How to Stop Procrastinating: 33 Proven Tactics – Backed by Science
Procrastination – sometimes called the thief of time – robs us of much more than just time. It eats away at our momentum, keeps us from making progress towards our goal, and negatively impacts our health, relationships, and well-being in general.
It’s a dreadful habit that I’ve been struggling with my entire life. I sometimes jokingly say that I used to be the second worst procrastinator in the world, with my little brother undisputedly holding the #1 spot.
I was the type of guy who woke up in the morning, procrastinated on getting out of bed by religiously hitting the snooze button, felt guilty about sleeping in, procrastinated some more on what I had intended to do, filled the time with useless activities, started feeling even more guilty, and then drowned myself in distractions (mostly online gaming) in order to run away from the negative feelings.
Because of this type of destructive behavior, I never got any real work done. And because I never got any real work done, I didn’t allow myself time for leisure. Even if I did go out to play football, meet friends, grab some drinks or whatever, I couldn’t enjoy myself properly because I was feeling guilty for not working.
During one particularly lame time of my life, most of my days were spent in some stupid, non-fulfilling activity just so that I didn’t need to face my uncomfortable feelings.
On top of these psychological issues, my severe procrastination has also caused me some serious physical pain. Because I procrastinated on going to the doctor on multiple occasions, I am now carrying with me some chronic ailments such as an incurable ankle that doesn’t allow me to play football (or many other sports) for more than 3-4 times a week. Meh.
The point is, procrastination is not only the thief of time, but also the thief of health, happiness, and success.
If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re also struggling with and don't know how to stop procrastinating. You may even be here as a result of delaying and avoiding some other task. Whatever the case, you’re here to learn something about procrastination – and I want to deliver, BIG time!
This massive article (almost 20,000 words) is my attempt at summarizing the most important concepts, truths, tactics, and research findings about procrastination. My goal is to compile a list containing all of the best strategies to overcome procrastination. The list currently contains a total of 33 tactics.
My aim is to keep updating the list, so if you find any interesting research not mentioned here, please let me know.
A couple of notes before we dive in:
- Will these strategies completely eliminate your procrastination? Lol, I wish. They will help you get better at it, but in all likelihood, they will not eliminate the problem forever. For me, here’s what the strategies do: I still procrastinate, but I get more done, procrastinate a lot less, no longer feel terribly guilty about it, no longer beat myself up over it, no longer freak out, no longer get super stressed out about it, and I can enjoy guilt-free leisure time. That’s about what you can expect.
- I’m not a procrastination researcher. I am just a lifelong procrastinator who’s been working on this problem for a long time. I still procrastinate and I still struggle. But I have made a lot of progress – thanks to the ideas presented in this article.
- How is the article structured? There are 4 self-explanatory parts. First, we’ll just cover some basic facts, then we’ll get into the actual strategies, then we’ll take a detour to learn how to overcome temptations (they’re such a huge problem nowadays that they deserve their own section), and in the end, we’ll discuss some long-term solutions to overcome procrastination once and for all.
- How should you best use this article? Obviously, you don’t need to read the whole thing. Depending on what type of procrastinator you are, different strategies may be more or less helpful for you. Just read some of them, try out the ones who make the most sense to you, and get better through a continuous process of trial-and-error. If you’re a chronic procrastinator and/or you’re serious about getting a handle on this problem, don’t skip the long-term solutions (they make the biggest difference for me!).
Oh, and before I forget: I’ve also created a beautiful PDF version of this article along with a handy checklist referencing all 33 strategies. You can download it for free in the box below or at the end of this article.
Part 1: Helpful Facts
This first section is meant to give you some basic and helpful facts about procrastination. We’ll look at why and how you procrastinate, some common myths, and other helpful insights.
We are just laying the groundwork here, before getting into more specific strategies in the next parts.
1. Know Why and How You Procrastinate
The process of procrastination is always the same. It happens when we’re facing an uncomfortable task and inevitably encounter some negative emotions – boredom, anxiety, overwhelm, frustration. Because these emotions are uncomfortable (research shows they literally cause pain in our brains!), we want to avoid and get rid of them. That’s when procrastination happens: to relieve negative emotions, we distract ourselves with something that feels better.
At its very core, procrastination is therefore an emotion regulation problem. We don’t know how to deal with negative emotions and use procrastination as our coping mechanism. It’s always the same story, whether we’re conscious of what’s happening or not. We want to do something, but end up doing something else that feels better. We procrastinate in order to relieve negative emotions.
That’s the underlying process. You face an uncomfortable task, negative thoughts and emotions pop up, you want to get rid of them, and end up avoiding the task in order to relieve tension and negativity.
Your mind, like clockwork, will generate negative thoughts and emotions every single time you’re facing an uncomfortable task. The specific thoughts and emotions may vary, but ultimately, it’s always the same thing. It’s always the mind that creates negative thoughts and emotions, which will then try to prevent you from doing the thing you want to do.
It’s one underlying process that masks itself in various manifestations. You see, the mind is a reason-giving machine. It will create excuses after excuses, telling you why you shouldn’t do the thing right now. Most of the time, these excuses sound superficially reasonable, when in reality, they are completely irrational. Let me give you some examples:
- “I’ll feel more like it tomorrow!”
- “I work better under pressure.”
- “I’m too tired. I’ll do it later or tomorrow. I’ll have more energy then.”
- “There’s even more work after this. I can never get it all done.”
- “Damnit! I should have started earlier. Now it’s too late. I might as well give up.”
- “I need some more preparation before I can start.”
- “I’ll feel more like doing it after another cup of coffee.”
- “I’m too jittery to get work done. I shouldn’t have drunk that last cup of coffee.”
- “It’s already 4pm. Now it’s too late to start. I’ll just do it tomorrow.”
- “Today is Sunday. It’s okay to rest and do nothing. I’ll just do it tomorrow.”
- “I’m not motivated. Let me google how to increase motivation.”
- “I can’t concentrate today. It would be a waste of time trying to get anything done today.”
Like I said, always the same process. Our minds generate negative thoughts and emotions intended to keep us from doing the thing we want to do and keeping us from engaging in healthy behaviors such as exercising regularly, meditating daily, doing the taxes on time, taking cold showers, and so on.
It's always the mind (thoughts and emotions) that gets in the way. You want to meditate, but your mind would rather watch TV. You want to get up early, but your mind wants to sleep in. You want to study harder, but your mind tells you to start tomorrow.
Knowing this underlying process of why and how we procrastinate is a crucial first step to overcoming this dreadful habit. Next up, we can learn to take action regardless of how we’re feeling…
2. Realize That You Can Take Action Despite Experiencing Negative Thoughts and Feelings
A common misperception is that we believe we have to actually feel like it. We have to feel like writing an essay, feel in the mood for exercising, feel motivated to get started on that project.
Newsflash: We don’t. And frankly, with many tasks in our lives, we probably never will feel like doing them. And the truth is, we don’t have to. We can do something even if we don’t feel like doing it, even if we’re not motivated to do it.
You see, thoughts and emotions influence but don’t need to determine our actions. Yes, under the influence of strong emotions, we typically make changes to our facial expression, our body posture, our voice, and our behavior. This is known as ‘action tendency’ – when we feel angry, we feel a tendency to clench our fists, shout, and lash out physically or verbally.
The key word here is tendency. Yes, we may feel like acting a certain way, but we don’t have to follow that tendency. We can feel afraid but act courageously. We can feel angry but act calmly. We can feel unmotivated but follow through with our intentions anyway.
We can take action and do the right thing whether we feel like it or not. We can take action despite our negative thoughts and emotions. That’s what it means to be a mature human being. David Reynolds explains in his book Constructive Living:
“The mature human being goes about doing what needs to be done regardless of whether that person feels great or terrible. Knowing that you are the kind of person with that kind of self-control brings all the satisfaction and confidence you will ever need. Even on days when the satisfaction and confidence just aren’t there, you can get the job done anyway.”
