meanwhile, the non-smoking option doesn’t bring up any mental imagery at all—or if it does, it is not at all detailed and not at all vivid (of just sitting there, not smoking).

This is why smoking tends to win out, and also why it is often difficult to stop (procrastinating) activities like playing video games or checking our social media feed: continuing what we have been doing is represented much more vividly than stopping. Much of this mental imagery is involuntarily triggered. But that doesn't mean we can't do anything about it.

One shortcut for breaking out of the Whack-A-Mole problem of procrastination is to try to pit vivid and detailed images against the tempting stimulus. When you crave that cigarette, this craving can’t be counterbalanced by the image of not smoking because that image is too indeterminate to have any meaningful psychological impact. Instead, it should be counterbalanced with a vivid, detailed, and positively charged image of you eating a delicious strawberry, for example.

Similarly, when you have difficulties quitting your game or stopping obsessive Facebook-ing, rather than relying on the merely negative image of not doing these things, conjuring up vivid and emotionally charged images of something else that one can do—making tea or taking a shower—has a much better chance of succeeding.

The importance of the manipulation of mental imagery in these cases also explains why breaking down the task ahead of time is a good strategy. When you absolutely need to complete a task—say, because the deadline is looming or your promotion depends on it—having a very determinate and vivid image of the next specific and visualizable step in what you need to do is a much stronger motivator than a vague image of completing the task.

Be warned: This strategy will not work all the time. And it will not suddenly and magically get rid of all temptations to procrastinate. But it may work sometimes. And manipulating our own mental imagery is something we get better at over time. So it is possible to train ourselves to counteract the tempting stimulus with vivid imagery. And this could make a big enough difference for just how much of your time you waste with procrastination.