Breaking Procrastination: Part III, Dinner before Desert, Always

Read Part I and Part II of this series.


Its sometime in the late 90’s. Justin arrives home on a Saturday afternoon, heavy with dread. The major assignment is due on Monday. He sits in his room, the clutter of his desk feels intolerable: Work simply can’t be started until its clean! However once cleared away, the pressure has only intensified. Justin decides he needs to lie on his bed and listen to his discman, to become relaxed enough to work.

Dining on Disgusting Dinners

As a child I loathed brussel sprouts. For Little Justin, nothing could be worse than these compact, gross, green balls. Many a sprout was furtively flung across the room, or secreted away in my socks, just so I didn’t have to endure the terrible taste of this vile vegie. Many more sprouts, however, managed to find their way into my mouth and down my digestive tract.

No, I was never force-fed. I consumed of my own accord. It was not quite voluntary, however. I was made an offer I simply couldn’t refuse: No dessert without dinner.


Many kind and empathic people embark on studies in psychology, only to recoil in revulsion at the content of their degree. When I started my undergraduate studies, the field of psychology was heavy on “rats and stats”. Stats means the mathematical field of statistics**. Rats, means behavioural experiments on small white or brown rodents.

Rats are studied in psychology because they provide a cheap, disposable*** subject for experiments. This field of psychology is called Behaviourism – the study of how rewards and punishments shape behaviour. There is a good chance if you’ve ever seen a psychologist, they have been working from at type of therapy that has its roots in behaviourism (e.g. CBT, DBT, ACT…).

And, if behaviourism teaches you one thing****, it’s that rewards work.

I’ve written before about the power of incentives to influence the behaviour of others. Being nice to someone, when they treat us nicely, is one of the simplest methods to get more positive attention. We especially understand the power of rewards when dealing with children or dogs. We think less about how we can use rewards to influence ourselves.

How can we influence ourselves with rewards? We are an undivided individual, right? We know our own tricks! We can’t possibly trick ourselves into doing a difficult assignment or studying for an exam, can we?

In truth, our minds play many roles. We can mentally align with our Future Self – and become the scientist. We can mentally align with Present Experience – and become the rat.

 Breaking Procrastination

When it comes to study, or work, dinner comes first – always. There is no time like the present. There is no better state to be in than the one you are in right now. Your present-focussed rat brain will tell you myths such as:

  • “I’ll work better when the house is tidier”.
  • “I just need to relax a little before starting work”.
  • “I work better in the night-time”.
  • “I work better in the morning”.
  • “I need to do a few life admin tasks to clear the clutter in my mind”.

The problem with these behaviours is that they equate to feeding yourself dessert before dinner. Getting relaxed. Making the house tidy. Solving less anxiety provoking tasks. These are all dessert. They all weaken your resolve to work. They all kill valuable time. And pre-assignment relaxation is hardly relaxing at all!

You can’t expect a kid to eat a disgusting dinner without the promise of dessert, can you?

Don’t Forget Dessert

So, now you’ve done you work, or study, or assignment. Why not just keep going? Why not keep working harder and become a super-student, super-employee? Why not skip dessert?

You can’t just keep working because rewards should be the motivator for future work. You can’t expect your little rat brain to trust your scientist brain ever again if it reneges on the promised dessert. If Mum had denied Little Justin dessert despite eating a plateful of brussel sprouts, Justin would never be motivated again to eat that meal again.

So, schedule something pleasurable and relaxing immediately after having worked on studied. Reward yourself. The sooner after you finish the hard work, the better.


Dinner => Dessert (ALWAYS!)

Dessert => Dinner (NEVER!)



* No names or key details changed.

** Statistics seems to be kryptonite for kind, empathic people, ironically enough.

*** Yes, our rats were all destroyed after the experiment.

**** This one thing, Operant Conditioning/Positive Reinforcement, makes up about 90% of the behaviourism I currently use as part of my job.

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