The point is this: when you face an uncomfortable task, your mind will produce negative thoughts and emotions. The question is, do you let those thoughts and emotions dictate your behavior? Or do you take action in spite of any negativity you’re experiencing? To overcome procrastination, it’s clear what you have to do. The good news is, once you take action, good things start happening…
3. The Pain Is in The Anticipation
As we’ve discussed in the very first strategy, we procrastinate in order to relieve tension and negative emotions associated with a dreadful or challenging task. It’s a coping strategy designed to make us feel better.
Here’s what’s fascinating: Research has found that the pain we experience thinking about a dreaded task almost instantaneously evaporates once we’ve started engaging in the task. Barbara Oakley, a learning expert, explains in her book A Mind For Numbers:
“We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable. Medical imaging studies have shown that mathphobes, for example, appear to avoid math because even just thinking about it seems to hurt. The pain centers of their brains light up when they contemplate working on math.
But there’s something important to note. It was the anticipation that was painful. When the mathphobes actually did math, the pain disappeared… Avoiding something painful seems sensible. But sadly, the long-term effects of habitual avoidance can be nasty. You put off studying math, and it becomes even more painful to think about studying it.”
The pain is in the anticipation, not in the actual doing of the dreaded task.
If we want to relieve tension and negative emotions, we don’t need to avoid a task… we need to get started on the task. Once we’ve overcome the initial resistance – the negative thoughts and emotions generated by our mind –, we realize it’s not nearly as bad as we thought. Oftentimes, its’ actually quite fun and enjoyable.
This is supported by other research that shows how our perceptions of a task and of ourselves literally change once we’ve started. Timothy A. Pychyl, a leading procrastination researcher, explains in his book Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:
“Surprisingly, we found a change in the participants’ perceptions of their tasks. On Monday, the dreaded, avoided task was perceived as very stressful, difficult, and unpleasant. On Thursday (or the wee hours of Friday morning), once they had actually engaged in the task they had avoided all week, their perceptions changed. The ratings of task stressfulness, difficulty, and unpleasantness decreased significantly… In fact, many participants made comments when we paged them during their last-minute efforts that they wished they had started earlier – the task was actually interesting, and they thought they could do a better job with a little more time.”
The message here is clear. All we really need to do is find a way to get started. Once we’ve done that, pain goes away, perceptions change, and we’re in the game. Later on, we’ll look at strategies that will help us take full advantage of this info.
4. No, You Will NOT Feel More Like It Tomorrow
Remember the underlying process of how and why we procrastinate? When we face a dreadful or challenging task, our mind produces negative thoughts and emotions. Because these emotions feel uncomfortable, we want to avoid them – which we usually do by procrastinating and doing something else that feels better.
Well, here’s one common thought your mind will produce in order to convince you to procrastinate and do something else that’s more instantly rewarding: “I’ll feel more like it tomorrow.”
How often have I told myself exactly that? How often have you told yourself that? What’s funny is that it’s simply not true. We will not feel more like it tomorrow. This is merely a trick our mind is playing on us.
So, what’s going on here? In the scientific literature, forecasting our future mood is referred to as affective forecasting – and frankly, we’re not very good at it. For example, we think winning the lottery will make us incredibly happy, but within a few months winners are about as happy as they were before. Likewise, we think suffering a debilitating accident will make us super miserable, but within a few months or years, victims are about as happy as they were before the accident (even despite long-term effects such as paralysis!).
Generally, we tend to focus on our current situation and how we are feeling right now without giving enough consideration about the future situation, what may happen and how we may feel then. Most often, we just assume that how we are feeling now is how we will feel later.
If you go grocery shopping after a meal, you will underestimate how hungry you’ll be and how much you’ll eat in the days ahead and buy less. If you go grocery shopping while hungry, you will overestimate how hungry you’ll be and how much you’ll eat in the days ahead and buy more. Drug addicts who’ve just ingested their drug will underestimate how much they’ll crave the drug in a few hours.
Here comes the tricky part concerning procrastination: when we intend a future action (e.g. I’ll finish the essay tomorrow), we usually feel pretty good. And thus, we expect to feel good tomorrow – we assume that how we’re feeling now is how we’ll feel later. So, when we intend to finish the essay tomorrow, we truly think that we’ll feel more like doing it then.
The reason why we feel good when intending a future action is two-fold: First, putting off an action feels good. It’s a form of relief. “Phew, I don’t have to write that damned essay right now.”
Second, seeing ourselves engaged in a healthy/productive future action makes us feel good in and of itself. When you think you’re writing your essay tomorrow, you feel good about yourself for making such a healthy and proactive decision. You feel kind of proud. Your current affective state is positive and you irrationally forecast that your affective state tomorrow will be the same.
Recognizing this bias of the mind can be helpful in overcoming procrastination. Next time you hear yourself saying, “I’ll feel more like it tomorrow,” you can remind yourself that this is merely a trick of the mind and that you will NOT feel like it tomorrow either. Once you’ve caught that excuse, you can take more effective action.
Part 2: General Strategies
This section is the meat of the article. Here we’ll discuss some of the most common and practical strategies to overcome procrastination. The strategies detailed work both in the short-term as well as in the long-term.
5. Focus On Getting Started
Nike got it all wrong. The procrastinator’s motto should be ‘just get started!’ not ‘just do it!’. Getting started – over and over again – is one of the most important strategies to overcome procrastination, which is why I’ve written an entire article on the subject here.
As I mention in that article, the mere act of getting started creates a whole machinery of positive effects. First of all, getting started immediately relieves the pain and negative associations with the task. Perceptions of both the task (it’s not nearly as bad as you thought) and yourself (you actually can do this) change for the better.
Just getting started also helps you make that all-important switch from non-doing to doing. It’s like Newton’s law of inertia says, “An object at rest stays at rest, an object in motion stays in motion.” Once you’re in the doing mode, you tend to stay in it. You’ll find yourself making progress and before you know it, you’re already halfway through – a job begun is a job half done.
Most importantly, getting started leads to self-perpetuating upward spirals of success, happiness, confidence, and optimism. As you get better in your ability to get started, you make more and more progress, start feeling more and more confident, start feeling more and more satisfied with yourself, start feeling more and more optimistic, and so on.
Just get started, and good things will happen.
Don’t worry about anything else. Remember, even finishing will be an act of starting. In order to finish, all you have to do is keep starting. So, forget about everything else, stop worrying about finishing, stop worrying about how long it might take, or how hard it might be, or anything like that. Get in the habit of asking yourself, when, where, and on what can I get started?
6. Focus On The Next Step, Not The Next Thousand Steps: Break Complex Projects Into Small, Actionable Tasks.
One major reason many of us procrastinate is because we’re feeling overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed is uncomfortable, which means we probably feel an urge to run away and procrastinate (see strategy #1 if you can’t follow).
This is especially true when we’re facing big projects, which are, by their very nature, challenging and overwhelming. They have lots of parts, there’s a lot to do, and there are many potential unknowns. And where should you even start? What’s a reasonable deadline? What tools do you need? What is the biggest priority?
Instead of putting off a big project, start by breaking it down into small, actionable steps. Create a list of all the things you need to do. Once you have the list, forget about the project and focus on doing one thing on your list after another.
Stop worrying about all the things left to do. Just keep focusing on the next step. It’s like Theodore Roosevelt used to say, "I dream of men who take the next step instead of worrying about the next thousand steps."
Get in the habit of asking yourself, what’s the next action I can take? Make it small and concrete and then get started on it. Don’t allow yourself to worry about the next thousand steps, focus on taking the next one.
