Could Obsessive Research Be the Cure for Procrastination?

There’s a lot of ways to procrastinate. Extra pushes of the snooze button, the final cram session before an exam, waiting until midlife to pick a career. Maybe you’re procrastinating right now.

I used to believe most of this was just inertia. With a push, you could start rolling and finish the work with less effort. Procrastination was just temporary laziness.

Now I’m not so sure.

Consider chronic procrastination. These are the projects you drag your feet on regardless of how many pushes you get. Inertia can’t be the core problem here.

But if action isn’t the cure for procrastination, what is?

“Just Do It” Culture and Distaste for Planning

We live in a culture that has taken Nike’s famous slogan to heart. Action is celebrated, planning is obsolete. The world changes too quickly for stuffy things like research, what we need are brave pioneers and risk takers to do the bold things overly-cautious people cannot.

The slogan has some merit, doing things is how things get done (even if tautologically so). If you want change, there must be some action to cause it.

By putting all the emphasis on momentum, however, we might ignore other more fruitful approaches. Instead of pushing on a locked door, why not spend some time to find a key first?

Conversations with fellow blogger Cal Newport clued me in on this possibility. Cal’s philosophy contradicts much of the just-do-it approach. He researches exhaustively before starting. Despite this slowness, he’s hardly a non-starter—he is currently working on his fifth book.

Obsessive Research (Or How Not to Procrastinate on Hard Things)

Analysis paralysis was a buzzword of a self-help era with audio cassettes and three-day seminars. The idea was that spending too much time thinking about an idea would stall action. At some point, you just need to stop thinking and just do it.

Now I believe that this is almost entirely true: thinking excessively about something can lead to inaction. But I’m not being self-contradictory, I’m saying this because researching a goal isn’t the same as thinking about it.

Research isn’t pondering. Researching is an activity to gather more information. Here are some research activities which are certainly a lot more than day-dreaming:

  • Reading at least a dozen books on the subject.
  • Creating an experimental prototype.
  • Interviewing several experts.
  • Doing a pilot project, as a proof of concept.

It’s important to note that none of these are the same as starting in full force. A pilot or prototype is purposely reduced in scope or quality. The purpose isn’t to build something to get started, but to learn what works in the project itself.

Research like this has a major advantage over actually doing the project. Because its entire purpose is as an information probe, there is no possibility of failure. As much as we try to laud failure as progress, nobody acts that way—failures still sting. Research allows us to gather information before we’ve put any of our ego or commitment on the line.

Why Research Kills Chronic Procrastination

A big cause of chronic procrastination is uncertainty. You don’t start that ambitious project, not because you lack momentum, but because you don’t know enough. Research fixes that in an obvious way, replacing ignorance with impetus.

Uncertainty also hits as a general malaise. Students I work with often have chronic procrastination issues. Research can help here too: more information can either give them more reasons to be excited to move forward, or it can give them the acute reasons they need to make a change immediately.

Obsessive research helps beyond minimizing uncertainty however. Even with projects where uncertainty can’t be reduced, the power of obsessive research is that it builds commitment. The more you research, the more invested you become in starting, so that when you do, you’re far less likely to back out on a whim.

I researched obsessively before doing my MIT Challenge, and I think it was a big part of the reason I didn’t give up, even when the subjects were often difficult. Now I’m preparing for another mega project, and I already see how doing preparation and research is escalating my commitment.

Where Does This Method Work?

Like all advice, I don’t believe obsessive research has universal applicability, but I do think there are a range of situations it is well suited for, and still more where it might work.

First, obsessive research is helpful where you feel a lot of uncertainty or doubt. Human psychology is peculiar in that, even if a project appears more difficult than you had assumed, this is still more motivating than lacking any information.

Second, research can help with projects which fail due to lack of commitment. Regular people like to poke fun at those who set resolutions to get in shape each January, but I feel sorry for the people who have given up on setting any goals because they know they can’t commit to them.

Finally, I think research can also be useful in some cases where chronic procrastination is due to unexciting prospects. Many students or employees are stuck in this demotivating trap. Research can help either to find exciting opportunities, or at least to get the pressure to pull the kill switch and make a change.

