How to Stop Procrastinating: The Definitive Guide.
Ever procrastinate? If not, you might want to keep that on the down low… otherwise scientists may want to study your body to find out what makes you tick differently from every other person on the planet.
Whether a minor nuisance or a debilitating problem, everyone has struggled with some level of procrastination at some point. It’s not some character flaw that only affects an unlucky few. It affects everyone, even the most successful among us.
It’s such a universal problem that you’ve probably noticed that there’s no shortage of information on the topic. Everyone and their mother has something to say about it.
Yet, here we are. You’re reading yet another article on it and still the beast remains untamed. Let’s do something about that. Let’s cage the beast once and for all, get you that extra time you’ve been missing, and unleash your full potential!
Ready? Let’s do it!
Procrastination is a complex issue. As such, you may have noticed that this article is long and detailed.
Impatient? In a rush? We’ve got you covered with the TL;DR version below. But be forewarned… if procrastination continues to rear its head, you may want to dive deeper into the full article.
How to stop procrastinating: the TL;DR version
In a rush? Below you’ll find a brief summary.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily delaying or postponing something. The real trick is understanding why we procrastinate and what to do about it.
Why do we procrastinate?
Procrastination occurs when our immediate desire to do something else outweighs our desire to complete the task at hand.
This can occur for a variety of reasons such as not enjoying the thing we’re putting off, fear of failure, or my favorite as an entrepreneur… not knowing if we’re working on the right thing or that our efforts will even be rewarded.
Why do most people fail to overcome procrastination?
We have a finite amount of energy. Just as you can only run so far before needing rest, nourishment, and water your brain has a finite amount of energy as well. It’s an organ that requires energy to function. Where most people go wrong, then, is in continually trying to fight against procrastination with sheer determination or force of willpower.
This is a mistake… instead, take the energy you do have and invest it into systems. WIth the right systems and techniques, you can ward off procrastination even as your energy levels begin to drop.
Here are a few things you can do:
- Make sure your environment is conducive to taking action. For example, set a three minute timer and spend a few minutes organizing your workspace at the start of every day.
- Reward progress rather than time spent. Rather than saying “I’ll work on this project until lunch” say “After I write 1 page, I’ll take a break for lunch.” The former lets you just run out the clock until lunch, whereas the second incentivizes you to finish as quickly as possible so you can enjoy a well-deserved extended lunch.
- Have a goal and a vision. If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.
- Work backward from your end goal and define actionable steps. What should you do this year? This month? This week? Today? And then break your days up into 15 minute chunks of work.
- Take small steps. Especially at first. As you develop your habits and routines it’s actually better to do less but do it incredibly consistently. Find the work that you can absolutely ensure you can do consistently, without fail, and start from there. Consistency always wins in the end.
- Measure. Did you know that by simply measuring something it tends to improve? Notice when, how, and why you procrastinate. Pay attention to it. Keep a log of it.
- When you notice yourself procrastinating, keep procrastinating. That’s right… but do it for a finite amount of time. Set a 3 minute timer and carry on… the moment that 3 minute timer goes off, set another timer for 10 minutes and FOCUS HARD for 10 minutes. This will train you to get back on track… and even if you wind up procrastinating for 3 minutes every 10 minutes… you’ll get infinitely more done than if you just struggle along without a plan and feel badly about procrastinating.
- Keep a todo list and mark things off as you complete them. Make the list easier and easier until you’re able to do it 100% consistently. Once you have a solid foundation, build from there.
Be smart, use systems, take it slow, and focus on making small progress day by day.
You wouldn’t get up one day, decide to run a marathon and without warmup or practice run 26 miles straight. Starting slow is the only way to ensure success… otherwise you’re likely to wind up hurt and disappointed.
Now that you’ve got a general idea you have enough to get started.
However, you could benefit greatly from reviewing the full guide. Remember, it’s not about getting amped up with motivation and sprinting. It’s about the long game… if you can stay consistently productive for a week, then a month, then a year… imagine what you can accomplish!
