How to Overcome Severe Procrastination (4 Steps)
how to overcome severe procrastination

How to Overcome Severe Procrastination – My Personal Story

Pssst... I published a book on how to overcome procrastination. Check it out here: Stop Procrastinating: A Simple Guide to Hacking Laziness, Building Self Discipline, and Overcoming Procrastination.


I’ve been a procrastinator all my life.

I don’t know when it started, but I remember instances of procrastination when I was a little kid. I started playing football at age five or six. When I got back from training, I always just threw my training bag – full of sweaty and stinking clothes – into the middle of the hallway and left it there for hours or days depending on when my mother finally freaked out on me.

Same with my school bag. For whatever reason, I was just too lazy to carry it upstairs into my room. And so I left it in the hallway, again, until my mother finally lost it and put enough stress on me to get it done.

I remember a fun incident that happened around Easter time. As kids, we all got a small Easter nest with chocolate bunnies and beautifully painted boiled eggs. My three brothers and I all kept the nests in our private rooms. A few days after Easter, our mother told us to put the remaining boiled eggs from our nests into the fridge. I have no idea why, but I just didn’t do it. Even when the egg started stinking up my room, I just left it there. It must have been lying around for weeks until my mother finally found it. She wasn’t happy.

How School Drove My Procrastination Habit

At school, things didn’t look different. I was naturally smart so I received good grades in spite of my lack of studying. Until 6th class, I barely ever studied at all and yet, I was still one of the best pupils.

This continued in the same way during high school and university. Over all those years, I was just lucky enough to be gifted with an above-average IQ. If it were for my self-discipline, I would have failed miserably. Heck, I could scarcely manage to register for university classes and exams on time. In fact, I often missed deadlines and was forced to wait until the next semester.

Looking back, I believe school was a major driver of my procrastination and lack of discipline. Just think about the conditioning that happened through all those years: “Oh, I get good grades by being lazy? Neat! Why should I bother about working hard or being more disciplined?”

I was learning (through constant reinforcement) that being lazy led to good outcomes. Even worse, I never had to develop any self-discipline because many things came so easy to me.

If you’re a fellow procrastinator, you can probably relate. One of the reasons so many of us are struggling with willpower issues is that we never had to develop any willpower in the first place. Then, all of a sudden, you’re a grown up and enter the real world – without any proper self-control skills whatsoever. Ouch!

“Uh Oh… How Did I End Up Here?”

I really started becoming aware of this dilemma when I was 20 years old. I was still at university at the time, but had just decided to learn about internet marketing to earn some money online. For the first time in my life, I had to get things done on my own watch without anyone helping or pressuring me from outside.

It was at this point that I became painfully aware of how undisciplined I was and just how much suffering that caused. I realized there were so many things I wanted to do, but that I just couldn’t get myself to follow through with. More importantly, I realized that not being able to follow through always ended up causing me massive pain in the form of shame, guilt, and disappointment.

One common scenario was waking up in the morning, hitting the snooze button, getting up 2-3 hours late, already feeling guilty and unmotivated, unable to follow through with my morning ritual, feeling even worse, and then numbing myself for the entire rest of the day.

Once this procrastination cycle had started, it became almost impossible for me to get out again. After an initial act of procrastination, I couldn’t help but distract and numb myself with video games, YouTube clips, or the TV. Why? Well, because otherwise I would have had to face the self-criticism and guilt that was bubbling up within me.

The cycle looked something like this: Lack of self-discipline (among other things) led to procrastination, which led to feelings of shame, guilt, and disappointment, which felt incredibly painful, which led to numbing and distracting myself, which meant even more procrastination, which meant even harsher self-criticism and more negative emotions, which meant even more pain, which meant even more numbing and distracting myself, and so on.

This madness kept repeating itself over and over again. After a while, I knew exactly how it worked. When I was able to follow through with my plans, I felt good and everything was fine. When I didn’t find the strength to follow through, I ended up beating myself up and feeling terrible about myself.

