Procrastination is rarely if ever helpful, yet many of us frequently fall into its trap. “I’ll work on this project right after I read this article,” we’ll say. “I have one clean pair of underwear, so I can wait until tomorrow to do laundry.”
Even the most organized among us have fallen prey to procrastination from time to time. (My mom may be the one exception; I just asked her, and she said, “Sometimes on weekends, I don’t get out of bed until 5:00.” That’s A.M.) But for chronic procrastinators, the problem can be debilitating. So, why do people procrastinate—and how can you stop once and for all?
Why is it so hard to stop procrastinating?
It’s usually not because you’re lazy, find the task boring, or lack motivation. Instead, the problems go a bit deeper. Here are some common reasons why people procrastinate:
1. Lack of confidence
Some people lack confidence in their ability to complete the task, so they put it off out of fear. These people often miss out on valuable opportunities simply because they’re too scared of what will happen if they try. Procrastination then gives you an excuse for why you didn’t do well: you didn’t let yourself, because you kept putting off the task.
As with a lack of confidence, many people put off accomplishing the things they need to do because they’re anxious about the results. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because putting off a task you need to do for too long makes it impossible to do a good job, since you simply won’t have the time. Plus, procrastination will only worsen your anxiety.
3. Overvaluing instant gratification
Rather than reflecting on the past or considering the implications for the future, chronic procrastinators can be overly focused on the present. Watching TV instead of writing that report will be more pleasurable for you in the moment, but when the show is over, you’re still going to have to write that report.
What happens in the brain when we procrastinate?
When we procrastinate, the brain is feeling a sort of relief. After all, the reason we procrastinate is because we tell ourselves that doing anything else is more fun. Even though putting things off can feel stressful in the long run, it can feel better in the short-term. But that is also why researchers have found that chronic procrastination is largely linked to low energy, low self-confidence, and depression.
The consequences of procrastination
If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you probably see the consequences of waiting until the last minute to get things done routinely. Here are some ways procrastination is hurting you:
1. You go into panic mode.
When you wait until the last minute, you’re going to realize that you need to tackle the task at some point—and you’ll be stressing to finish it. (Trust me: I remember waiting to write a philosophy paper the night before it was due when I was in college, and I had a full-on panic attack.)
2. You’ll actually waste time...procrastinating.
How much time do you spend thinking about the task you should be doing and not actually doing it? When you’re thinking about the thing you need to do, you’re not accomplishing anything else, much less the task on your list. That means you’ve spent a lot of time essentially doing nothing.
3. Your end result will suffer.
When you’re waiting until the last minute to complete the tasks you need to do, the product just won’t be as good as it might have been if you had actually put in the necessary time and effort.
4. You’ll miss deadlines.
You may be a master at finishing things at the last minute, but at some point, something is bound to fall through the cracks. It probably already has. And that’s the problem with procrastination: you simply won’t complete the things you need to do.
5. Your mental and physical health will suffer.
If you’re constantly in a state of panic because you’re not completing the tasks you need to do in a timely manner, your mental health is suffering. You’re anxious about what you need to do and how you putting it off is affecting your life. Anxiety can take a toll on your physical health, too. You may have trouble sleeping, your appetite may suffer, and you feel run down, as well as become more susceptible to illness.
How to stop procrastinating
Many, many people identify procrastination as their worst habit. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome it. Here are 25 strategies for beating procrastination.
1. Give yourself false deadlines.
Perhaps your assignment isn’t due for two weeks. Or maybe it doesn’t have a deadline at all. Rather than telling yourself you have those two weeks or infinite time, set an earlier deadline to make the task seem more urgent. That way, you can trick yourself into believing you need to accomplish it earlier, and then you’ll have more time to review it later.
2. Use the 3, 2, 1 method.
Countdown from three: 3, 2, 1...and then drop whatever you’re doing and start working on the task. Of course, in order to pull this off effectively, the task needs to be something that’s possible to accomplish right then and there. In order to successfully make this trick a habit, apply it as often as you can over a few weeks. Then it will become more automatic, and you’ll gain more motivation to accomplish those pesky items on your to-do list.