John Steinbeck, a Nobel Prize winning author, once said: “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. Then, gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.”
Inch by inch, life's a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard. Don’t look too far ahead – one small and actionable task is all you can permit yourself to contemplate.
7. Lower Your Standards
Sometimes we procrastinate simply because the bar is set too high.
We think we have to exercise multiple times a week, meditate for at least twenty minutes at a time, finish a book within a few days, study for a couple of hours, and so on. Otherwise it’s not worth it, we tell ourselves.
The problem is, our high standards set us up for failure and procrastination. To begin with, high standards mean that the hurdle to getting started is very high.
The higher the hurdle – the more difficult (aversive) the task – the more likely we are to procrastinate.
If you tell a beginning meditator to sit down and meditate for twenty minutes, that scares the crap out of them. The result? Procrastination.
Another problem is that high standards inevitably lead to failure and self-criticism. If we fail to meditate daily for twenty minutes, we beat ourselves up over it. We get demoralized, drown ourselves in self-pity, and end up in a downward spiral of continuous failure, self-criticism, and procrastination. (We talk more about how self-criticism leads to procrastination in strategies #18 and #30.)
The solution is to lower our standards. This makes getting started a breeze and allows us to feel like a success, leading to an upward spiral of progress, happiness, optimism, confidence, etc.
Our standards should be to meditate for one minute every day, not twenty. Do ten pushups every morning, not a 60-minute full body workout. Write for 20 minutes on our dissertation, not finish the whole thing.
And don’t get me wrong. You can (and probably will) always do more. Once you’ve achieved your low standard, and most importantly once you’ve overcome the initial resistance (which is only in your head anyway) and actually got started, you probably feel like doing more. It’s like Newton’s law of inertia states: an object in motion stays in motion.
Tim Ferriss, famous entrepreneur and bestselling author of The 4-Hour-Work Week, talks about this as well. In an article on zenhabits.com, he refers to it as lowering your quota:
“The biggest problem is that people bite off too much. Make your quota low so you can “succeed” each day. One hugely successful ghost writer (50+ books, including NYT bestsellers) told me his secret to success: just two crappy pages per day. That’s all he had to write to “win” for the day, and of course, he often wrote more. Ditto for IBM salespeople for decades. They sold the most because they had the lowest quotas and therefore weren’t intimidated to pick up the phone. They didn’t put it off.”
Lowering your standards allows you to get started. And once you get started, good things start happening.
8. Practice David Allen’s 2-Minute Rule
David Allen is a productivity expert, author of one of the most famous books on productivity called Getting Things Done, and the inventor of the 2-minute rule.
The 2-minute rule states that if a task takes less than 2 minutes to complete, do it immediately. Instead of filling your mind or to-do list with an endless supply of small tasks, you get in the habit of getting them done the instant they appear.
This helps reduce procrastination in a number of ways. For starters, it frees up a lot of mental space, which means you’ll feel less overwhelmed. You’ll also feel good about getting so many small things done, and the resulting positive emotions will further fuel performance and well-being. Most importantly, though, the 2-minute rule trains your mind to get started and complete tasks instead of procrastinating – you’re literally re-training your mind to procrastinate less.
Here are some situations in which you could apply this rule:
- Answer simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ emails immediately, instead of dong it “later”
- Wash the dishes immediately after cooking or eating, instead of leaving them in the sink for hours
- Bring out the garbage right when it’s full, instead of doing it “later”
- Pay your bills right after getting them, instead of paying them at “some convenient time in the future”
Really get in the habit of handling small tasks right when they pop up. This will clear your mind, give you a small sense of accomplishment, and re-train your mind to just get started and get things done whether you feel like it or not – a triple combo that goes a long way in reducing procrastination.
9. Use Mel Robbins’ 5-Second Rule
Has this ever happened to you? You feel a sudden surge of motivation to work on a project, to exercise, to meditate, to do the taxes, or to do anything else that’s meaningful to you. You have no idea where it came from, but all of a sudden you feel motivated.
And then, only a couple seconds or minutes later, doubt starts creeping in. Maybe it’s not such a good idea after all. Maybe you should do it tomorrow. Maybe right now isn’t the right time. In other words, your mind is getting in the way, trying to convince you to forget about your great idea and do something else instead. It’s like I said in strategy #1, the mind is a reason-and-excuse-giving machine.
This has happened to me many times in the past. It’s like my motivation evaporated from one minute to the next, and I had no clue what was going on. I didn’t know about the mind’s sneaky tricks back then. Now, thankfully, I do. And I know what to do about it.
One thing you can do is practice something called the 5-second rule, invented by life coach and motivational speaker Mel Robbins. It states: “If you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea.”
If you feel that sudden urge to take action, you better get moving quickly. Don’t let your mind come up with excuses. Don’t let your mind talk you out of this. Just get started immediately. Act faster. Use the 5-second rule to give yourself a countdown: 5-4-3-2-1-GO! This’ll help you get started, and once you get started, good things start happening.
10. Think Concretely
I’ve written an entire article about this strategy, so I’ll keep things short here. Basically, there are two main modes of thinking you can engage in – concrete versus abstract –, and one of them helps you procrastinate less.
Abstract thinking is all about the ‘why’ or the bigger picture behind a goal or an action. Exercising, for example, is about having more energy, improving health, and feeling better about oneself.
Concrete thinking is about the ‘how’, the specifics, or the nitty-gritty behind a goal or an action. Exercising is about lacing your running shoes, heading out the door, and running in the park.
Here are some examples that make the difference clearer: Making a list can be about getting organized (abstract) or writing things down (concrete). Cleaning the house can be about creating a healthy atmosphere (abstract) or vacuuming the floor (concrete). Greeting someone can be about being friendly (abstract) or nodding the head and saying "howdy!" (concrete).
Research has found that when it comes to procrastination, thinking concretely is a better solution. If you think about a task in concrete terms rather than abstract terms, you’re more likely to get started and you’ll finish the task earlier. You can check out my full article for a breakdown of all the studies and more details.
For now, just know that thinking concretely helps you take action. Here are some specific examples:
- If you want to meditate, think like this: “Okay, I just sit down on my chair, play the guided meditation, and follow the instructions. Easy peasy.”
- If you want to vacuum the floor, think like this: “Alright, I just walk over to the closet, get the vacuum cleaner, plug it in, turn it on, and start vacuuming.”
- If you want to write on your dissertation, think like this: “I just sit down, start my laptop, load an empty word doc, and start typing. Simple enough.”
Thinking concretely helps you focus on the specifics of the next step (kind of like we were talking about in strategy #6). It reduces overwhelm, pushes negative thoughts and emotions into the background of your consciousness, and gets you focused on the next action. If you know what to do, but can’t overcome the initial resistance to get started, try out this strategy. I use it quite often and it works surprisingly well.
11. Use Implementation Intentions
I’ve written a complete guide on using implementation intentions to overcome procrastination here. It’s one of the simplest, yet most effective strategies to reduce procrastination.
So, what are implementation intentions? They are “if, then” plans that pre-determine how you will behave in a future situation. If I get up in the morning, then I will immediately get out of bed and do 20 pushups. If I come home from work, then I will cook a healthy dinner.
You pick a cue – this can be a specific time in the future, a thought, an emotion, or whatever – and link it to a behavior. When such and such happens, then you’ll do such and such. You’re literally programming yourself to behave in a desirable way in the future.
It works by programming your unconscious mind. You see, after forming the implementation intention, the situational cue (the "if" part) becomes highly activated in your brain, meaning it’s like the kid in class raising his hand like crazy to answer a question – it’s dying to get noticed. Your brain is scanning your environment, looking for that cue. Best of all, you don’t need to be aware of this at all because it happens largely unconsciously.
