Who among us hasn’t put off a presentation until the night before it was due, or started a project weeks after you told yourself you would? Everyone falls victim to procrastination at some point or another, but if it’s happening enough to affect your quality of life or work performance, it’s time to think about changing your behavior.
The good news is, there’s reason to be hopeful. Even lifelong procrastinators can overcome decades of bad habits with the right attitude and strategies. Of course, this is much easier said than done — but we’ve identified a few tips and tricks that will make it a whole lot easier.
Whether you’re a born-and-bred procrastinator or it’s just recently surfaced as a bad habit, the following expert tips will help you nip procrastination in the bud for good.
Understand the Root Cause
It’s difficult to solve a problem when you don’t understand what's behind it — otherwise, your attempts to reconcile your behavior may amount to nothing more than a Band-Aid solution. Take a good hard look at yourself and your habits to determine why you procrastinate. One of the most common reasons is fear, experts say.
“Sometimes it’s a harsh inner critic or perfectionist that spews negative thoughts like, you’re not good enough or you’re going to screw it up. If you haven’t developed a system or method for pushing through those sticking points, it can be hard to get anything done,” says psychotherapist Tom Bruett.
Other times, doing a task you’re not looking forward to can just feel downright painful — literally.
“Research has found out that when you are ready to start a perceived-as-unpleasant task, the actual pain centers in your brain light up,” shares Dimitris Gkiokas, founder of The Metalearners. “It is only natural that your brain, at that moment, makes its best effort to avoid the task and the pain; it is what it is programmed to do.”
No matter what’s driving your procrastination, understanding it can inform which strategy will best help you address the issue.
Overcoming Procrastination 101
If this is your first time trying to tackle procrastination in earnest, there are a number of small changes you can make in your daily life that can have a big impact.
Get Organized: As a stubborn teenager, I used to refuse to use a planner, insisting I could keep track of everything in my head. It was only when I started really tracking my to-dos in college that I realized how silly that was — being organized helped me stay on track. “Whether it means keeping a list, writing on Post-Its or a productivity app, find something that works for you,” Bruett says. Write down all your tasks, and tackle them in order of priority.
Eliminate Distractions: It may seem like a no-brainer, but many procrastinators fail to truly remove themselves from the people, things and situations that divert their attention. “Close your email client, shut off any Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (etc.) notifications, silence your ringer, shut off the television, etc. If you need noise, play instrumental or classical music,” says Maura Thomas, author of Personal Productivity Secrets.
Start Small: Breaking large tasks into baby steps is a much less intimidating way to tackle a project. Career coach Carlota Zimmerman recommends doing at least two small acts each day. “Do those two acts and write them down — I encourage clients to keep ‘Action Diaries,’ so as to have a (paper) trail of their acts, since it’s very encouraging and empowering,” she says. The rush you get from one small win often motivates you to continue your good behavior.
Reward Yourself: There’s a reason teachers used to put gold stars on excellent tests and essays — those small rewards work! “Use positive reinforcement to motivate yourself to achieve your goals,” Bruett says. “If you keep on track for a whole week, maybe reward yourself with a massage or a nice dinner.”
For Advanced Procrastinators
Lifelong procrastinators might be tempted to roll their eyes at the suggestion of using a planner or turning off their cell phone notifications. If you’ve already been there and done that, try out these more sophisticated tips.
Try Stream of Consciousness Working: Many procrastinators are, at heart, perfectionists, unable to take action until they’ve figured out exactly what to stay or do. But you might be surprised at how effective it can be to dive into a project before you’ve fully fleshed it out. Thomas suggests taking a stream of consciousness approach, in which you simply start dumping out all of your ideas for a set period of time without pausing to refine, clarify or reorganize. “Our brains are much better at creative, strategic thinking and problem-solving than they are at remembering details, and if we clear our mind of the minutiae (mental clutter), the ‘good stuff’ often appears,” Thomas shares.
Hold Yourself Accountable: If you’re the type of person who finds it way easier to fulfill a promise to a friend than a promise to yourself, try seeking out an accountability buddy. For added motivation, raise the stakes, suggests Sarah Moe, business and money coach at Flauk. “Create a deadline with a friend or coach and make the consequences for not finishing the task something you would hate,” such as writing them a check, doing your least-favorite chore or cutting yourself off from TV for a week. “When you have to own up to the fact to another person that you procrastinated, you'll never do it again,” Moe adds.
Block Your Calendar: Been meaning to tackle a particular task for while, but just can’t seem to find the time for it? Try scheduling dedicated periods of time in which you are allowed to do nothing but the task at hand. To do this successfully, Thomas recommends not making your time-blocks too long (two hours or less), only blocking off time for the highest-priority items, and limiting how often you do so. Otherwise, “you’ll start breaking those appointments with yourself, and then you’ll have lost the effectiveness of the technique,” she explains.
Learn to Tolerate Discomfort: In the end, there’s no way around it — overcoming procrastination will almost always involve doing something you don’t like. Too often, people put tasks off simply because they’re a drag. But if you learn to accept that, you may have an easier time doing it. “To change, [you] need to shift from doing something pleasant, then feeling badly afterward to doing something unpleasant, then feeling better afterwards,” says psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig.
If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Again
When one tactic fails you, it’s easy to get discouraged. You might feel like a screw-up, or become convinced that your procrastination is just an insurmountable part of who you are. But buying into this negative thinking can stop you from overcoming an otherwise totally fixable problem.
If you try a strategy to overcome procrastination and it fails, “conduct a post-mortem,” Bruett recommends. “Be really honest with yourself about what didn’t work. Where were the exact sticking points? Was it lack of motivation? Did you have trouble with the system you tried? Problem solve and get some additional support from a coach or therapist.”
And remember, “not everything works for everyone,” Gkiokas says. “Every person is different and faces different levels of procrastination. You should try different things, and use your experience to identify what works.”
Most of all, keep in mind that falling off the wagon is normal, and happens to almost everybody at some point.
“Any behavior change will take trial and error. Account for that and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t succeed on the first go around,” Bruett concludes.