After witnessing and suffering from this phenomenon for weeks and months, I started asking myself if I was supposed to live like this for the rest of my life – constantly in fear of what would happen if I procrastinated? Constantly struggling to follow through with even the tiniest things like waking up on time, doing the dishes, cleaning my room, paying the bills on time, or going to the doctor when it’s necessary?

As you can imagine, this was an incredibly stressful and painful period of my life. Sometimes it was so bad that I was literally crying in my bed. I was afraid of never finding a way out of this.  

The good news is, I did find a way out of it.

The Way Out: 4 Strategies That Made All the Difference For Me

And that brings us to today – a much brighter world. Am I completely free of procrastination? I wish… but of course not. I still procrastinate occasionally and I still struggle with following through on my lofty aspirations. Compared to the old days, however, it’s a night and day difference.

Nowadays, I’m one of the most disciplined people I know. I wake up early, exercise regularly, meditate daily, stick to my morning ritual, eat healthy, take cold showers, go to bed early, pay my bills on time, keep my room tidy, and so on. Best of all, I finally feel in control of my life.

So, how did I do it?

Looking back, there are four core strategies that made all the difference for me. We’ll now discuss them one after another.

1. Becoming a Learning Machine

Once I realized the severity of my procrastination, I made a commitment to fix it no matter what. The first thing I did was order a bunch of books from Amazon. Over the course of a few months, I read and implemented information from many of them: The Now Habit, Getting Things Done, The Procrastination Equation, Eat That Frog, Solving The Procrastination Puzzle, and so on.

Getting into the habit of reading books was tough in the beginning. My mind kept telling me, “Why not watch TV instead? This is useless. You’re a last cause. I want to play video games!” But I persisted, and nowadays I read around 100 books a year. To say that reading completely changed my life would be an understatement.

So, how exactly did reading help me overcome my severe procrastination? Well, it’s the things that I learned, which helped me overcome it.

I learned about the importance of effort and hard work. I learned that talent is overrated. I learned about self-compassion. I learned about meditation and mindfulness. I learned about strategies for improving my energy levels. I learned about time management. I learned about emotion regulation. I learned about the importance of perseverance.

All these bits of information – and there are many more! – help me improve on my procrastination tendencies in one way or another. You’re about to learn exactly how mindfulness, self-compassion, and something else I learned from books have helped and still help me to this day.

“Knowledge always liberates.” – OSHO

2. No More Running Away From Myself

The most important lesson I learned from the countless books I read is that I need to stop running away from myself. More precisely, that I need to stop avoiding my thoughts and emotions.

Escaping is the wrong way for dealing with negativity; mindfulness the right one.

Mindfulness teaches us to face our reality, to allow our thoughts and emotions to be just as they are, to watch them with detachment, without judging or trying to change them in any way. If we nonjudgmentally observe positive emotions, they blossom. If we watch negative emotions, they go away – first temporarily, then forever. That’s the alchemy of mindfulness.

And so I started practicing. When I felt guilty for being unproductive, I watched that guilt. When I felt ashamed after sleeping until 1pm, I watched that shame. When I wallowed in self-pity after procrastinating for days, I watched that self-pity.

In the beginning, this was unbearable. After all, there’s a reason so many of us dread even a moment of being alone with ourselves. Facing the emotional garbage bubbling up within us is tough, painful, and nerve-wrecking at times. For days and weeks and months I just kept watching myself in this way. I had no clue whether I was doing it right, and I often thought that I was wasting my time or making things worse by focusing on the negative.

After a while, however, I started noticing changes in my life. While I could barely stay with negative emotions for a minute or two in the beginning, I could easily do it for extended periods of time once a few weeks of practice had passed. During the very early days of this experiment, I often cried out of despair. After a few weeks, the crying mostly stopped. I was able to watch my emotions from a larger distance. I was less involved, less identified with them. There was a gap emerging between “me” and “my thoughts and emotions.”