And now for the fun part. Once your brain detects the cue, it automatically executes your pre-determined behavior. Because you already decided and told your brain what to do, it can simply follow the plan – whether you’re conscious of it or not. Your unconscious mind simply takes over, executing the pre-programmed behavior.
Peter Gollwitzer, the inventor of implementation intentions, sometimes refers to them as ‘instant habits’. Once your brain makes the connection between cue and action, future behavior becomes habitual – automatic and unconscious. An added benefit of this automatic nature is that you’re conserving willpower. You see, whenever your unconscious can take over, detecting cues and directing behavior without conscious effort, it requires far less willpower. If you know anything about the science of habits, you probably realize just how powerful this is.
Anyway, this is the reason behind why implementation intentions work. If you want to see some actual studies proving just how effective they can be, check out my previous articles. I want to keep things somewhat short here.
As far as procrastination is concerned, these if,then plans can help you overcome many potential obstacles. They can help you get started, resist temptations, overcome times of low willpower, and much more.
Do you need help with getting started?
- If I feel like procrastinating on a task, then I’ll just get started on some aspect of the task
- If it’s Sunday and I’m finished with breakfast, then I’ll immediately get started on my homework.
- If it’s 2pm later today, then I’ll get started with writing on my book.
Do you always find excuses to delay a task?
- If I find myself thinking something along the lines of “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow” or “I work better under pressure,” then I’ll just get started on some aspect of the task. (You can add your own favorite excuses here)
Do you succumb to temptations too often?
- If I feel like watching TV or goofing off on TV, then I just ignore the urge and keep working or get started on some aspect of the task
- If I feel the urge to stop working and check my emails, then I just ignore it and keep working
- When I start working on something important, then I put my phone on airplane mode
Do you need to overcome times of low willpower?
- If I get home from work, then I immediately prepare a healthy dinner
- If I’ve put my kids to sleep, then I go for a walk
- If I tell myself that I’m too tired, then I just ignore it and keep working
- If it’s time to go to bed, then I write in my gratitude journal for 5 minutes
Do you need to overcome any other obstacles?
- If my friends ask me to come party this weekend, then I will immediately respond by saying, “Thanks, but no. I really need to finish my work project.”
- If I feel overwhelmed by a large project, then I break it down into small, actionable steps and immediately get started on the first step.
- If I get discouraged during writing, then I ignore it and just keep going.
I know, this sounds almost too simple to work. But implementation intentions have been proven to be effective in study after study. It is one of the best strategies for overcoming procrastination, so give it a try. And if you want more details, be sure to check out this article.
12. Put It On The Calendar
Ramit Sethi is quite the badass. He’s a self-made millionaire, New York Times Bestselling author, and founder of iwillteachyoutoberich.com. He knows a thing or two about productivity and procrastination, too. In one of his blog posts, he talks about a strategy he calls “If it’s not on my calendar, it doesn’t exist.”
It’s self-explanatory. He argues that if something doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done. His advice: “Stop putting things on your ‘to-do’ list. Instead, schedule actual time for them. Here’s a few real items from my calendar: Call cable company, clean stupid box of papers, mail letter to friend.”
Considering what we’ve just learned about implementation intentions, this makes a lot of sense. Deciding exactly when, where, and how we will do something goes a long way in making sure we’ll actually follow through with our intentions. In fact, we might argue that putting something on the calendar is another way of using implementation intentions. It is, if you think about it, nothing else than pre-deciding how you will act on a certain date in the future.
Oh, and Ramit Sethi is by all means not the only successful guy out there advocating this strategy. Take Chris Ducker, for example. He’s a serial entrepreneur who’s known as the “Virtual CEO” and regarded as the number-one authority on the subject of virtual staffing and personal outsourcing. On a podcast episode, he calls scheduling one of his favorite productivity tactics:
“I’ve always lived by the words “if it doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done” which I’ve shared over and over throughout the podcast. I’ve considered it one of my most powerful productivity tactics when it comes to moving my business forward.”
And just in case you’re not sold yet, here’s a great study illustrating just how well scheduling activities works. Twenty drug addicts were asked to write a résumé before 5pm on a particular day. They were encouraged to do so in order to find work after leaving rehab. The participants were split up into two groups:
- Group 1: They clearly defined when and where they would write the résumé
- Group 2: They were just told to write the résumé at a time and place of their choice
Basically, one group put it on the calendar and the other didn’t. The results? At 5pm, eight of the ten addicts who scheduled writing the résumé had actually written it. Of the ten addicts who didn’t schedule it? Not a single one of them had written it.
The message? If you want to get something done and stop procrastinating on it, put it on the calendar.
13. Keep a Procrastination Log, Know Your Obstacles, and Plan to Overcome Them
“The first step toward change is awareness. If you want to get from where you are to where you want to be, you have to start by becoming aware of the choices that lead you away from your desired destination.”
If you want to stop procrastinating, you first need to become aware of when, where, why, and what you procrastinate on. In other words, you need to know your obstacles before you can overcome them.
This is why it helps to keep a procrastination log, in which you keep track of avoided activities, specific thoughts, rationalizations, excuses, emotions, and whatever else you think is worth jotting down. That record of your current behavior will help you see certain patterns, help you learn from your mistakes, and allow you to prepare better next time. Once you know your obstacles, you can create plans to overcome them.
Through your procrastination log, you may become aware that you often tell yourself, “I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow.” In the moment, you probably really believe that, but once tomorrow comes, you feel even less like doing it. Once you’re aware of this pattern, you can create a plan to overcome it. For example, you can create a simple implementation intention: If I tell myself that I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow, then I’ll ignore it and just get started on some aspect of the task.
Here's an example log:
Keeping track of your procrastination is a pain in the ass, but it works. It’s probably the best way to become aware of your obstacles, which allows you to get them out of the way one after another.
14. Make Tasks Less Aversive and More Attractive
Would you procrastinate on studying for an exam if you received a million dollars for getting an A? I sure wouldn’t. You see, the attractiveness of a task has a lot to do with procrastination. The more attractive a task becomes (in this case because it helps us earn a million dollars!), the less likely we are to procrastinate. Human behavior, in that regard, is very simple: we approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad.
Researchers refer to this as ‘task aversiveness’. The more aversive (unattractive) a task, the more likely we are to procrastinate. Tasks, goals, or projects can be aversive for a number of reasons – they may be irrelevant, difficult, boring, frustrating, resented, anxiety-provoking, etc.
The point is, if we want to procrastinate less, we need to find ways to make tasks less aversive. In other words, we need to make them more attractive in our mind’s eye. We do this by connecting tasks to our long-term goals and values, thus making them more relevant and personally meaningful. We turn boring tasks into games, use rewards, and blend bitter medicine with sweet honey.
Here are some specific strategies to make tasks more attractive:
- Connect tasks to your values and future goals. In order to make seemingly meaningless tasks more attractive and relevant, you need to connect them to your values and bigger goals. This allows you to see how present tasks lead to a better future, which helps you value them more highly. Ask yourself, how tasks are connected to future goals and values. How will doing this help you live the life of your dreams? How will doing this help you live out your values? Cleaning your room may become a sign of maturity and a way to become more productive, helping you achieve your goals. Finishing a work project on time may be something that gets you promoted and brings you forward in your career. Once you connect small, irritating tasks to your future aspirations, they become meaningful to you. All of a sudden, you want to do them because they help you reach your goals. The result: less procrastination.
- Promise yourself a reward. If you promise yourself a million bucks for finishing your dissertation, procrastination will not be an issue. Smaller rewards work, too, of course.
- Relieve task boredom by making it a game. Challenge yourself, set your own standards, create a feedback loop, or try to beat your score. How many of these can you get done in 20 minutes? Can you do it in less time? Can you do it one-handed or with eyes closed?
