Mental Models: 6 Steps to Overcome Procrastination-Causing Thoughts

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Have you ever had a really important project you want or need to do and for some reason you just can't find the discipline to dig in and get started? What about when you do start a project. Do you ever get stuck in the middle of a project and can't continue but you have no idea why?

In many instances of procrastination, it feels like something is blocking you but you don't know what. A lot of times, we procrastinate important things due to mental models.

In my book “23 Anti-Procrastination Habits,” I talked about how the root cause of the “procrastination habit” comes from our self-limiting beliefs.

In today's post, we'll go over these limiting beliefs, how they create mental obstacles that prevent you from taking action and six-step process for overcoming them.

7 Reasons Why We Procrastinate Starting a Project

To start, let's go over the seven excuses that I cover in 23 Anti-Procrastination Habits:

  1. It doesn’t matter
  2. I need to do _________first.
  3. I need more information to get started
  4. I feel overwhelmed and have too much to do.
  5. I don’t have time right now
  6. I keep forgetting to do it.
  7. I don’t feel like doing it.

These are the reasons you give yourself for not digging in and doing important things. At the time, they appear to be valid excuses, but in reality, they’re excuses based on self-limiting beliefs.

You try and fix the problem by creating a comprehensive “to do” list. You may even take positive steps such as finding an accountability partner.

Yet in the end, you may find that for one reason or another you are making excuses and putting off the projects for one reason or another.

Your “heart”  may be in the game, but your “head” is sitting on the sidelines (or vice versa).

Everything starts with the mind-heart connection. In order to remain on the same wavelength, you must establish and maintain positive beliefs that propel you toward action and success.

Combat the Procrastination By Re-Framing  Your Mental Models

Where do these negative beliefs come from? The root of this problem is something you might not be considered, yet it haunts your ability to form identity based habits and be productive. It’s called mental models.

A mental model is developed by your thoughts and is based upon your perception of your surroundings, how something works and the relationships of various elements pertaining to the situation. It directly correlates with your past experiences. This is what shapes your behavior or reaction to a particular situation. Your approach to specific tasks, projects or problems is based upon the thoughts, or perception that you carry.

In other words, if you hold a negative mental model about a specific task or project that you need to do, your automatic reaction is likely to be one of the seven aforementioned procrastination excuses.

Because of your current perception, your cognition, reasoning and decision making skills will divert to procrastination. What’s so powerful about mental models is that they include a negative thought, a mental picture, and a negative emotion at the same time. So overcoming them involves not only reversing negative thoughts but re-attaching a positive emotion to that mental picture.


The mental model:  I suck at research.

When you’re facing a deadline on a project, your mind automatically flashes with pictures of grinding through pages and pages of information not being able to find what you want, being bored, not understanding what you’re reading etc. Following this picture in your mind, you attach the stagnating emotion of dread to the act of researching. So when you hear the words project, article, blog post etc. you automatically procrastinate.  These models stop you from turning your goals into habits.

This entire scenario all began with a simple core belief you hold on to in your mind that you’re not good at research. As a result, you’re overcome with dread so you procrastinate using one or all of the aforementioned procrastination excuses.


Does it really make sense to label all research this way just because you had one miserable experience in your past related to research? Identify and reverse that past experience into something motivating that crushes any of the procrastination excuses you’re trying to use.

The New Mental Model:  Research is like a treasure hunt.

When you approach the task at hand in a positive light, you can’t help but trigger a more positive reaction. Forming the new belief that research is like a treasure hunt triggers a challenge to the subconscious.

Now you’re entering into your new project in a completely different light. Your mind is stimulated, instead of dreading the idea of research. Now the picture in your mind is associating the satisfaction of finding the treasure (the facts you need) instead of picturing how boring and difficult it will be.

Two Solutions to Overcoming Bad Mental Models

Yes, there are two solutions to overcoming mental models that cause you to procrastinate.

The first one is to reshape them and attach positive emotions to them as demonstrated in the aforementioned example.

The second one, however, is the backup. What if you have a project right now? Being able to completely change a mental model takes time. Most of the time, we don’t realize we hold these mental models until we’re in the midst of procrastinating something. So what then?

The second solution is a trick that all successful entrepreneurs resort to. This trick not only improves productivity and helps establish good habits, but it also completely bypasses any mental models that inhibit performance.

When you have systems in place, regardless of your mental model, you simply follow the step by step procedures and whiz through the task or project at hand.

Steps to Overcoming Procrastination-Causing Thoughts

Here are some basic steps to set up systems in an effort to bypass any and all mental models:

Step 1: Identify Your Reason For Procrastination

Your reason is going to be related to the aforementioned reasons for procrastination. Once you understand this, you will be able to come up with a system that crushes your excuse for procrastinating.

Step 2:  Establish the 5 W’s

Who, what, when, where and why. This is the framework of your system. It also determines how you’re going to word the step by step instructions.

For example, if you despise research, or you have a team member that does, you’re not going to include ‘research’ in your steps. You’re going to find a trigger word or phrase that motivates action.