  • Brett Warner

    For me, almost universally the best way to do things has been a hybrid approach, where you commit to spending X% researching and X% working directly on the project per week. This forces you to take action towards creating and ensures that you don’t spend more time researching than necessary. But also allows you to continually learn and apply your learning directly to the project.

    However nothing I work on has a huge downside for failure. Obviously learning to fly a plane, or spending a significant amount of money to get something put together without research would be suicide.

  • Jonathan

    Thank you for making the distinction between thinking and research as I’ve let the lines blur there. I think you’re absolutely right… ridding the ignorance that causes procrastination can be overcome by the constant nudging of research.

    I’d like to also suggest my recent revelations by getting a huge reduction in procrastination from others. Informational interviews, open forums, and meetups have recently given me a great ignition to push past blocks I’ve been experiencing in my own projects. I’ve found others’ knowledge and accountability, whether implicit or explicit, to be extremely powerful motivators.

  • Raindrop11

    What a coincidence! I just ‘realised’ this today, though perhaps I have ‘realised’ it earlier and then forgot it or something.

    As a freshman struggling with huge assignments (I have 2 courses, one has about 80 pages/week the other about 50 pages/week of reading, plus a chemistry course and an ‘easy’ calculus course), I’m battling some deep procrastination!
    It started when I saw those huge assignments.

    It’s so nonintuitive:
    Deliberate practice, planning, learning study skills, changing habits
    It consumes time but ends up making you an expert (hopefully)
    In other words these time consuming things end up saving time!

    I realised that my procrastination problem will (hopefully) vanish once I spend an hour or two planning! Probably

  • Raindrop

    Deliberate practice, planning, learning study skills, changing habits.
    Time-consuming, but saves time.
    Non intuitive!

  • Chuck

    Great insight into research. I enjoyed reading your fascinating perspective. Please continue to provide your profound information!!

  • Tom
    This is basically following the phase-gate model. Investors are reluctant in the face of uncertainity so they make a series small investments to improve certainity of an opportunity in different phases. The process isn’t going to be exactly this for an entreprenuer but the principle is the same. A systematic approach to evaluate projects with minimal investment upfront.


  • Pads

    I have tried many times to start self education projects. Never succeed.
    I gather all the information, resources, books, pictures, notes, you name it. But I always end up putting it away or is collecting dust in my not-accomplished-goals collection in my hard drive.
    I found more than 34 projects I started and all of them where heavily documented, with everything ready to set up, but I never went far from the first 2 lessons, chapters. Always started, do a couple of things, and abandon the whole thing after less than a week
    After a couple years trying to do something else, I end up doing nothing, so frustrating.

  • dag

    It’s a interesting post. I think you’re right. In most cases some research is needed not to fail. I also think what you call ‘obsessive research’ is a good starting point to tackle projects when you feel uncertain of the results or you don’t know much about how to undertake them.

    However, I’ve experienced the opposite as well. When you do excessive research and think about how to develop your project meticulously beforehand, you know so much and it’s all so clear that you could get bored. As a consequence, it exists the risk of abandoning the project, just because it doesn’t challenge you anymore.

  • Edmund

    Reassuring yourself by researching is definitely valued above jumping into the matter with zero knowledge on-hand. However, overdoing it may also bring about negative impacts.

    I agree with Brett’s hybrid approach on taking on projects. A balance between research and execution seems rational.

  • JB

    In my experience, research sometimes becomes just another form of procrastination. I would resist starting the project and would just research more so I could go on not feeling guilty.

  • Nitin

    Wait, you’re preparing for another mega project? What is it, Scott? When are you gonna let us know about it? Full of suspense 🙂

  • Jun


    You are a smart and thoughtful writer, and I get a lot of good ideas from your blog. Thank you. That said, May I offer a suggestion about your writing? It would help getting your intellectual ideas across to provide more examples, vignettes, or anecdotes. Occasionally you would throw out an idea that might make sense to you, so clear that it seems extraneous to explain, but on paper to another mind it is not at all clear. A story or anecdote would make your idea come alive to the reader, who is not in your head.