Instead of buying into the negativity of my mind, I started just being aware of it. “Oh, there’s anger.” “Oh, here’s guilt.” “Oh, I’m feeling a bit depressed today.” I wasn’t so much at the mercy of my inner experience anymore. Sometimes I felt good about myself; other times I didn’t. And I was okay with it.

Since then, I don’t experience the negative emotions as strongly anymore. They’re there, but in a soft rather than hard way. They don’t overwhelm me anymore. An unproductive day in the past piled on so much guilt that I couldn’t help but run away. Today, an unproductive day still makes me feel a bit guilty, but it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. It’s much more manageable. And because of that, I don’t need to start the whole procrastination cycle all over again. I don’t need to numb myself with video games or watching TV.

Even better, I can actually be productive in spite of feeling guilty, disappointed, ashamed, or whatever. I can follow through with my plans and do the right thing whether I feel like it or not. “So what if I’m feeling unmotivated today? Let’s just get it over with. Otherwise I’ll feel guilty again, which puts me at the risk of starting the whole procrastination cycle. No thanks!”

So, in the past, negative emotions made me run away and consistently led to the procrastination cycle (e.g., procrastinate à feel guilty à escape negative feelings and numb myself with video games à feel even worse à need to keep escaping in order to not face bad feelings). Nowadays, I am not at the mercy of negative emotions anymore. I don’t feel the need to run away from them. Plus, I can do what needs to get done in spite of them.

That’s all thanks to mindfulness. Like I said so many times before, mindfulness is the #1 most important skill we can ever learn.

(For more on mindfulness and overcoming procrastination, go here.)

3. Choosing Self-Compassion Over Self-Criticism

I’ve talked about the importance of self-compassion at length in previous articles. I’ve even written an article on how it helps you overcome procrastination. So, I’ll keep this short.

As it relates to procrastination, recall that negative emotions are always the main cause. When we feel bad – for whatever reason! – we lose self-control, get driven by impulse, and frankly, start doing stupid things. (I explain this in detail in my Kindle book.)

Our natural response to negative emotions is self-criticism. This is especially true when the negative emotions stem from a recent failure, such as an act of procrastination. “Why do I keep procrastinating?! Why am I wasting my time? Can’t I just be more disciplined. Grrrrr, I’m such an idiot!”

The problem is, self-criticism makes things even worse by adding more negative emotions into the mix – e.g., anger, shame, or self-pity. All this painful negativity, plus the fear of another mental beating, leads to the avoidance and procrastination cycle mentioned earlier. And that’s just one reason why self-criticism leads to more procrastination.

Self-compassion is a totally different response to failure and negativity. Instead of creating even more negative emotions, self-compassion adds positive feelings of warmth, care, kindness, and understanding to the mix. This effectively soothes the pain and drastically lowers the impact of the negative emotions. As a result, you’re a lot less likely to go down the avoidance and procrastination cycle. That’s one reason why self-compassion leads to less procrastination.

Like I said before, this has made a massive difference not only in regards to procrastination, but to all areas of my life. Self-compassion is easily one of the most transformative tools I’ve encountered in my life so far. Highly recommend you give it a try.

4. Never Giving Up

The last crucial piece of my recovery puzzle was perseverance. I fell down over and over again on my path. I felt miserable and hopeless many, many times.

But no matter what, I always got back up. Somehow I found the strength to give it another try, and another, and another. Even if I felt like I was making seemingly zero progress whatsoever, I didn’t give up.

Slowly but steadily I improved over weeks, months, and years of working hard on myself. There were no quantum leaps or magic breakthroughs. I was just grinding it out day by day, getting a tiny bit better over a long period of time.

If I had given up, I wouldn’t be where I was today.

So, how did I know it was essential to keep going? Well, I had learned about its importance in the countless books I mentioned earlier. Here are just some examples of the kind of advice that helped me keep going:

Victor Frankl: “What is to give light must endure burning.”