Step 3:  The Scavenger Hunt

Yes, scavenger hunt, not research, or facts or any other BORING word.  It’s actually a hunt for what you need in order to create your intended system. Remember, when you’re ‘hunting’ you don’t have to read word for word. Skim read for the facts that are necessary to set up your step by step process.

Use trigger words. Look for examples that whoever will be following the process can relate to and follow. Look for phrases such as ‘for example,’ ‘in addition to,’ ‘also,’ ‘remember,’ ‘but first…’  Watch for text in bold or italics. Brainstorm everything you need to do, have and know in order to complete the process.

Don’t be afraid to use tools such as Evernote, Kippt or other bookmarking tools, copy and paste etc.

Step 4: Infusion

This is where you combine all of your facts and begin to fuse them together chronologically into step by step form. Don’t worry about the wording yet, just gather all of your information that’s necessary for this particular process and organize it from first to last. Remember to stick to only the facts that are necessary and nothing extra that could sidetrack or cause confusion.

Step 5: Explain

In this step, you’re actually going to write, or put into words, the actual process. Don’t view it as writing.  View it as explaining. Write in the active voice using clear, concise terminology.

Give each new step a bullet point or a number and try to title it with a sub-heading that triggers action.

Mentally picture the step in your head and write down what you see. If there’s a problem that could arise during the procedure, always present the problem with the solution. We live in an ‘immediate gratification’ society. Quick fixes are not only expected, but they’re also great motivators to keep going.

Make sure the words you use include action words, trigger phrases or words, and that they follow the picture exactly as you see it in your mind. That way you don’t forget anything important.

Step 6: Home Plate

This is the step where you apply the finishing touches. Finish your new system so that it’s very user-friendly and doesn’t take the effort to understand.

When it’s applicable, choose whether it will be a digital document or a hard copy and format as such.  Consider the table of contents, appendix etc. as well as binding if necessary.  Find a place to put it so that it is readily accessible and ready to go.

Need more help to stop procrastination right now? Watch this video and you will learn about 5 simple habits you can build that will help you stop procrastinating:

Final Thoughts on Mental Models

Now, what you have in your hands is a ‘bypass’ for any mental model you or your team member could hold.  Systems completely override all negative reactions, mental models and excuses for procrastination by laying out baby steps for each process.  Instead of looking at the entire picture, all you need to do is follow one step after another and do them.  No focus for figuring out the next step, or trying to remember what you did last time occurs, because it’s already right there.

Feelings aren’t facts, but sometimes they hold the ability to completely paralyzing our progress.  When your mind is in an emotional state, or overwhelmed, sometimes it’s impossible to look at a list of ‘to do’s’ and be able to have the mental clarity to complete them.  Procrastination is your instant defense mechanism to take the stress off…but it’s a façade.  It only leads into a rabbit hole of continued procrastination with even more outrageous excuses.

Like I said in  “23 Anti-Procrastination Habits,” incorporating systems into your life can speed up productivity and eliminate those mental block that prevent you from taking action.  Learn to embrace the suck when things get uncomfortable and simply follow the six- steps that I just outlined to systematize your life and override all excuses for procrastination.

Want to find out more about procrastination?  See these procrastination posts:

7 thoughts on “Mental Models: 6 Steps to Overcome Procrastination-Causing Thoughts”

  1. Scott, I read your blog on the 6 steps to overcoming procrastination. I feel like I vaguely understood what you were saying, but am not totally clear. Is the purpose of the “6 steps” to develop a “system” that I would follow if I noticed I was procrastinating a project, or 6 steps to follow in the moment to get the project done? I assume the former. It would help to see an example using the 6 steps; the example of re-framing the research phobia makes that one clear.

    • Brian,

      Certainly more of the former. This really helps for creating systems for the things that people KNOW they tend to procrastinate about. When you have a good mental model about the specific things that YOU tend toward procrastinating on, it makes it much less likely that you will fall into the trap.


  2. You’re so right when you say that feelings aren’t facts,Steve, so I need to be motivated or disgusted enough to overcome my procrastination (feelings) to take the first step in your system which is a fact.

    I reread your system and I think that’s going to work for me … getting to Step 6
    and “Finish your new system so that it’s very user friendly and doesn’t take effort to understand. When it’s applicable, choose whether it will be a digital document or a hard copy and format as such. Consider table of contents, appendix etc. as well as binding if necessary. Find a place to put it so that it is readily accessible and ready to go.”

    Following your 6 step plan is a project I can do today without putting off any part of it because it’s a project that can be started and completed in one sitting so that should work for most people!

    Thank you Steve,


  3. Procrastination. Something we’re all guilty about somehow right? Liked this approach though. I believe you are what your mind thinks and every decision we make is a result of our emotional state at that point of time. Like you said in the post – “Feelings aren’t facts, but sometimes they hold the ability of completely paralyzing our progress.” Think positive, remove the negativity and get things done.

    Great stuff, SJ.

  4. This is fantastic SJ! I’m a graduate student who constantly puts off ‘research’ til the last minute. I’m so excited to get ready for my “scavenger hunt” process. It even feels better saying it.

  5. I found this post at just the right time, now time to dig in! To quote Mark Twain (via yourself) “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

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