- Try ‘temptation bundling’. Instead of just using rewards after getting something done, you can also use rewards while you’re actually doing the thing – e.g. listen to audiobooks or podcasts while exercising. This concept is called temptation bundling. It works by combining an aversive task (something you’re procrastinating on) with a behavior that feels good – you bundle a behavior you should do with a behavior you feel tempted to do.
For more details on these strategies, check out my full article on task aversiveness and procrastination here. The idea is always the same: make tasks more attractive – more meaningful, relevant, rewarding – and you will procrastinate less.
15. Create a Strong Commitment to Change
How good you become at handling your procrastination comes down to one thing: how bad do you want it? How important is this to you? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s all about how committed you are. You really need to want to change. Timothy Pychyl puts it well in Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:
“A strong goal intention, an intention for which you have a very strong commitment, is absolutely essential.”
It’s like Nietzsche said, “He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.”
So, how do we increase your commitment to overcoming procrastination? It goes back to what we talked about in the previous strategy: human beings are motivated by two things: pain and pleasure – we approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad. We are running away from pain and towards pleasure. If we want to change our lives, we need to associate massive pain to not changing now, and massive pleasure to changing immediately. Not changing should feel painful; changing should feel pleasurable.
To strengthen our commitment of overcoming procrastination, we need to become painfully aware of the negative effects of procrastination AND we need to become aware of the positive effects of acting in a timely fashion. This will help us want to run away from procrastination and towards the habit of getting things done in a timely fashion. Here’s what you do:
- First, create a list of tasks, projects, actions, or goals you procrastinate on. This list may include things like finishing a work project, creating a daily meditation practice, following a regular exercise regimen, getting rid of unnecessary clutter in your home, and so on.
- Second, next to each thing you’re procrastinating on, write down how your procrastination is affecting you in terms of your health, happiness, relationships, finances, general life satisfaction, and so on. This is designed to show you the pain procrastination is already causing you in your life.
- Third, next to each thing you’re procrastinating on, write down how acting on the thing in a timely fashion will benefit you in terms of your health, happiness, relationships, finances, general life satisfaction, and so on.
Listing the costs of not doing the thing (in other words, the costs of procrastinating) and contrasting it to the benefits of doing the thing in a timely fashion, will create a powerful double punch for motivation. You will want to run away from procrastination (associated with pain) and towards getting things done (associated with pleasure). In other words, it’ll create a strong commitment to change. Check out this article for more details on this strategy.
16. Make Procrastination Pay
Like I said before, human beings are motivated by two things: pain and pleasure. We approach what feels good (pleasure) and avoid what feels bad (pain). If not doing a task is associated with enough pain, we will likely get it done in a timely fashion. Give your friend $200. If you get the task done by 8pm, you get your $200 back. If you don’t, you lose the $200.
This strategy is called a ‘commitment contract’ – you commit to doing something (e.g. finishing a task by 8pm) and set a penalty you’ll have to pay in case of failure (e.g. losing a bunch of money). This creates massive pain for not doing the thing, thus forcing you to stop procrastinating and getting it done.
You can create such an agreement with a trusted friend or you can use a third-party website such as stickk.com.
If you use money, make sure that you actually put up the money beforehand – either give it to your friend or lock it into the stickk.com website. Don’t just say, “I will give you the money if I fail.” No, no, no. You give your money beforehand. If you want it back, get the task done on time!
You don’t necessarily have to use money either. The penalty can be to run around town naked, make an uncomfortable phone call, shave your head, or whatever. Anything that creates massive pain for you will work.
17. Try ‘The Work of Worrying’
Sometimes people think that procrastinators are just lazy and careless, when in fact, the opposite is true: procrastinators care way too much. They are constantly worrying that what they do isn’t good enough (so they put off doing it to have an excuse for not meeting their own standards). They worry that they might lose their job or get ridiculed. They worry that other people will “find out the truth” about them – that they aren’t as competent as believed.
Whatever the exact patterns are, procrastinators tend to worry a lot. And then, in order to get rid of the negative feelings generated by all the worrying, they procrastinate.
Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit, has an interesting solution to all this worrying. He says that worrying is actually a good thing – because it warns us of potential threats. According to him, the problem isn’t in the worrying, it’s that we fail to do the real work of worrying once a worry has alerted us of a potential threat. He writes in in his book:
“Worrying can warn you of danger and evoke action to prepare for that danger. Respect your ability to worry as a means to alert you to potential danger.
By alerting yourself to a potential danger without establishing a plan for how you will cope, you have done only half of the job of worrying. You’ve left out the positive ‘work of worrying’ – developing an action plan. Once a threat is raised it must be dealt with to avoid worry and anxiety – that trapped energy that can’t be used productively now. Until you reach a solution or cancel the threat, worrying can operate like a recurrent nightmare that repeats a puzzle or problem. Plans, action, and solutions are required to direct the energy and complete the work of worrying.”
Put simply, we need to use worrisome thoughts as action triggers. When we catch ourselves worrying, we need to finish the work of worrying by canceling the threat and creating a plan. Instead of just scaring ourselves with images of potential dangers, we need to also prepare ourselves for the potential danger. Once we know we’re prepared for a possible worst-case scenario, we can calm down and get to work.
If anxiety and constant worrying cause you to procrastinate, ask yourself the following six questions. They conclude the work of worrying (they’re directly taken from Neil Fiore’s book), help you calm down, and make you feel safe so you can take effective action:
- What is the worst that could happen?
- What would I do if the worst really happened?
- How would I lessen the pain and get on with as much happiness as possible if the worst did occur?
- What alternatives would I have?
- What can I do now to lessen the probability of this dreaded event occurring?
- Is there anything I can do now to increase my chances of achieving my goal?
Tim Ferriss recommends doing a similar process he calls fear-setting. The goal, just like with the work of worrying, is to create a sense of safety, to realize you’ll be alright even if the worst-case scenario happened. He even gave a recent TED talk on the subject that you can check out here.
Neil Fiore sums up the benefits of doing the work of worrying perfectly in The Now Habit:
“Having established a sense of safety by knowing that even in the worst imaginable situation you have alternatives, you are ready to do your best without the burden of fear of failure.”
“True confidence is the ability to say, ‘I am prepared for the worst, now I can focus on the work that will lead to the best.’”
18. Forgive Yourself
Here’s one thing I can promise you: procrastination will accompany you for many more years to come. Without a doubt, you will procrastinate on certain tasks, projects, or goals in the future. No matter how hard you try, how many strategies you test, how much better you get at this – you will inevitably face setbacks, disappointing moments, and frustrations with an apparent lack of progress.
It’s your attitude in those moments that will be of vital importance to your continued progress. Choose the path of self-compassion, not self-criticism. Instead of beating yourself up, be kind to yourself and forgive yourself when you don’t live up to your own expectations.
According to the research, this self-forgiveness will help you procrastinate less in the future. Kelly McGonigal explains in her book The Willpower Instinct:
“Consider, for example, a study at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, that tracked the procrastination of students over an entire semester. Lots of students put off studying for the first exam, but not every student made it a habit. Students who were harder on themselves for procrastinating on their first exam were more likely to procrastinate on later exams than students who forgave themselves. The harder they were on themselves about procrastinating the first time, the longer they procrastinated for the next exam! Forgiveness—not guilt—helped them get back on track.”
In short, self-forgiveness for procrastination is related to less procrastination in the future. I have written an entire article on self-compassion versus self-criticism and their effects on procrastination. We’ll get into some of the details in strategy #30, but for now just know that self-compassion will help you procrastinate less, while self-criticism will cause you to procrastinate more.
Next time you harshly criticize yourself after an act of procrastination, please stop – you’re only making things worse. Instead, treat yourself with warmth, care, respect, and love. Forgive yourself, console yourself, and move on.
