Stop procrastinating! Use the Premack principle

Posted 19 Dec 2010 in Psychology, Time Management

A lot of people have problems with procrastination, myself included.

We start off the day with a list of things that need to get done, and by the end of the day those plans are often hijacked and many tasks remain untouched. To some extent, that’s understandable and normal. We can always point to legitimate interruptions — an urgent assignment from the boss, a sick kid, an unexpected visitor. And of course there’s ultimate excuse:  In the complex new business environment, you have to stay flexible and go with the flow!  Can’t be rigid!

But be honest:  a lot of the time, it’s just because we prefer to procrastinate.

For those with office jobs or self-employed knowlege workers, connectivity is the norm. But this comes with a new kind of temptation: cyberslacking. It’s so easy to take a peek at an interesting blog, check your Twitter or Facebook, play a quick online game between phone calls.  Before you know it, you’re wasting a lot of time.

There are a lot of tasks that we tend to put off at work.  Difficult, undefined tasks like planning or starting a writing project. Boring or mind-numbing tasks like tabulating numbers. Stressful tasks that require us to deal with unpleasant people or situations.

Think about phone calls. There’s that phone call you’ve been meaning to make to resolve an issue you just don’t want to deal with. Or that client, associate or relative who likes to boast, berate you, or bore you with infinite detail. That call is just not going to be any fun. Easier to put it off.

At home, that storage room or garage stuffed full of old junk just sits there all year. There are all the little projects you dread doing–like bills, taxes, repairs, or organizing the closet.

I think you get the picture.  If your life is perfect and you can’t relate to any of this, just stop reading here.

There is a simple change you can implement today, that will help you stop procrastinating. Won’t cure it, but I think it will help. It’s called the Premack Principle, named after David Premack, a behavioral psychologist. He studied the reinforcement of behavior. Here is what his principle says:

A high probability behavior can serve as reinforcement for a low probability behavior.

What that means, in plain English, is that something you really like doing (playing games, relaxing with a drink or good book, calling a friend) can make it easier to do an unpleasant activity — if you put the pleasant activity after the unpleasant one. What David Premack understood is that pleasant tasks are reinforcing tasks, and when we put reinforcing tasks after something, we get more of that something. So put the pleasant tasks last in the sequence! Sometimes this is called Grandma’s Rule, because your grandmother told you to eat your spinach first and then you can have your dessert.

Aubrey Daniels realized that this concept can be turned into a great way to overcome procrastination:

The Premack Principle also provides us with the most effective time-management system known. Make a list of the things your have to do. Rank them from the thing you most like to do to the thing that you least like to do and then start at the bottom. If you start at the bottom, a curious thing happens. When you complete the last item on the list, the more reinforcing the tasks become.  If you are like most people, you will start at the top, but look what happens then. When you complete the first task, the next one is less desireable. The farther you go, the more punishing the tasks become. Is it any wonder that people who start at the bottom get two or three times more done than do those who start at the top? (“Other People’s Habits, p. 86)

Daniels used this technique to overcome his own writers’ block and finish his Ph.D. dissertation on time. I think this method is sheer genius and it has helped me fight procrastination. One specific change I’ve made is to no longer start my day by checking e-mail. I find reading e-mail very “reinforcing”, so I do it twice a day now: right before noon and again at the end of the day.

A surprising side effect of using the Premack Principle is that unpleasant activities eventually become more tolerable, or even pleasant!  This follows from the principle of reinforcement. I didn’t believe it at first, but it has been validated by my experience.

I’ve made one small adjustment to Daniel’s method which helps if you find his “reverse to do list” too hard to do. Use this approach if you are dealing with very unpleasant or difficult tasks, or as a way to get started if you have a serious procrastination problem:  If you have a short tolerance for drudgery or unpleasantness, put a pleasant reinforcing task as every third or fourth task. In the extreme, you can even do “task pairs” of unpleasant and pleasant tasks. The downside of this approach is that you risk getting sidetracked early in the day on something very reinforcing. You can’t be playing an Internet game every hour. So in most cases, it’s best to withhold the super pleasant, highly reinforcing tasks until later in the day when you’ve accomplished something.

