Sunday, January 3, 2010

Conditioning Our Body and Mind to Procrastinate

Why do we keep on delaying our most important task? Why do we balk at the thought of hard work? Why do we prefer to indulge in bad habits to the point of addiction rather than doing the tasks that we have set out ourselves to do? For starters, we are asking the wrong question. The reasons that we procrastinate despite all the sheer will power that we invested in not doing so becomes crystal clear once we realize how we have conditioned our body and mind to procrastinate. For procrastination is simply our Pavlovian conditioning upon our unrealistic beliefs of what success and hard work are supposed to feel like.

Pavlov's dogs

Before we go further, let's clarify what is Pavlovian conditioning. Pavlovian conditioning, also known as mental conditioning, classical conditioning, and respondent conditioning is a form of associative learning where the subject is conditioned to feel and respond in a certain way towards an event or object.

The most famous Pavlovian conditioning is probably the "Pavlov's dogs" experiment conducted by Ivan Pavlov, the scientist who this process is named after. In this experiment, Pavlov’s would ring a bell while serving his dogs food during feeding time. After a few days, Pavlov’s would just ring the bell without serving any food during non-feeding time. Yet his dogs would be salivating and sitting on the serving area expecting food to be served. Thus, Pavlov had trained his dogs to associate the sound of bell ringing with food and feeding time. Note that the conditional responds that Pavlov’s dogs experiences in present in both mental and physical form. Mentally, Pavlov's dogs have associated the sound of bell ringing with feeding time, thus the dogs are present in the feeding areas. Physically, the dogs are salivating, even if those dogs were not hungry.

As human being, we are easily subjected to mental and physical conditioning. One most common example is advertisements found in television. What television advertisement are trying to do is to associate the product advertised when humor, happiness, love, beauty, and sex. Thru prolonged exposure of advertisements; we are conditioned to evoke whatever feeling that those advertisements are designed to give us. Then, when we are at the supermarket aisle, we are more likely to buy the advertised product.

Reality is Unrealistic

The second component in procrastination is our unrealistic belief of what success and hard work are. Simply, success means happiness. Success means feeling good. Success means feel-good hormones such as endorphin and dopamines are flowing in our system. Same goes for hard work.

In actuality, success is obtained only after a long period of hard work. Real life hard work experience is nothing like the hard work experience that we encounter in fiction. Real life hard work is full of stress, frustrations, disappointments, anxiety, and fatigue; with none little to none of those feel-good feelings. Real life hard work does not produce a lot of endorphin and dopamine.

Sure, when we complete a task, there is a feeling of personal satisfaction. However, that feel-good feeling only lasted for a while. Even major victories and personal gains like promotions, birth of a child, requited love, and purchase of a brand new asset only produce feel-good feelings that last for a few days. After that, it's back to gritty greasy grumpy hard work.

Another unrealistic belief of success that unsuccessful people adopt is that success is certain. This means that if we were to work hard enough in life, we are bound to be successful. The truth is life is full of uncertainties. Even if we were to give our best in everything we do, that will only increase our chances of obtaining what we want. In other words, even if we were to give our 100% effort to our goals, the chances of success is 50/50. That's how uncertain life is.

Yet another belief is that success is a linear process. In order to be successful at achieving our goals, we need to do task A, then task B, then task C, ad infinitum There is a linear path to success and we just didn't know it yet. In practical, when we don't actually know the whole process of achieving our goals, the process becomes non-linear to us. Consequently, our efforts are riddled with fake information, false starts, death ends, sudden appearance of opportunities, and sudden needs for new skills.

The source of our unrealistic beliefs

As mentioned, our unrealistic beliefs of success and hard work come from the unrealistic portrayal of success found in television soap operas, drama series, and comedies; movies; video games; and just about any other media where success are portrayed.  Below are a few examples of these sources of hazardous brainwashing:

Successful people in fiction

In any movies or drama series, the successful people spend 90% of their time interacting with other people, engaging in petty grudge and revenge, and falling in love. The protagonist usually never move up in the social status unless for comedic reasons. The protagonist usually belongs to middle upper class and remains so for the rest of the show. Our protagonist doesn't need to worry about money unless the plot requires this.

In real life, we spend 90% of our time alone, working on our projects and tasks. 10% of our time is used to socialize with our family and friends and to fall in love. Petty grudge and revenge are really time wasting and emotional exhausting, so we don't do those stuffs if we can control ourselves. Financial needs occupy the top or second top agenda in our lives. Worrying about our financial is something beneficial that we need to do regularly in order for us to plan our earnings, spending, and saving properly.

In fiction, people who are portrayed as workaholics usually have strained and dysfunctional family relationships. In reality, anyone, workaholics or unemployed people, are susceptible to strained family relationships if they don't spend enough quality time with their families. Workaholics are usually smart people who have some notion of what time management and work life balance are; and are genre-savvy enough to avoid this issue.

Love in fiction

In fiction, the rate of success of hooking up for the protagonist is 100%. If the protagonist is attracted to a girl, the girl is usually single and is about to break up with her current boyfriend. If the story is anything other than tragic, the protagonist is bound to end up with a girl by the end of the show.