    For example, you wrote “Second, research can help with projects which fail due to lack of commitment. Regular people like to poke fun at those who set resolutions to get in shape each January, but I feel sorry for the people who have given up on setting any goals because they know they can’t commit to them.” Sorry but I do not understand this point. How does research help people commit or persist in their commitment? The second sentence does not support the first.

    If you can “spice up” your writing, I am willing to bet, the power of your influence would grow exponentially.

  • Sam

    I think you’ve made some really good points Scott. I agree that knowing more about what you plan to do will tremendously help when it comes to avoiding procrastination.

    But I think there are other things that can help too, in conjunction with good planning and a prepared mindset. For example, focusing on the positive that will be brought from doing a certain task or studying a certain thing. We tend to think about the negative whenever procrastinating. Instead, I think you have to convince yourself that you are excited about doing whatever it is you have to do (or find reasons to be), and that what you are doing really interests you.

    This is also related to enjoying the present. Instead of avoiding something, just start doing it and notice your resistance to doing it. Watch the urge to go do something else, but don’t act. Let it arise. If need be, go away momentarily and come back. Even trying meditation can bring benefits I’m sure, where you just close your eyes and try to empty your mind and just focus on the present.

    What do you think? Do you think positive thinking and learning how to savor the present moment can help in fighting procrastination?

  • Jonathan

    Research can unstick procrastination, and surely bread is better with butter. I think it would have been a more interesting piece (and more inline with the quality of many other of your posts) to examine how to research through procrastination as a step-wise strategy to unlock procrastination. For research, as you mention, is action as yet undefined. And because of its openendedness many of us resist it. So how does someone who is stuck unstick themselves systematically with obsessive research? Where to begin, what is the environment, what are the tools, how much time should each piece take to accomplish, what project planning system is advisable, who to share this new information with, when is good time being spent after bad? All of these particulars would be interesting to hear you expand upon and I think offer us good readers more persuasion to hit the books. – Jonathan

  • Sam

    Good post Scott.
    Brett’s point is a good complement to the write up.
    Striking a balance is an obvious reality.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Sandy

    I agree with PADs above. I get compulsive about research and study of an issue and then I give up.

    I’ve looked at this closely and realized that I forget, after doing all that research, what my goal is. Because of your courses, I wrote out my goal and designated time to work on the issue at hand. That helped.

    But I found myself researching again within that time period. I looked closely again to see what is holding me back from doing the project.

    What I see is that much of my research shows contradictions in methodology. I also saw that I actually loved “reading” more than the active things I need to be doing. I, also, saw that I have something going on with my mind which I’m hoping is addressed somewhere on your blog. I can’t give a name to it but I will explain it. Perhaps you will see what I’m referring to.

    I can only explain it in terms of a felt sense. This is an example. I’m working on writing a web page. As I research I’m looking for good ideas on how to organize what I want to say.

    But when I actually go to my word program to do what I’ve researched I have this feeling that once I commit to the writing of it that there is no way out. Then I get this flood of feelings that it won’t be right, that others will copy what I’m doing, that it feels to “heavy” to do it, that I’m bored before I even started, that maybe this whole thing is “not me”(except I have experienced that can lead me down a deep rabbit hole ) .

    So I asked myself what do you want to experience instead?
    I want to feel like whatever I do is connected to me only. Although I feel what I present will help people, I don’t want to feel like it will be under scrutiny. I don’t want the feeling like it is something that will be “competitive” with anything else. I just want to do what I do as though no one else is in the room.

    When I work for others and tasks are assigned I feel like I can do it, turn it in and its done. But when I work on something for myself it feels like it is going up against the world and will be judged.

    In any case, thanks for letting me try to explain this here. Maybe you can comment on what your observation is.

  • Stian

    To be fair, you do have some good points, Scott. I still have to disagree with you on this one. I feel that giving this advice is going to be misinterpreted (and abused) to procrastinate further.
    The hardest thing is getting started. If you just manage to get started, the unfinished project will constantly nag you mentally until you get it done.