This video by Improvement Pill illustrates how to carry out this program and the benefits of using the trick.
3. Give yourself a gold star.
When I was in high school, my Latin teacher literally put gold star stickers on quizzes on which we scored 100. This small reward was great motivation, because I really wanted those gold stars.
Just because you’re not a kid doesn’t mean gold stars aren’t meaningful. If you give yourself that small affirmation, you’ll have an incentive to complete those undesirable tasks.
4. Reward yourself in bigger ways.
Of course, when you accomplish really difficult or daunting tasks, you deserve a bigger reward. Prevent yourself from procrastinating on creating that PowerPoint for your big presentation by promising yourself a shopping trip or bowl of ice cream afterward. That way, you’ll be more eager to get it done.
5. Consider the consequences of procrastination…
What will happen if you procrastinate? Perhaps you’ll miss an important deadline at work. Maybe the project you’re overseeing won’t get as much attention as it needs, and you’ll make mistakes you would otherwise catch. Or, the stakes could be even higher. If you make too many mistakes because you’re procrastinating, your boss might take notice and start reviewing your work more closely, and your job could be at risk. Reflecting on the potential consequences, or better yet, writing them down, can compel you to work toward preventing them...by doing the task you need to do.
6. ...And the rewards of doing the task at hand in timely manner.
On the flip side, what will happen if you do the project without delaying it? Will you feel more relaxed because it won’t be hanging over your head anymore? Probably. In the previous scenario, you’ll also be in your boss’s good graces because you’ll have time to complete the project well and review it to catch your errors.
7. Tackle the harder tasks first.
Chances are, some items on your to-do list are more challenging or difficult to accomplish than others. Work on those first, because that way, you’ll get them out of the way early. Then you can relax and work on the items that aren’t as difficult without the more daunting tasks handing over your head.
8. Accept that you won’t do it perfectly.
Let go of the need to do the task perfectly. If you spend too much time worrying about getting your project done flawlessly, you’ll be waiting forever, instead, recognize that you’ll make some mistakes, but at least you’ll get it done.
9. Take one small step.
The first step is always the hardest. Think about each step involved in the process of completing the task, and take the smallest one as soon as possible. Once you’ve taken that first step, you’ll get into the swing of things.
10. Connect with the person you want to be.
Take a moment to visualize yourself one week or one month from now. How will you feel if you’ve accomplished what you need to do? How will you feel if you haven’t? Thinking about not just what you will or won’t have done but also how you’ll feel will give you a motivation boost to get going.
For example, if you didn’t go to the gym for a week, you’ll probably feel lazy and out of shape. You may be a little angry with yourself. If you did, you’ll feel energized and accomplished. Use that anticipation of your own emotions to urge yourself to (literally) move.
11. Write a letter to your future self.
You’ll procrastinate again. We all will. But the important thing is using that step backward to better yourself for the future. When you do procrastinate, write yourself a letter reminding yourself of how you feel in the moment and the reasons why it’s harmful. The next time you think about repeating that mistake, pull out your letter and read it.
12. Be kind to yourself.
We all make mistakes. Don’t berate yourself when you procrastinate. Remind yourself that you’re only human. Tell yourself you’ll try harder next time...and then really do it.
Some techniques for combatting procrastination work particularly well for certain tasks, people, or times in your life. Note that you can use the below methods for different types of commitments, but you may find them especially effective in the context described.
13. Make a to-do list every night…
What do you need to do tomorrow? Each night, make a list, so you have it handy the next day and know what you need to get done.
14. ...And start working on it first thing.
As soon as you wake up, consult your to-do list. You can start thinking about the project on the way to work. You should also include smaller items, like going for a run, which you can do as soon as you get up.
15. Use SMART goals.
SMART stands for Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Use this system to set goals you can actually accomplish. Making them realistic and measurable allows you to know when you’ve been successful and can help you see results. Plus, you’re also giving yourself a span of time in which to complete them—and thus avoiding procrastination.