Maya Angelou: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Og Mandino: “I will persist until I succeed. Always will I take another step. If that is of no avail I will take another, and yet another. In truth, one step at a time is not too difficult. I know that small attempts, repeated, will complete any undertaking.”

Winston Churchill: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

Confucius: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

Without my habit of reading, I would’ve never made it. I would have lost motivation and just given up. But quotes like the ones above inspired me and pushed me to continue. I didn’t know whether it would pay off in the beginning. But slowly, after countless small improvements, I developed trust – and I’ve been at it ever since.

Conclusion

If you’re serious about overcoming procrastination and building real self-discipline, this is it. This is your roadmap.

It’s no quick fix, magic pill, or sexy solution by any means. It’s a long and arduous path that promises hard work, frequent setbacks, misery along the way, and only small and slow improvements. But it’s a path that works.

It’s like the great Charlie Munger says, “Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts.... Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day – if you live long enough – most people get what they deserve.”

Got questions or feedback? Please let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

P.S. Want More?

The strategies mentioned in this article are without a doubt the ones that helped me the most. However, there are many more...

If you want a complete list with proven strategies to beat procrastination, you'll enjoy our new free guide, 33 Proven Tactics to Procrastinate Less and Get More Done.

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Nils Salzgeber

Nils Salzgeber is an Amazon #1 bestselling author and co-founder of NJlifehacks. He is a productivity and personal transformation specialist who combines personal experience with modern science. He quit university at the age of 21 after successfully making the leap to entrepreneurship. Since then, he has been traveling the world, built several successful online businesses, and published two books.

  • Tiffany Alessi says:

    Hello! I recently stumbled upon your work (on Medium, I believe) and I really enjoy reading the insight you share. I was wondering if you have published an article about Perfectionism? I noticed you wrote that you were a “recovering perfectionist” – I feel like that is a big thing holding me back in life. If you have an article that touches on that topic I’d love to read it 🙂

  • Chandrika says:

    Good one sir… i have a question. I usually do not procrastinate whatever the situation is but now i am taking gre after 9 days and still i don’t feel like studying. What to do?? By the way youe article is really awesome. Keep it up sir!!

    • I’m not sure I understand everything you wrote here. What do you mean with “I am taking gre after 9 days?”

      If I understand you correctly, I think you need to generate some motivation. Otherwise you’ll just keep putting it off until the pressure is big enough and you are forced to get going. So, how to get motivation? Try asking yourself, “WHY do I want to do this? Why do I want to study? Why is it important to me?” It’s always the Why that leads to the What.

      Also, try to connect studying with some larger goals you have in your life. Maybe studying will help you get a better job. Maybe it will just make you proud. Maybe it’s your ticket to a better life.

      The clearer you get on your Why, the more motivated you’ll feel. And the more motivated you feel, the easier it will become to just get started.

      Oh, and to get started, I suggest using a timer. Just tell yourself that you’ll study for twenty minutes. Easy peasy. That lowers some of the initial resistance.

      Best of luck! 🙂

    • Janet says:

      I found this useful and bookmarked. Thank you. I have been a procrastinator, yet also high-functioning while raising two boys. I had to always push. A series of events, including my late husband’s alcoholism followed by his death after four years of battling cancer brought me to my knees. I have found myself in one of the most severe episodes of procrastination ever, avoiding for 15 months the purging our home to sell (which I now must accomplish for financial stability). I am ‘praying’ that now, with my back to the wall, I will find my resolve to push. I have used a visual of a soldier injured on a battlefield using every last bit of strength to walk off of it. I simply must push -even ever so slightly to initiate forward motion. I realize there is a huge situational component to my procrastination -the fatigue and grief- but it’s not a choice to self-pity or worse completely denegrate myself for my failure any longer, or I stay paralyzed as such. I am going to try just one movement; it may be the step I need to build momentum. All of the hallmarks of the procrastination ‘symdrome’ that you noted above have been plaguing me. It’s heartening to read the encouragement.