19. Reward Yourself Every Time You Overcome Procrastination
Rewarding yourself for not procrastinating and actually getting work done accomplishes two things. First, the reward makes the task more attractive, which should lead to less procrastination in the first place (see strategy #14). Second, rewarding a behavior reinforces it, making it more likely to occur in the future.
This second point is crucial. By combining effort and rewards, you can teach yourself to associate working with something desirable. The pleasant emotions generated by rewards creep backwards in the effort itself. This is sometimes called ‘learned industriousness’ – getting rewarded for high effort leads to more high effort in the future (because you want to experience the rewards again).
I explain in detail how it all works in this article. To put it in simple terms: behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Therefore, to procrastinate less, find ways to reward yourself for getting work done. Here are some ideas for rewarding yourself:
- Practice internal self-praise. Don’t just let your good acts pass by without acknowledging them. Take the time to reinforce them – even a simple ‘Atta boy!’ can do the trick.
- Keep an accomplishment list. Instead of just having a to-do list, create a done list or an accomplishment list. Simply write down all the things – no matter how small! – you accomplish on any given day. This allows you to acknowledge (and thereby reinforce) all the good things you get done. You can learn more about this strategy here.
- Do the what-went-well exercise. This exercise is another simple yet effective strategy for acknowledging and reinforcing good behavior. Martin Seligman, a famous psychologist and founder of the positive psychology movement, talks about the benefits in his book Flourish: “Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well… The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”
- Use reward substitution. Many healthy and positive behaviors (e.g., meditation, exercise, or good nutrition) only reap rewards far in the future, making them unappealing for our immediate gratification seeking brains. That’s why we need to substitute those long-term rewards (better health, longevity, etc.) with immediate rewards. When you exercise successfully for thirty minutes, reward yourself with a delicious smoothie or a protein shake or allow yourself to watch some TV. When you finish a work project, treat yourself to a night out with your spouse. When you manage to get up early for 7 days in a row, reward yourself by buying a new pillow or sweatshirt or whatever. The idea is to make a contract with yourself. If you do such and such, then you’ll get such and such reward.
From now on, every time you overcome the urge to procrastinate, every time you get work done, every time you overcome resistance, every time you follow through with your plans, reward yourself. Reinforce the behavior you want repeated. This helps you slowly but surely build the habit of acting in a timely fashion.
20. Unschedule Your Calendar
Here’s how Unscheduling works in a nutshell: Instead of scheduling time for work, you first schedule fixed commitments (e.g., sleep, meals, commute, showering), self-care activities (e.g., exercise, meditation, yoga) and guilt-free play (hobbies, meeting friends, socializing, reading) – and lots of it, including at least one hour of play a day and one full day off per week.
In fact, you never actually schedule any work. It only goes on the schedule after you’ve spent at least 30 minutes of quality, focused time. And when does work happen? In-between your fixed commitments, self-care activities, and play. Instead of creating a week full of work interspersed with play and leisure, you create a week full of play and leisure interspersed with work. Your calendar changes from a list of unrealistic and overwhelming expectations to a place for fun stuff and a record of your achievements.
Why does it work to overcome procrastination? First of all, The Unschedule immediately gives you an overview of your time, reducing feelings of guilt and self-criticism (unless we know how we used our time, our negatively biased mind will always tell us we wasted it, resulting in us feeling guilty).
You also feel less overwhelmed because you see clearly that you do not have as much time for work as you may have thought until now – in-between fixed appointments, sleep, eating, commuting, and play, there’s really only so much time left in a day to get some quality work done. Work becomes a kind of rare commodity, making it more attractive for you – you’ll find yourself wanting to work more.
In fact, that’s another major benefit of using The Unschedule: your associations of work become more positive, resulting in an unconscious desire to work more. Work is no longer something that deprives you and gets in the way of your personal interests. Neil Fiore puts it well in his book, “By scheduling rewards or alternative activities, you lessen the deprivation associated with work and begin to experience it as something that gives you pride and allows you to fully enjoy your leisure time.”
I list a ton more reasons why Unscheduling works well in my full article on The Unschedule, so check that out if you need more convincing. For now, here’s an overview of how you can start using this technique, based on Neil Fiore’s 11 guidelines for The Unschedule:
1. Schedule only:
- previously committed time such as meals, sleep, meetings
- free time, recreation, leisure reading
- socializing, lunches and dinners with friends
- health activities such as swimming, running, tennis, working out at the gym
- routine structured events such as commuting time, classes, medical appointments
Do not schedule any work. Instead, fill your calendar with as many non-work related activities as possible. This will help you overcome the fantasy that you have 24 hours a day to work on your projects. Plus, it will help you avoid scaring yourself with overly ambitious and dictatorial plans that inevitably lead to failure, disappointment, self-criticism, and procrastination.
2. Fill in your Unschedule with work on projects only after you have completed at least one-half hour of quality work.
Unscheduling works like a time clock that you punch in as you start work and punch out when you take credit for your progress. This creates excitement about how much you got done in a short period of time, instead of scaring you with how much there’s still left to do.
3. Take credit only for periods of work that represent at least thirty minutes of uninterrupted work.
You’re not allowed to record time on your Unschedule unless you work for at least 30 minutes without interruptions. This allows you to get fully into a task and makes sure that the half hour you earned on your Unschedule represents quality work, not goofing off on Facebook. This mounting achievement will build pride and confidence in yourself.
4. Reward yourself with a break or a change to a more enjoyable task after each period worked.
By rewarding yourself for each positive achievement, you create positive associations with work and make it more likely to get work done again in the future. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.
5. Keep track of the number of quality hours worked each day and each week.
This helps you keep track of the progress you’ve made – an act that is rewarding in and of itself and that establishes a positive pattern by following work with a positive reinforcement.
6. Always leave at least one full day a week for recreation and any small chores you wish to take care of.
This helps you avoid feelings of burnout and resentment that can come when there is no time for “fun and recreation” because of too much work. After fully recharging your batteries and spending quality time with friends and family, you’ll feel more motivated to get back to work.
Peak performers oftentimes surpass procrastinators and workaholics in being healthier, taking more vacations, and taking more time off, while accomplishing more.
7. Before deciding to go to a recreational activity or social commitment, take time out for just thirty minutes of work on your project.
Pleasurable activities have the power to create motivation for the activity they follow. Make use of that by following what Neil Fiore calls the Grandma Principle: you get your ice cream only after you eat your spinach.
8. Focus on starting.
The only thing you ever need to focus on is getting started (see strategy #5). Once you get started, good things start happening. Don’t worry about finishing at all. Neil Fiore says the only item your to-do list needs is “When is the next time I can start?”
9. Think small
Don’t aim to write letters, finish a book, or complete your income tax. Aim for thirty minutes of quality, focused, and uninterrupted work. It’s like we said in strategy #6: focus on the next step, not the next thousand steps. Think small.
10. Keep starting.
Stop worrying about finishing a project – it will take care of itself. Simply focus on getting started over and over again. The last thirty minutes that will finish a project will be an act of starting as well. To finish, all you have to do is keep starting. Thoughts about finishing only unnecessarily create negative emotions of stress, fear, insecurity, etc.
11. Never end “down.”
Never stop work when you’re somehow blocked or at the end of a section. To create good habits your breaks must follow some work. No treats until you face what you’ve been avoiding. Do not take breaks or reward yourself when you’re ready to give up or at the end of a segment.
For a full guide on using The Unschedule to stop procrastinating, go here.
21. Try Some Positive Procrastination
There’s a type of procrastination called ‘structured’ or ‘positive procrastination’. Here’s how it works in a nutshell, as explained in a New York Times article:
“At the top of your to-do list, put a couple of daunting, if not impossible, tasks that are vaguely important-sounding (but really aren’t) and seem to have deadlines (but really don’t). Then, farther down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter. “Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list,” Dr. Perry writes.”