16. Break up your goals into manageable components.
Considering a huge project in its entirety is intimidating. Instead, break it up into smaller, more manageable pieces. For example, perhaps you’re making a presentation to stakeholders. Rather than trying to write out the entire report, craft the PowerPoint, and create all your notices in a single step, break it up into pieces. Set a goal of finishing one slide by the afternoon. Tomorrow, finish the introduction to your report. Breaking it up into manageable pieces allows you to tackle it step by step, piece by piece.
17. Reset in the afternoon.
Don’t wait until 5:00 p.m. to reflect on what you’ve accomplished. Rather than watching the clock on the afternoon and generally being unproductive, consider it the start of a new day. Evaluate what you’ve accomplished so far, and think about what you still need to do. Perhaps your boss just handed you an urgent report to write. That’s your new priority—and you have all afternoon to complete it.
18. Block out distractions.
Facebook is fun, but it’s also distracting. Trying closing up all your distracting apps and even your email, unless you’re waiting for something really pressing. You might even try deleting the apps from your phone. That way, you won’t be interrupted when you’re trying to be productive.
19. Commit to doing a certain amount of work for a stretch of time.
Tell yourself you’ll work on the undesirable task for one hour. Then do it. Stop after that hour, or whatever period of time you’ve designated for working. Repeat until you’ve finished the project.
20. Spend a small chunk of time doing the dreaded task—then stop.
Schedule a small period of time, such as 10 or 15 minutes, to work on the chore you’re dreading doing. Set a timer to make yourself stop after the period of time you’ve allotted. This will help you get started, since taking the first step is the biggest issue for many procrastinators, and the task will seem more manageable, since you only have to work on it for 10 or 15 minutes. Once you put in a few minutes every day, you’ll find that the task is completed—and it probably wasn’t as painful as you were expecting.
Beware: You may be tempted to keep going and finish the task after the timer goes off, but don’t fall into this trap. You don’t want to lie to yourself, because then it will be harder to start next time.
21. Time yourself.
Perhaps a task seems insurmountable, but chances are, it’s not. The next time you have to tackle an annoying chore like mopping the kitchen, time yourself doing it. It probably won’t take you as long as you expect. That way, it won’t feel like such an obstacle the next time you have to do it, since you know it only takes a few minutes out of your day to complete.
22. Play music or a podcast or watch TV while you work.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a podcast addict. Listening or watching something entertaining while tackling an unpleasant chore make it a lot more fun. You can further incentivize yourself to complete the task by making yourself wait to watch your favorite show or listen to a new podcast until you work on that task. I do this with my morning runs—sometimes it’s difficult to make myself get moving—and it makes me excited to exercise, rather than dread it.
23. Use an accountability partner.
Having an accountability partner can work well at any stage of life, but a college setting lends itself particularly well to this scenario because you probably have plenty of friends and classmates who are trying not to procrastinate, too, and as an added bonus, they live right next door (or across the hall or on the same campus...but anyway, they’re nearby).
When you use an accountability partner, you’ll tell her your goal and deadline and commit to accomplishing it. You’re more likely to get it done if you’re beholden to someone else, not just yourself. Perhaps you can even be each other’s accountability partner.
24. Create a study or work space.
Your room probably isn’t the best place for you to work (but it could be). Where do you find yourself most productive? It could be the library, but just because that’s where your classmates work best doesn’t mean it will do the same for you. Perhaps there’s a nearby coffee shop that has just the right amount of noise (or lack thereof). Maybe you study best in that particular corner of the quad. Wherever that space is, find it and use it.
25. Set aside time for recreation.
College isn’t just about studying. Carve out some time for doing more enjoyable things and factor it into your schedule along with the less desirable tasks. For instance, you may need to spend three hours studying for your Shakespeare test, but make sure you also add ultimate frisbee, too.
How to stop procrastinating
You can overcome your procrastination habit. According to most experts, it take between three weeks and one month to break a habit. In the grand scheme of things, that’s no time at all. Give yourself the motivation to change, and, using these strategies, beat procrastination once and for all.