Another suggestion for dealing with unpleasant, difficult or ill-defined projects comes from the GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology:  Determine just the very Next Action, the first concrete step needed to get things moving for your procrastinated projects.  It could be making a first phone call to get some information, or buying needed supplies.  Put these Next Actions ahead of the more pleasant tasks in your “reverse to do list”

Procrastination is not the only problem than can be attacked using the Premack Principle. Here are a few other applications I’ve come up with myself.  Perhaps you can think of your own:

  1. Workouts. For a more effective workout at the gym, start with the more difficult exercises or the ones you dislike, and save those that are more relaxing or enjoyable for the end of the workout. When going for an outdoor run, do the steepest uphill section first and end with the downhill.
  2. Dieting. To cut back on calorie intake,  start your meal with low-calorie appetizers and end with a small calorie-dense dessert. This is much better than starting out with calorie dense appetizers. If you practice intermittent fasting, do the fasting in the beginning of the day and break your fast as late in the day as possible. That gives you something to look forward to as a reward for your discipline.  This may be why most people who practice fast-5 break their fasts in the late afternoon or early evening, rather than in the morning.
  3. Phone calls. When making phone calls, make the one you don’t want to make first, end with the people you like talking to.
  4. Space organizing. When re-organizing a cluttered house or work area, start with the worst or most visible area first. You’ll notice the impact immediately and it will give you the energy to continue.

The Premack Principle can be thought of as yet another application of Hormetism, the application of a controlled stress to build your adaptive strength and resilience.  With the Premack Principle, you are actively reshaping the way you respond to unpleasant or challenging tasks. The more you apply it, the more you will lower the barrier to doing these difficult tasks the next time around.

Try it today (don’t procrastinate) and let me know if it helps your day go a little smoother.


  1. Alan Takushi

    I’m going to give your suggestions a try. For me, I’ve taken a drastic step and deactivated my Facebook account for the time being. I decided to go “silent” for a while until I can build up my willpower and focus. It was by far the chief reason I wasted a lot of time (not that staying in touch with friends is a waste of time but moderation is the key!). Thanks for the post.

    • Todd

      Alan, I can see that “going silent” might be the best move in some cases. However, if you really like checking Facebook, why not consider that as a way to reward yourself during a predetermined window of time near the end of the day AFTER you’ve accomplished a lot? I find that having something to look forward to–that I only let myself do after doing the less pleasant “gruntwork”–makes the gruntwork more tolerable. Just be absolutely rigid about scheduling the time of day you check Facebook, and that frees your mind from obsessing about it. The first few days you’ll experience “withdrawal symptoms”, until the new pattern becomes a habit. In many ways, that’s how I do intermittent fasting — I know I’ll be eating a delicious dinner, so until then I go without food and there’s no obsessing. Doing fun things only at set times makes them incredibly enjoyable!

  2. Daan van den Bergh

    Wow, interesting article!

    English being my second language. I learned another word! 😛

    It’s an interesting technique. And It should definitely make live more fun. But when something has to be done, it has to be done.

    I usually get through the boring to-do-list by asking myself: “What am I doing it for?”. In that way, I’ll start thinking of things that make me happy. I’ve written an article on this on my own blog. It’s a matter of perspective; housekeeping can be incredible dull and boring, but when you think of what you’re doing it for it’ll become much more pleasant – less boring. I think: after this my house is gonna be nice and clean, which will put my brain at ease, which will make me feel good and happy. It’s nicer to live in a neat house than in a junkyard. Besides that, doing something when you really don’t want to do it, makes it even more of a drag to do it.

    Awesome article! Thanks!

  3. I have a folder labelled “productivity.” It’s full of articles, suggestions, motivators about…procrastination. (I was just too embarrassed to label it so.)

    What I see now is that collecting ways to conquer the “P” beast has become a hobby!! Your post may just be my last entry. Wish me luck.
    Then I’ll be able to get to my empty blog!

    • Todd

      Linda – I wish you good luck! Just get started today – pick one small avoided task and do it right away, before anything else. Then reward yourself. — Todd

  4. Phil


    I must say that your site is one of the most interesting I’ve come across in some time. You’ve hit on a number of ideas that I’ve been following for years and brought them together in a useful framework (hormetism). Well done.