      • Janet, I wish you all the strength and courage you need during this rough time. Taking one small step is all you can ever do. And when you do, the next steps will open up… and they again will open up the next steps… and the next steps. You don’t need to see the full way out of this painful situation… you just need to take one courageous step after another. If you keep going and keep doing your best and keep trying… then better days will come sooner or later 🙂

  • Jk says:

    Hi, nils.. I have been a master procrastinator throughout my life. And yet in some ways as you mentioned.,I sailed through somehow, don’t know what worked better IQ or sheer luck. But recently I am in a position where nothing seems to work,i am not able to move on and at the same position in my life since two years failing myself one after other, messed up my mental health as a result,At such point in life how to gain back control of your life and avoid the anxiety of failing myself again?

    • Hey JK, here are a few ideas that might help:

      – First, this quote from Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

      “What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously, he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules. And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir him into action?”

      Realize that the struggles you’re going through right now will ultimately turn you into a better and stronger person. Without struggles, we simply couldn’t grow.

      – Life happens in seasons. There are always going to be ups and downs. If you’re currently going through a down phase, realize that spring and summer are right around the corner. Just stay patient. Don’t lose your faith. And keep going.

      – Speaking of keeping going… that’s all you can really do right now. Just keep pushing yourself. Live to the best of your possibilities. Don’t waste time. Work hard. And do the best you can under your given circumstances. Again, good times are ahead. And if you keep going, you’ll get a lucky break eventually.

      Hope that helps! I wish you all the best for the future.

      Sincerely,
      Nils

  • Lauren says:

    Not bad…you have learned a lot and your writings are very useful. Thanks. I suffered absolutely terribly from sleeping late. WHen I wake up late I torture myself with thoughts that I am lazy, then I start thinking its because I am overweight that I sleep late—or maybe I am really depressed —- or maybe it is me self-sabotaging away merrily. It is hell. But its the crazy society we live in in USA which worships early mornings. I see the people in my office (medical practice) who come in early think they are so so so virtuous even though they muck up half the time. And when I came late they make jokes about my love life, my 100 boyfriends taking me out and drinking at night (all said jokingly but with the jealousy by young married women of single professionals). It is hell and it did start in high school when I delayed projects, and my brains and looks got me through anyway.
    Still breaking the vicious procrastination cycle even though I got through med school somehow

    • I feel you, Lauren. Your experience matches mine quite well. I think we’re both part of a group of people that have massive potential but can’t fully realize it because of our lack of self-discipline. Yet, at the same time, we look quite successful in the eyes of society… simply because that vast potential was enough to get us to a certain point.

      That said, if we truly want to be the best we can be, we must invest in becoming more self-disciplined. And that, at least in my experience, takes a lot of time… thankfully, life is long and we have a whole lot of time for catching up and realizing our potential.

  • Thea says:

    Hi, just wanted to say I relate a lot to what you’ve said about the procrastination cycle. It started sometime early this year and I’ve been stuck in it, day by day, and it hurts so, so bad. I feel even more guiltier when I procrastinate for my exams. I keep avoiding my problems because the process of going through it is so draining that I keep giving up. I don’t know what to do. I’m going to try out the tips you’ve mentioned and try my best and never give up. Thanks!

    • I feel you, Thea. Something else I’ve found helpful for dealing with excessive guilt is the realization that all of us are struggling with it in one way or another. Some people are aware of it and others are not… but it’s a normal – albeit very painful – part of humanity.

      Here’s a quote from David R. Hawkins on this topic:

      “Guilt is as prevalent as fear, and we feel guilty no matter what we are doing. A part of our mind says that we really ought to be doing something else. Or, whatever we are doing at the moment, we ought to be doing ‘better.’ We ‘should’ be getting a better gold score. We ‘should’ be reading a book instead of watching television. We ‘should’ make love better. Cook better. Run faster. Grow taller. Be stronger. Be smarter. Be more educated. In between the fear of living and the fear of dying is the guilt of the moment. We seek to escape it by remaining unaware of it through suppression, repression, projecting it onto others, and escapism.”