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions.
Why we procrastinate
Procrastination occurs when our immediate desire to put something off outweighs out desire to get it done.
We all know that this can happen if we don’t enjoy the task or if we just don’t feel like it. But the issue is often much deeper than that.
One of the less obvious reasons we procrastinate is fear of failure or wasted effort. Let’s say you’re trying to write an essay or a book… as long as the task remains in the future, it still has the possibility of being great. Once you actually do it, there’s a chance it may be less than you had hoped… or even a failure in your eyes.
Much like in football, by choosing to run out the clock, you still give yourself that chance to throw a Hail Mary at the end. Procrastination, then, is an unconscious way of playing it safe… of not trying yet so that we still have our options open in the future.
The problem with that way of thinking though is that by forcing ourselves into that last-minute effort we’re, ironically, increasing our chance for failure. And this is where you can get into a vicious cycle of failure, more procrastination, and more failure.
Instead, we need to realize that “failure” isn’t really a failure… it’s an experiment. By trying things right away, seeing where the problems are, learning, and trying again we iterate fast and efficiently. And when you can do that you make far more progress than delaying and forcing a huge effort at the last minute.
The other big reason we procrastinate comes down to something called Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted for it. In other words, if you give yourself 4 hours for a task, it’ll tend to take about 4 hours. Give yourself 2 hours for that same task, and you can get it done in about 2.
This is one of the big reasons you should shy away from large, time-based deadlines as much as possible. Instead, break work up into 15 minute chunks or, better yet, completely remove the time element by going with a results/reward system. For example, tell yourself “I can take a break when I’ve written 100 words” and then do it. Don’t be tempted to fool yourself and just keep pounding away… if you said you’d get the reward, reward yourself… celebrate! Your neurochemistry will thank you for it as your brain gets happier and happier with each successful promise that you keep to yourself.
Here’s a list of some of the most common reasons people procrastinate:
- Uncertain rewards or rewards that are far in the future.
- Not believing in yourself.
- The desire to just get away due to feelings of overwhelm.
- Fear of failure.
- A belief that you’re at the mercy of the universe… that you lack control.
- Lack of motivation.
- Lack of Time Management skills.
- Lack of energy.
- Lack of social support.
- A distaste for the task at hand (task aversion).
- Desire for instant gratification.
- Distractions (such as smart phone notifications).
- Short attention span (a problem worsened by Social Media and Digital Technology).
Now that we’ve seen some of the causes of procrastination, what can be done about it?
Will power is not the answer
Most people believe procrastination is a matter of will power. It’s not a character flaw or a mental health issue. By just trying harder, they’ll be able to push through it and get things done. I’m not going to discount the power of discipline. Doing things that you don’t want to do… doing uncomfortable things is a major component of success. But trying to plow through procrastination with sheer brute force is not an effective strategy.
If it does work for you, by all means power through… but you’re probably reading this for a reason. They say that we only have the energy required to make a certain number of good decisions each day. When you brute force the procrastination problem, at some point you’ll likely just be too exhausted to fight through it anymore.
Instead, take that energy and put it into systems. Put that energy into an action plan that’ll make getting your work done easier and more rewarding. Working hard won’t necessarily get you to your goals, but working harder AND smarter will.
As you’ll see in this guide, the best thing you can do to squash procrastination is to be consistent and start training your brain to enjoy being productive.
How to stop procrastinating
A strong vision is one of the best ways to ward off procrastination. You may not always know if you’re working on the exact right thing, but having an idea of the direction you want to go and knowing that you’re striving toward it is critical.
When your actions seem to matter, you’re less likely to procrastinate than when it seems like it doesn’t matter what you do.
Be as crystal clear on your vision and why you’re taking action as you can. The more clarity you have on your path, the more likely you are to take the steps to get there.