    This post on procrastination is particularly interesting because I’ve been following Aubrey Daniels work for years (as well as others in the field of applied behavior analysis) and I know the concepts work when dealing with others. However, I have a particular interest in applications for self-motivation. My experiments have led me to different conclusions, which may be helpful to you and your readers.

    First, I have to say that I actually don’t find the Premack principle very useful day-to-day for self-motivation/ending procrastination. I know Daniels recommends it, but I think it’s really more useful for working with others. In fact, much of the body of knowledge on behavior analysis and positive reinforcement developed around controlled experiments with animals and later on people, but not on oneself.

    Self-reinforcement is really something different. I believe Skinner himself argued that it doesn’t exist because you control the contingency between behavior and reinforcer, which inherently suggests non-contingency. That is, even if you have the will power to not go for the ice cream before finishing your vegetables, your mind knows that it was a choice, not true contingency.

    The best material that I’ve seen that deals with self-motivation and reinforcement directly is Robert Epstein’s book, Self-Help Without the Hype. It’s a quick read, but the book is also summarized with text and audio at the following link: In that book, Epstein also argues that self-reinforcement doesn’t really exist. Instead, he thinks that the value of self-reinforcement is just the recognition and attention that you give to accomplishments.

    Now, I’ll go a little further than that based on my own thinking and experimentation. For me, the idea of behavioral shaping – which Daniels also discusses in his books – is the most useful area to focus on for self-motivation. Reinforcement begins with recognition – you have to know what “good” behavior looks like before you can apply any reinforcement. Plus, if you get the timing right, recognition alone is often enough of a reinforcer in itself. And, with self-motivation, it’s likely all you need.

    Let me back up a second and explain shaping. Shaping is the reinforcement of very small changes in behavior that are “in the direction” of the desired behaviors, with reinforcement given frequently at first and then less frequently as we build momentum. You reinforce successive approximations toward a goal. This method is how B. F. Skinner was able to train pigeons to play ping pong among other feats. (See ) In applying the concept of shaping to the business world, Aubrey Daniels argues that managers should set goals for their employees too low, to provide many opportunities for reinforcement. That is, managers should set goals where the probability of success is high (contrary to what most people think and do). He also says that managers should arrange to have many goals, not few, and that we should think of reinforcement as “behavioral fuel.”

    Applied to oneself, shaping suggests a couple of things. First, you need to be able to recognize progress, more frequently as you begin, less often later. Second, you need to give yourself starting points where you have a high-probability of success (ie: feels easy).

    If you, like me, are a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methods, you may be able to see what parts of his method align with behavioral shaping. I think the main problems, behaviorally speaking, that most people have motivationally with GTD are: first, they identify next actions that are not easy enough (too low a probability of success for their environment); second, they don’t identify enough actions at the beginning; and third, they don’t identify enough milestones along the way to the final outcome.

    More concretely, my translation of these ideas to self-motivation is as follows:

    1. You need to identify the ultimate outcome that you need to accomplish. This is GTD 101.

    2. You need to think of not just a single “next action,” but as many EASY next actions as you can think of toward that outcome. In other words, what are the things you can do next, and easily, toward that outcome? You should err on the side of tasks that feel too easy. You need to be able to recognize progress, no matter how small, at first. I often use a mind-map with single keywords to represent easy action steps to get me started. (Productivity writer Mark Forster suggests this idea in an article — — but he doesn’t take it far enough in my opinion.)

    3. Many outcomes benefit from identifying milestones along the way to further recognize your progress. You should spread them out such that they are not equally spaced throughout the progress of the task/outcome. Rather you want more milestones for early progress, and fewer as you get closer to the goal line.

    4. As you start doing the “easy next actions” and checking them off, you will find yourself building momentum and focus toward your outcome. If you ever get distracted or thrown off course, just stop, make a list of easy next actions from wherever you are (and milestones as needed) and then build your momentum again.

    Try that and see what you think.


    • Nick T

      I have read a LOT of psychology in my quest for undoing the damage caused by being raised by a narcissist, and this comment has been one of the most interesting/helpful.
      Thanks Phil!!
      If you got anything else along these lines, let me know!

  5. Victoria Carrasco

    No solo lo he probado y comprobado, ahora lo recomiendo.

    (Not only I have tried and tested it, now I recommend it.)


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