      The key long-term strategies for reducing guilt are forgiveness and mindfulness. It’s an area we’ll be working on all throughout our lifetime… just stay patient 🙂

  • Angelo says:

    Wow! I thought I was reading about myself and my life. It’s always encouraging to see that I’m not alone. Fully agree about the school system not teaching discipline! Now I’m 31, father of 4years old twin girls, married to a 31yo which just graduated as a physician, doing my PhD in medical IT, procrastinating more than ever for the past 15 months, having only 3 more months to go and suffering in way which only people like you all can relate. I went to seek help thinking I was addicted to games and the internet but I am just escaping life (procrastinating), and I don’t know how I will manage to finish my PhD. I noticed I can be the most efficient when I manage to break down big tasks into little ones to tackle them but I get so
    easily overwhelmed it’s not normal. You are so right about all 4 points: learning / reading, mindfulness, self-compassion and perseverance / discipline! Unfortunately I feel like I don’t have time to learn these techniques before end of April when I have to give in my not-yet-written thesis. Also as a perfectionist I struggle to start programming or virtually anything of fear of being bad or just mediocre whereas I can just excel in gaming which rewards me with meaninglessness badges. I need help. Any advice on how I should tackle this?

    • I feel you, man. It’s astonishing to me that so many objectively successful people (including you) struggle with this. I mean, it sounds like you’re doing fantastic. If you get the PhD, you’ll have a family and incredible job accolades. Yet, this lack of proper self-discipline is eating you from within.

      Advice on how to tackle this? As you’ve said, I don’t think you have the time to get into most of this stuff as the deadline is so close. I guess you’ll just have to get it all done somehow. Cheat if you have to – I’m referring to smart drugs, coffee, long nights, etc… it won’t be pretty, but you’ll get it done and you’ll have your PhD. You’ve always somehow managed thus far, and history tends to repeat itself. I’m 99% sure you’ll make it.

      Once you have your PhD, I would suggest you slow down and get into the topics of this article and slowly start building your self-discipline. It will take time, but there’s no other way. Discipline is the key to happiness. If you can never trust yourself, never rely on yourself, never do what needs to get done without insane outside pressure… you’ll never feel comfortable and at ease.

      So yeah, hope that helps. And best of luck in getting your PhD! 🙂

  • Tanya says:

    Hi! I really liked this. I’m a high school student, I was an A student. I used to do nothing and score well. Nowadays though, it isn’t working out. I try to study but every time I get distracted. It’s so bad that I will have work but I will still go out of my way to do something else. Even if youtube gets boring, I do something else. It’s not even funny how bad the situation is. And trust me, I’ve tried so much to overcome this habit of procrastination but its so bad that it just never gets better. I also am well aware that I’m wasting my time but for some reason it gets out of hand. HELP.

    • Hey Tanya, glad you enjoyed the article. I feel you… your situation sounds awfully similar to mine a few years ago. But yeah, no help in crying about it. Now it’s time to start putting in the work… and if you do, you’ll reap the rewards. Best of luck! 🙂

  • Persephone says:

    Hello! I’m a third-year college student on track for a double degree in Art History and Creative Writing (aka LOTS of reading and writing). It’s four in the morning, and I’m currently sitting at my desk with a big stack of paper and my laptop. I have a language quiz, a full-blown midterm exam, and a paper due in about six hours. I’m in a tight, yet *incredibly* familiar bind. My procrastination has gotten so bad, to the point where my motivations don’t actually matter? By that I mean, I KNOW what I want to achieve, and I know WHY I want to achieve it, but for the life of me, I can’t work for more than three minutes. My grades are on the line. I ask for your help and advice, if you have any. I’m getting desperate.

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