Goals go hand in hand with vision. Once you have a vision it’s time to create some concrete goals.
Set your goals
Take great care when setting goals. The type and specificity of goals you set have a big impact on the likelihood of completing them.
Ever notice how most New Year Resolutions go unfulfilled? This is because people are setting the wrong type of goals. They set vague goals like “get in shape” or “eat healthy” with no plan in place for achieving them. Even goals like “lose 10 pounds” which seem super specific often fail because there’s no thought as to how to lose that 10 pounds.
Especially when it comes to battling procrastination, it’s important to set goals that are not only set on a result but ones that are behavior based. “Write a book” is not nearly as good of a goal as “write 500 words per day”. Tip: ironically, 100 words per day might even be better if you’re able to do it with 100% consistency if you’re only able to hit 500 per day sporadically. Consistency, consistency, consistency!
When making goals, stick with those that are clear, achievable, and measurable. By ensuring that you can track progress, even when you fail you’ll be able to quickly see it and make adjustments.
Systems and techniques
As alluded to previously, you have a finite amount of energy. Using your precious energy to try to brute force your way through procrastination is a recipe for failure and disappointment. Instead, direct your precious energy toward systems and habits that prevent procrastination.
If you have to struggle with procrastination daily, you’ll likely get worn down over time. With the right systems in place, however, you’ll have set up your environment and habits to keep you on track automatically and fight procrastination on autopilot.
As an example, let’s say you want to work out in the morning. Instead, you often find yourself procrastinating and checking your phone until it’s too late so you skip your workout. One change you could make is to make it easier to work out and harder to skip. For instance, you could put your workout clothes next to your bed the night before. You could charge your phone in the kitchen or bathroom making it very difficult to skip getting your workout clothes on before grabbing your phone.
In general, the idea is to use the times when your mind is clear and when you have plenty of energy to think ahead and make things easier on yourself in the future when you might be more worn down and susceptible to procrastination.
Break things into smaller tasks
The most successful mountain climbers and long distance runners realize something that others don’t. They realize that it’s the next step that matters. You don’t climb a mountain by worrying about how tall it is… you focus on one step, and then another, and then another… until you’re at the top.
By breaking things down into small pieces you’re doing two crucial things. One, you’re ensuring progress. If your only measure is a distant goal… you’re always working toward it, but never checking anything off the list. With small tasks, however, you’re constantly chipping away, measurably moving closer step by step.
The other thing you’re doing is promoting consistency. With a distant goal, who’s to say if you had a good day or bad day… it’s hard to tell when measured against such a distant target. With small steps, however, you can more easily assess your progress and figure out what adjustments you may need to make.
Your consistency will also generate momentum.
Momentum is real
If you’ve ever watched a sporting event, you’ve probably seen or heard people talk about momentum shifting. It’s pretty incredible. When things start to go well, they tend to go really well. When things start to fall apart, they tend to fall apart fast.
This phenomenon seems to be a law of nature. A small proportion of stars have most of the mass. A small number of trees in a forest have most of the height. And I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that the rich get richer. That’s momentum. Embrace it. Start with small wins and see how quickly momentum builds for you once you start achieving consistent progress.
Prioritize and focus
One reason people tend to hide in procrastination is the feeling of overwhelm. There’s just so much to do!
Start by really thinking about what has to be done. When possible, put the rest on hold. An important question to ask yourself each day as you set your goals is “what one thing can I get done today that would make the day seem like a win?”.
Rather than getting flustered with the dozens of things you have to do, pick the most important and commit to knocking it out. If you can do that, you’ll be making great progress every single day.
Get on a schedule
Living life without a schedule is a bit like an NBA player playing with one hand tied behind his back. Not much of a role model. It’s possible to do, but it is SO MUCH HARDER.
Ever wonder why you were able to get some much done in school but as an adult it seems to be chaos? If you’re like most people, it’s because you had a schedule that you had to follow. Not only that, you had someone forcing you to follow it even if you didn’t want to.