This strategy, according to leading procrastination researcher Dr. Piers Steel, is based on a sound behavioral principle. He writes in The Procrastination Equation:
“Behavioral psychologists would point out that we are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse.”
It’s almost like playing projects off against each other, procrastinating on one but working on an another. You may not get your most important task done, but you can at least get some constructive work done. While this strategy won’t help you solve the core issue of procrastination, it can certainly help reduce the cost of it.
Part 3: Dealing Effectively With Distractions and Temptations
We live in an age of massive distraction. We are overstimulated, overconnected, overscheduled, and overwhelmed by all the noise, interruptions and complexity of modern society. We are bombarded by text messages, cell phones, Facebook notifications, and all kinds of other bullshit screaming for our attention.
The average worker on a typical day spends 2.1 hours in distraction, checks email every 6 minutes, spends a total of 1.72 hours on email, is interrupted every 11 minutes, and watches 4.7 hours of TV. In the 1970s, 4-5 percent of people indicated that they considered procrastination a key personal characteristic. Today, that number is 20-25 percent.
Modern-day distractions and temptations – Facebook, email, smartphones, video games, TVs, and other shiny and highly attractive toys – deserve their own section because they are a major enabler of procrastination and largely responsible for the 5-fold increase we’ve seen in procrastination since the 1970s. Dr. Piers Steel, a leading procrastination researcher, puts it like this in his book The Procrastination Equation:
“…proximity to temptation is one of the deadliest determinants of procrastination. [And] the more enticing the distraction, the less work we do.”
We can illustrate the relationship between distractions and procrastination with the following graph (taken from The Procrastination Equation book):
The dashed, horizontal lines represent temptations; the higher one being more tempting and the lower one being less tempting. The solid line represents the work curve. It slowly swoops up in the end as we become more and more motivated the closer the deadline comes. As long as our motivation for work is lower than our motivation for temptations, we are procrastinating. Once the motivation for work exceeds the motivation for temptations, we start working.
As you can see in the graph, the more attractive temptations become, the higher up the dashed bars move and the longer we’ll be procrastinating. Simply put, the more attractive the temptation, the longer we’ll procrastinate. Dr. Piers Steel sums it up well, “So, we can see that when the allure of temptation rises, so does procrastination.”
That perfectly explains why we’ve seen such an enormous rise in procrastination over the last decades. Modern life creates more and more temptations which are simultaneously becoming more and more attractive. Put differently, modern life creates more and more dashed lines while moving them higher and higher. The solid bar, on the other hand, stays pretty constant. The pleasure derived from work hasn’t changed over the last decades.
Summing up, temptations become more attractive while work starts looking increasingly dull and boring compared to it. The result? We procrastinate more.
Now, before we move on to learn about some of the strategies for fighting distractions and temptations, let’s consider the most common temptations of modern life – this is going to be fun…
I used to be addicted to an online video game for 2-3 years during my high-school time. I can tell you firsthand: I never procrastinated more in my life than during those years.
Clearly, video games are one hell of a temptation, and they’re only getting better and better. Multi-million dollar companies work day in day out to create the most enjoyable, rewarding, and addictive games they can. Just look at the graphics of some of the newest games – it’s fucking nuts. I love how Dr. Piers Steel puts it in The Procrastination Equation:
“With each evolving iteration of Grand Theft Auto, Guitar Hero, or World of Warcraft, choosing not to procrastinate becomes harder. The graphics, the story, the action, the console – all of them advance. In the battle for your attention, it is as if work is still fighting with bows and arrows while gaming has upgraded to auto-cannons, sniper rifles and grenade launchers.”
No wonder so many young people are now suffering from video game addiction. In Korea, for example, it’s estimated that more than ten percent of young people show advanced signs of addiction, playing up to seventeen hours a day.
Watching TV is still the distraction that takes up most of people’s time. According to Dr. Piers Steel, it’s the king of distraction, with the average American watching 4.7 hours per day. He writes in The Procrastination Equation:
“The king of distraction – and there is only one – is television. Since its halcyon years in the 1950s, television has continued to perfect itself, gaining all the features it needs to win the competition for our time. The magic of the remote allows us to change channels without moving. The advent of cable and satellite has ensured that there is always at least one available channel that reliably caters to our tastes. And with multiple television sets throughout the house – more TVs than people according to Nielson Media Research – we can watch our shows anywhere we like. If our interest in a particular programme flags even momentarily – zapp! – we are off to other worlds in this 500-channel universe. So attractive is television that we are often guilty of over-consumption, feeling TV’d out and wishing at day’s end that we’d watched a little less.”
And the TV industry isn’t sleeping. They are working hard on making the experience more and more attractive. For example, you can now record multiple programmes simultaneously, buy any movie or series whenever you want, store hundreds of hours of your favorite shows, and enjoy everything in ultra-high-definition.
Last but not least, the internet – the procrastination-causing device of choice for young people. Get a load of this: according to the research, almost half of our time online is spent procrastinating (and this was research from over a decade ago!). Timothy Pychyl writes in Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:
“In this paper, published more than a decade ago (long before social-networking tools became popular), our participants reported that 47 percent of their time online was spent procrastinating. I think this is a conservative estimate.”
Ouch. A decade ago, Facebook and most other social media sites didn’t even exist yet. And now, researchers investigating the relationship of procrastination and Facebook are already talking about a phenomenon called “Facebocrastination”.
The point is, distractions are a major enabler of procrastination – and the problem will only get worse. If we want any chance of getting meaningful things done and getting a grip on our procrastination, we need to find ways to reduce and resist temptations. So, without further ado, here are 6 strategies that will help you curb temptations…
22. Make Temptations More Aversive and Less Attractive
Would you check email all day long if you had to pay $50 every time you did it? Probably not. The problem with modern temptations is that they are too damn sexy – remember, the more attractive the temptations are, the more likely we are to procrastinate.
This is unfortunate, but it also means there’s an easy solution: we just need to find ways to make temptations more aversive and thus less attractive. The easiest way to make that happen is to use a commitment contract, as discussed in strategy #16. Give your friend $100 bucks and tell him to keep $10 every time you give in to a distraction (e.g. check Facebook, spend more than a certain amount of time on news sites, or whatever). If you don’t want to lose a bunch of money, don’t give in to temptations.
You can use websites like Covenant Eyes (lets your friend see all of your website activities), stickk.com (lets you create simple commitment contracts), SnuzNluz (lets you set up a payment for a certain amount of money every time you hit the snooze button), or Rescue Time (shows your online activity) to set up the commitment contracts.
By adding a penalty to temptations, you make them less attractive, essentially moving down the dotted line down in the distraction paragraph from earlier. The result? Work becomes relatively more attractive, you stop procrastinating, and start getting things down.
23. Reframe Temptations
As I’ve explained in my article on reframing, everything in life is completely empty of meaning. Nothing is either “good or bad,” “sexy or unsexy,” “attractive or unattractive”. It’s only our interpretation that makes it so. So, temptations are not in and of themselves attractive and thus hard to resist. It’s because we frame them in a certain way in our minds (usually unconsciously) that they become attractive.
Put differently, it’s because you associate temptations with positive feelings that you want to engage in them. Let’s look at the example of Facebook together. Right now, some possible associations you have may be: It’s a place to connect with people, it can help relieve tension, you can watch fun videos on it, you see many cool and interesting pictures, there’s a lot going on, etc.
The point is, Facebook is associated with lots of positive rewards. You see it in a positive light, whether you’re aware of it or not. That’s why temptations are so hard to resist. For your mind, they are almost ridiculously attractive. If you saw temptations in a more negative light, your behavior would change immediately. Let’s try it out. Let’s create some new associations for Facebook.