In reality, where we are the protagonist of our own story, the success rate is more like 1/30. 90% of all attractive girls are not single and a majority of them are content with their current partner. There is also no certainty that you will end up happily hooked up with the girl that you like at the end of your life. There are no guarantees.

Normal Health in fiction

In fiction, most man do not exercise unless they are action heroes or sport athletes. If the people in fiction have "normal build", they have higher priority than putting on their running shoes.

In reality, majorities of actors that portrayed people of "normal build" exercise regularly. Maintaining good physic and good skin care are, you know, requirements to be an actor.

Progress in Fiction

The most unrealistic portrayal of the progress to success happens in video games. Progress in video games is relatively easy at the beginning of the game and is the hardest at the end of the game. In reality, the inverse is true. The beginning is usually the hardest. Take for example being a soldier. You will have to spend a couple of years in boot camp, then a few more years being a grunt. If you are lucky to survive further, only then are you promoted. The more promotion you get, the less likely that you are going to be injured and killed. Progress actually gets easier the further you are promoted.

How to brainwash yourself to procrastinate

The act of sitting down, relaxing, not exerting any force, being comfortable, while being entertain stimulate our body to release feel-good hormones in our system. These feel-good hormones are the bell that triggers us:
* To accept that unrealistic portrayal of success in fiction is valid (mental conditioning)
* To remain idle (physical respond of our body)

Therefore, there are two layer of brainwashing that causes us to procrastinate. The first one is our mental conditioning. Since our brain believes that working hard equals feeling good and real life hard work does not produces this sort of experience, our brain does not want us to engage in those kind of work. On the other hand, sitting on your couch watching television or sitting on your chair surfing the internet does produces the kind of good feeling that your brain have associated hard work with. Ergo, you should spend your time watching television and surfing the internet.

The second layer of brainwashing is our conditioned physical respond. Once we have all those feel-good feelings flowing thru our nervous system, our body respond by being idle. That's right, when we are feeling good and happy; our body responds by refusing to do any work. That's because we have associated feel-good experience to being idle. Note that our conditioned physical respond is not something we can control easily with our conscious mind.


The complete cessation of the use of television, movies, and internet is not possible for most of us. Real life hard work produces stress. The use of television, movies, and internet provides entertainment that reduces stress.  We will need to strive for a balance between our entertainments need and our work while, in the same time, preventing our entertainment from conditioning us to procrastinate.

#1 Realize how unrealistic fictional portrayals of success and hard work are

Each time we watch television, note down how unrealistic the movies are. Note that films and television programs are produce under constraint that does not adhere to real life. A good source of these unrealistic issue are addressed at

The down side to this solution is that, by noting the unrealistic elements in fiction, our enjoyment of said media will also decrease. This is unfortunately, a price we need to pay in order to prevent fictional works from intoxicating us with silly beliefs of how real life works.

#2 Set limits

Determine beforehand how many hours of entertainment you are going to need each week. My limits are 10 hours on non-productive internet surfing per week. Track down the amount of entertainment that you use on a piece of paper.

Note that just because you set a limit, it doesn’t mean that you will adhere to it. You are only motivated to change your bad habits if you have a strong sense of purpose. (See my Rules of Motivation for more information).

#3 Shut it off

If you have a television, shut it off. If you have a computer, disable your internet connection and close your internet browser. The point is to make it hard for yourself to use the entertainment that makes your procrastinate in the first place. Over time, you will associate back entertainment with good old-fashioned hard work, which is a good thing. Making it hard to access your entertainment will also make it easier for you to come to your sense and limiting the use of those entertainments.

#4 Exercise regularly and take up some sort of sports

Exercises and sports are forms of leisure that doesn't inflict unrealistic belief of hard work onto your mind. These activities require you to move your muscle instead of remaining idle. These activities will cause you to feel pain and tired while at the same time producing endorphin hormones that makes you feel good. Purge your body of the years of physical conditioning that had your body believed that in order to feel good, you need to stay idle.

End Note

I hope that you are satisfied with my explanation the process that we had used to condition our mind and body to procrastinate. The gradual Pavlovian conditioning that we have inflicted on ourselves thru years of exposure to television programs, video games, and movies had caused us to lose connection with what actual success and hard work feels like. The sooner we take steps to purge this conditioning, the sooner we can enjoy a fuller, meaningful, and productive life.

Further Read
  •  "Classical conditioning - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2010. .
  • Fredholm, Lotta, and Science Journalist. "Pavlov's Dog." N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2010. .


  1. thank you for sharing this,
    this is what I really need,
    I especially like what you said in your last paragraph.
    it's true, in this high-tech era, we're often tricked by believing that "in order to feel good, you need to stay idle", which turns out usually to be short-lasting, and feels empty afterwards too!

    thanks once again,
    keep on writing & sharing!

    1. Awesome Niki,
      Love the idea of rest being ok.
      Life Coach Sydney

  2. Great article. Can you explain more on how to get endorphin physically and mentally?

  3. Best article about procrastination ever! Thanks.

  4. This article really helped me! Thanks a lot :)