Those of you who have full-time on-site jobs actually have an advantage to some extent because it forces you to keep some discipline in your life. For those of us who work from home or – worse yet – work for ourselves it’s easy to descend into chaos.
It’s important to remember Parkinson’s law here: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
By creating a schedule for yourself, you free up your brain to focus rather than constantly worrying about what to do next.
Map out what you’ll be doing each hour of the day and make it as consistent as possible between days and weeks. Try it, and you’ll be amazed at the difference.
Try the Pomodoro Technique
Ever heard of the Pomodoro Technique? It’s one of the most effective ways to manage procrastination. Feel free to Google it, but in a nutshell it’s the practice of working without interruption for short bursts (anywhere from 25 to 50 minutes) and taking short (5-10 minute) breaks in between. A lot of research suggests that most people work best by concentrating for 50 minutes and taking a 10 minute break every single hour. Sometimes it further helps to take a longer break every 2 or 3 intervals. Again, it’s not about forcing yourself to work non-stop it’s about working ferociously in short bursts.
There are some great Pomodoro apps that can assist with your productivity as well. Be Focused is a great one for iOS, but you can Google “Best Pomodoro App” to find all kinds of apps for iOS, Android, or your web browser. You can also just use your phone timer.
Try to make a habit out of working in 25 – 50 minute bursts and see what works with you. Experiment with it a bit, and make a habit out of whatever works best. Do that, and your productivity will shoot through the roof.
Celebrate small wins
Most people skip this, and it’s a shame because it’s important. Your brain is much like any living organism… it tries to conserve energy when possible. It does this by creating neural pathways and automatic processes and routines.
When you reward yourself for small wins, you’re literally wiring your brain to crave more small wins. The effect is small, but over time your brain will become more and more accustomed to wanting to do the things that produce these small wins.
So whenever you do something that’s in the right direction… like when you try hard and get something accomplished, celebrate. Mentally do whatever you would do if your team just scored or if you got an email saying you won a million dollars. For some this is closing your eyes, mentally saying “yessssss” and doing a clenched fist… whatever this is for you, reward yourself every time you behave in a way consistent with your goals and over time you’ll train your brain to want to do more things that move you toward your goals.
Track the number of days in a row you get your number one goal done. Make it a rule to never go a day without knocking your number one top priority off of your list.
Just make sure it’s realistic and not too much of a stretch so you don’t end your streak.
Have your stretch goals, push yourself… but make sure that core foundation of daily progress is always in tact, even if you’re feeling run down or sick.
Make sure that baseline minimum of one important task gets done every single day.
Increase your energy levels
When people talk about procrastination, they usually don’t think of food, drink, and sleep. But they should.
As we’ve said before, procrastination is very much about energy. And the best way to increase your energy is by staying hydrated with water, making sure your diet is conducive to energy, and make sure you get enough sleep every night. Without proper energy, you’ll constantly be fighting an uphill battle.
Aim for done
While it’s always a good idea to give things a good effort, don’t fall into the trap of being a perfectionist. Done is infinitely better than not done.
Depending on the criticality of what you’re working on, know when enough is enough. Know when additional effort is not producing the same level of improvement, and learn when to call something done.
Along the same lines, don’t hesitate to start because something may not wind up perfect… it’s much easier to come back and improve something that’s finished than start from scratch.
Don’t beat yourself up
Finally, next time you find yourself scrolling social media, don’t beat yourself up for procrastinating. It happens to the best of us. Instead, approach every failure with positivity and curiosity.
Rather than feeling guilty and wanting to escape, be grateful for the lessons that failures can teach. If you find yourself procrastinating, rather than getting upset think of yourself as a detective who just got another clue toward solving the puzzle.
Keep trying, keep observing, keep learning, and improve a little bit each day… imagine how far you’ll be after a few hundred days of that every year.