How To Defeat Procrastination by Being Present-Minded

The clock has just struck 5pm on Wednesday and Susan takes a look at her gym bag.

"Ugg. There is no way I'm going to be able to make it to the gym tonight."

Susan is on an 8-week exercise program. She has been trying to create a regular exercise habit for years now, but no matter how hard she tries, nothing ever works.

On Sunday night when she’s planning her schedule for the week ahead she is always positive. She plans to go to the gym 3 days after work per week and gets excited at the prospect of a newer, slimmer, body.

However, by the time the bell tolls and she actually has to go to the gym, that motivation is nowhere to be found. Now she is stressed, tired and craving a night of take-out food and television to help her get over the day.

Her brain is now envisioning two different scenarios that may take place this evening:

scenario 1: sucking it up & going to the gym

First, she thinks about the scenario in which she is able to resist the temptation of a night of greasy food and relaxation by staying strong and going to the gym.

Then she envisions the miles on the treadmill that she promised herself she would do.

She remembers the pain of her previous run and the boredom of watching the clock go by so slowly.

Then something odd begins to happen. Susan’s brain actually begins to send messages down to her muscles that make them begin to feel even more sore and fatigued than before! [1]

Even though she hasn’t moved from her desk, simply envisioning this scenario is making Susan feel more tired.

Scenario 2: Skipping the Gym and Relaxing

Then Susan begins to envision her night on the couch with the takeout food in hand.

She thinks about how good the Thai food will taste and how nice it will be to catch up on her favorite TV show. She begins to anticipate just how nice it will be to have a night off, relax and ease her stress.

Then another odd thing happens. When she starts to anticipate the delicious food and relaxation, her brain starts to release a chemical called dopamine. This chemical activates her reward center and makes her begin to crave the night at home on the couch. [2]

While this is happening, the simple act of envisioning these two scenarios is also causing Susan’s brain to burn through its supply of glucose (what the brain uses to exert willpower). So she has less of it left to push herself to go to the gym. [3]

So simply thinking about these two scenarios is causing her brain to:

Make her muscles feel more fatigued than they really are

Make her begin to crave the food she's thinking about ordering

Make her motivated to relax on the couch

And deplete the total amount of glucose that she has to exert willpower

This, of course, leads Susan to decide to skip the gym – just this once – and allow herself a night of relaxation, takeout food and television. Besides, she can always make up for it tomorrow, right?

Why envisioning the future sets you up for failure

Susan’s story is one that we have all gone through at some point.

It may not have been a trip to the gym we tried to skip, but perhaps a night of studying, a night of working on chores, or a night of working on a blog of your own that you have always wanted to start.

Whatever your goal, the minute that you started envisioning what you had planned to do versus your much less stressful alternative, you began to set yourself up for failure. This occurs for 3 reasons:


When Susan’s brain began imagining running, she instantly thought about her previous run. The brain remembers pain more than it remembers pleasure, so it was easier for it to remember the stress and the anguish of the last run, than it was to remember the pleasure of the endorphin rush or the sense of pride that she felt. [4]

The brain is wired to survive. It will attempt to avoid pain whenever possible – especially the pain that it remembers. So to try to avoid the potential pain of running, it began to send messages to Susan’s muscles to feel fatigue. Thus making Susan feel more tired than she really was. [1]

This pain does not have to be physical. If your plan is to spend several hours studying, your brain will remember the pain of being confused by textbook material that you may have felt last time – rather than the pleasure of learning.

If your plan is to do chores, your brain may have remembered the boredom that you faced the last time you cleaned – rather than the pleasure of having a spotless kitchen.

Any time you envision exerting willpower in the future, your brain will begin to motivate you to avoid having to go through that again.


When Susan’s brain began anticipating the short-term reward of Thai food, her brain began releasing a chemical called dopamine. This release of dopamine was a survival mechanism used to motivate our ancestors.

Our ancestors were perpetually starving and weak. So when there was a chance to acquire food, their brains did not want them to miss the opportunity. To do this, the brain released a chemical called dopamine that would increase their energy, focus and motivation to get that food at all costs. [5]

Because Susan was tired and stressed, the mere thought of food triggered this release of dopamine as a survival mechanism. Her brain didn’t know when her next meal was coming. For all it knew, getting that Thai food could be a matter of life and death. So it wanted her to get it at all costs!

Dopamine is not limited to just food. Many of us have trained our brains so that any short-term pleasure will trigger this release. This includes an impulse purchase, playing video games or even checking social media. [6]

Any time you envision a short-term reward in the future; your brain will begin to motivate you to get it at all costs.


While all of this envisioning was taking place, Susan was also using up her brain’s supply of glucose. Glucose is the brain’s energy source. It uses it to think, plan and exert willpower. [3]

So as her brain was using up its glucose remembering pain, sending messages of fatigue, and releasing dopamine, she was depleting the supply of glucose that she needed to will herself to go to the gym.

The longer she contemplated the decision, the more glucose she was using up. So with every passing minute that she was contemplating whether or not to go to the gym, she was lowering her chances of making it there.

Any time you contemplate whether to stick to your goals or take a break from them, you begin to lower your willpower. Therefore, the simple act of contemplation will make it much more likely that you will procrastinate, take a break and fail to establish great habits.

Stay in the Present

As you can see, any time you begin to envision exerting your willpower in the future, you begin to set yourself up for failure. There is a simple way to avoid this fate – keep your mind in the present.

There is very little suffering in the present.

Think back to the last time you were on a treadmill; was it the running that was painful? Or was it watching the clock and wishing you were done so you could rest on the couch?

Do you suffer at work when you are fully immersed in what you are doing? Or when you are watching the clock in anticipation of going home?

Whatever you exert your willpower for, you put yourself through unnecessary pain by envisioning it in the future. Even if Susan was able to stay strong and make it to the gym, she would arrive with fatigued muscles, a short-term mindset and lower willpower to push herself through her run.

However, staying in the present is easier said than done. It is not easy to prevent your mind from wandering to the future and beginning to anticipate pain or a short-term reward.

But you can train your mind to stay in the present through a simple exercise of 10 minutes of daily meditation. Meditation is fastest, simplest and most effective way to increase your willpower and train your mind to focus on the present. [7] 

You can see all of the benefits of meditation and learn a simple method to get started by checking out this article.


It is human nature to envision the future and anticipate its consequences. However, when we begin to think about exerting willpower in the future, we trigger our brain to make us feel pain, seek short-term rewards and deplete the willpower that we need.

To avoid this fate, train your mind to remain in the present. By simply meditating for 10 minutes per day, you can train yourself to become more present-minded and avoid setting yourself up for failure.

You put yourself through unnecessary stress by anticipating the future, rather than allowing yourself to be immersed in the present. So the next time you're in a situation like Susan, take a deep breath. Bring yourself to the present and simply accomplish your goal one step at a time.