5 Questions To End Procrastination – For Good

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Post written by Maria Brilaki.

A few years ago, when I was a grad student at Stanford, I wanted to exercise more and eat better, yet I was not reeeeally doing it. I was mostly yo-yoing. The result was that in two years I gained twelve pounds. Not a big deal at the time, but I knew that if I let this trend continue then in ten years I would be fat and unhealthy. I knew I had to reverse that trend.

And that got me to consider this riddle: Many of us dream about the things we want to do, yet we don’t take the steps that lead us there. Some of us wish we exercised more, but don’t. Others dream of being writers, but they don’t write enough. There is this never-ending cycle of procrastination that dreams tend to get into, and it’s really daunting to break that cycle. Why is it so hard? Why don’t we do what we want to do?

I devoted two years reading about behavior change and how our brain codes habits. What I learned was fantastic! I realized that the first step to success is asking yourself the right questions. You will be able to get to your dreams if you know what to look for.

1. Have I specifically committed to it?

You may wish you ate one serving of veggies every day, yet have you explicitly, specifically committed to it? Have you thought: “This week I will eat one serving of veggies every day”. You will be surprised by the number of dreams that get caged in this non-commitment world.

Even if your dream is very big, you can still commit to making it happen. Suppose you want to live off your passion and create a lifestyle business. Obviously, you cannot just say “This week I will live off my passion” when you have not yet found a way to do that. But what you could commit to is to take one step that gets you closer to your goal. For instance, if your problem is not knowing your passion, you could say: “This week I will be mindful about my actions and write down what makes me feel good or bad”.

2. Have I set a time?

Suppose you want to write more. You are committed to write 1000 words a day. But have you set a specific time to do it?

This time may be absolute, e.g., 8 p.m., or relative, e.g., “after I put my kids to sleep I will write 1000 words.”

Finding the time that works for you will rapidly accelerate your progress.

3. Is my commitment too much for me right now?

So you have made a clear, specific commitment, and have decided on the timing. Yet you find yourself avoiding doing it. ‘Ahhh…I’m so lazy’ you think. If I were next to you, I would tell you are not lazy. It’s just that it’s so much easier to keep doing what we are already doing. Our days are full of already established habits that are hard to change. Inserting 1000 words of writing, or one serving of veggies requires that we alter some of our existing habits in favor of our new commitment. This is not trivial folks!

What happens is this, that changes trigger the part of our brain that controls the fight or flight response. Once this response is on, rational thinking slows down, creativity slows down, and we…run. Hence, the avoidance of the thing that we say we want to do (rational thinking is slowed down), but in reality scares our subconscious brain (flight or fight response is on)!

The easy remedy to this problem is to scale back. Really scale back. 1000 words a day may be what you want, but 100 words may be what will actually lead you to success.

One hour of exercise may be what you want, but just doing one set of squats may be what will get you to the goal of one hour of exercise.

Oh now you may be worried that by doing so little it will take forever to get to your goal.


  • By doing just a little you are actually training your brain that this new activity is ok and safe for you. In 2-3 weeks you may make jumps in how much you do, because the new activity is not scary anymore.
  • If you decide to go with big steps that you cannot manage, you will never get to your goal.

4. Is my commitment sensitive to distractions?

So you decided to do your daily workout in your living room after you put your kids to bed. Yet, during the first week you realized that half of the weekdays you watched TV instead.

You might need to scale back as mentioned in the previous question, or you might need to change the location of your workout from the living room to, e.g., the bedroom.

You see, having the TV right there, when watching TV is already an established habit, is actually calling you to stop exercising and watch TV. You have already built “watching TV momentum”, while there is no “working out momentum” yet! Doing your workout in another room will remove this potential distraction and will improve your adherence.

5. Do I have clear triggers?

Triggers are calls to action. Just like the TV in the previous example is calling you to watch TV, your brand new shiny athletic shoes call you to exercise, Word being open in your computer calls you to write, and so on.

Yet triggers are not just visual cues. They can be pretty much anything. If you decide to write after your kids go to bed, then your kids going to bed becomes a trigger for your new activity. You not fitting in your old jeans is a trigger to make healthier living changes.

By removing the triggers that distract you – like the TV example above – and adding more triggers that call you to do what you want, you will dramatically improve your consistency with your new activity.

Procrastination is a dream killer but you have the tools to get past it. I did change my life, started living healthier, and lost the twelve pounds as a side effect. You can change your life too. Your dreams may be only a few habits away from you.

To quote Aristotle:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

The way to your dreams is open. Will you take that road?

Maria Brilaki is a Stanford Engineering and an MBA graduate. She is the founder of FitnessReloaded.com, where she helps people get results that stick in a way that feels good. She is the author of “Surprisingly…Unstuck”, the bible of creating healthy habits.

photo source: chicagophoenix.com

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