Ask yourself, what are the negative aspects of spending so much time on Facebook? What’s the bad side of it? In what ways is it harming your life? Some things that come to mind: Facebook keeps you from doing the things you really should be doing (e.g. studying, meditating, exercising, reading), Facebook gets in the way of you achieving your dreams, Facebook makes you addicted, it destroys your attention, scatters your thinking, lowers your attention span, it’s a career killer, it keeps you from studying, it gives you bad grades at school, and so on.
Now that sounds a lot less attractive, does it?
The point is, you can choose (to a certain extent) how you’re representing certain temptations in your mind. Do you want to see them in a positive or negative light? Do you see the good aspects or the bad ones? If you want to procrastinate less, reframe the temptations in as negative ways as possible.
24. Up the Hurdles
How often would you go on Facebook if you had to run 5km to access it? Remember what we said about proximity to temptations earlier: Proximity to temptation is one of the deadliest determinants of procrastination. This is a huge problem nowadays because temptations are all around us, readily available at our fingertips 24/7. Dr. Piers Steel refers to this as ‘universal proximity’. He writes in The Procrastination Equation:
“Universal proximity is exactly the goal – to shave enough seconds off the mechanisms of delivery that all products can be purchased as impulsively as the sweets by the checkout counter. Once this happens, the world becomes an inescapable cage of temptation and if your willpower ever lapses, even for just a second, that’s all the time they need to get you.”
Indulging in temptations is just way too easy. Put differently, the hurdle is too fucking small. What we need to do is increase that hurdle. We need to make it really hard to engage in temptations, creating multiple loops to jump through and other annoying obstacles. That’s another way of making the distractions less appealing to us, moving the dotted line further down in the temptation diagram.
Here are some ideas to increase the hurdles to different temptations:
- Block distracting websites (I use a tool called Cold Turkey and am currently looking at an alternative called FindFocus.)
- Delete distracting apps on your smartphone (Facebook, games, Snapchat, etc.)
- Delete your computer games
- Get rid of your TV
- Get rid of your Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, etc. (or at least bury them in the basement or somewhere else where you don’t see them)
These strategies are not fail-proof, but they will make it a lot harder to engage in temptations. Instead of opening your browser, typing in “Fa”, and entering Facebook, you now have to go into your website-disabling tool and somehow enable Facebook again. The bigger the hurdles to your distractions, the less you’ll procrastinate.
25. Think Abstractly
In strategy #10 I told you that thinking concretely helps you overcome procrastination and take action. Well, to resist temptations, you need to do the exact opposite: you need to think abstractly.
One study looked at the two modes of thinking and our ability to resist temptations. Female students were shown a number of random objects, such as cars. Half of them were asked to generate a subordinate category for the object (e.g. “a Ford”) – priming them into thinking more concretely. The other half was asked to generate a superordinate category for the object (e.g. “a transportation vehicle”) – priming them into thinking more abstractly.
After this task, the students were asked to evaluate two objects, a healthy apple and a tempting candy bar. Basically, they were asked which they would rather have. Students primed into abstract thinking rated the candy bars more negatively and opted for the apple more often. In other words, they were better able to resist the temptation.
The message is clear: if you need to resist temptations, think abstractly. To make that happen, you can try out a few different strategies. You can ask ‘why’, as in “why would I play a video game right now? Or you can ask yourself if you would recommend the thing to a friend. Or you can ask yourself if you would opt for the temptation 6 months from now. These kind of questions are all designed to get you into an abstract mode of thinking. Here are some more specific examples:
- If you feel the urge to check Facebook, think: “Why would I do this right now? What does it really bring me? It’s not going to help me achieve my goals, is it? No, it’s not. In fact, it’s getting in the way of me achieving my goals. There’s no point in checking Facebook. Let me do something supportive of my goals instead.”
- If you feel the urge to watch TV, think: “Would I advise my best friend to watch hours and hours of TV? Or would he be better off doing his taxes instead? He should definitely do his taxes. And so should I.”
- If you feel the urge to play a video game, think: “Six months from now, would I play the video game or study for my upcoming exam? Oh, I’d definitely study for the exam. That’s the much smarter choice. Let me go study.”
If this concept is still a bit unclear to you, check out my full article on it here.
26. Stimulus Control: Control Your Environment or Be Controlled by It
Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past years, you’ve heard of priming before. It states that things in your environment can unconsciously trigger certain behaviors and goals. A plate of veggies can trigger the goal of eating healthy. Walking past the gym can trigger the goal of working out. Walking past a jewelry store can trigger the goal of buying luxury items.
Sexy images can trigger the urge to have sex. Hearing a snippet of a song can make us start humming it. The smell of cake makes you hungry. Dimming the lights increases fearfulness. Holding a warm cup of coffee or tea infuses warm feelings in us, making us more charitable. Putting sweets on a secretary’s desk in a clear rather than opaque bowl (thereby making them more visible) increases snacking. Even people can trigger goals and behaviors in us. Reading about successful people can motivate us to be more disciplined. Watching James Bond can make men more self-assured and dominant. Watching someone helping others can make us more altruistic and kind.
The point is, everything in your environment influences you. The objects you see, the tastes you smell, the words you read, and the people you interact with. These are all environmental cues that trigger certain goals and behaviors.
Now, back to procrastination. Certain things in your environment can trigger the urge to procrastinate, while other things can trigger motivation to start working on your most important or urgent tasks.
If you want to procrastinate less, waste less time on temptations, and get more stuff done, you need to take control over your environment. First and foremost, you need to purge your environment of cues that trigger distractions and procrastination. Here are some ways to accomplish that:
- Declutter your browser. Every visible hot-link can potentially trigger unwanted goals that get in the way of your productivity. It’s like they’re screaming at you, “Click me! Please, click me! Come on, please!” Any bookmark or hot-link needs to go…
- Declutter your desktop. Same story. Any quick launch icons or hot-linked programs need to go because they’ll unconsciously activate goals that might get in the way of your productivity.
- Declutter your phone. If you unlock your phone and you immediately see icons for all your favorite distractions, you’re in trouble. They have to go as well.
- Eliminate all notifications. Any notification on your phone or computer can and will act as an unconscious goal trigger getting in the way of being productive. The mere act of getting rid of email notifications alone may give you an extra month of productivity a year (!). Dr. Piers Steel explains in The Procrastination Equation: “Here is a trick that will give you an extra month of efficiency each year. It is easy to implement, immediately effective, and doesn’t cost a penny. First, go to your e-mail programme. Second, disable all the audio alerts and mailbox pop-ups. … That’s it, there is no third step. Banishing e-mail notifications will make you about 10 percent more efficient and over a year that translates into one more month of productivity.”
- Declutter your work space. A cluttered, disorganized, and messy workspace is like a minefield of distractions and unconscious goal triggers. If you want to procrastinate less and work more efficiently, radically declutter your work space. Out of sight, out of mind is the motto here.
- Remove triggers for any remaining distractions. Hide the remote control for the TV, move the TV somewhere you don’t see it all the time, or close the doors of the television cabinet if you have one. Even better, get rid of your TV completely. And while you’re on it, get rid of any other distractions – delete your games, sell your Xbox, and so on. Oh, and put your phone on airplane mode when you’re trying to get some work done. Even better, put it in a drawer or another room if possible. In general, get those distractions out of sight.
Here are some images showing the differences between procrastination-enabling environments and productivity-supporting environments:
Once you’ve eliminated all the distraction triggers from your environment, you can start filling it with work and goal triggers. Ask yourself what you associate with your goals, what reminds you of your goals, and what could unconsciously activate your goals?
If you want to work on your writing project, maybe put relevant material on your desk. If you want to read a book before going to bed, put it on your bed table. If you want to work out in the morning, put your gym stuff next to your bed. If you want to feel more calm and mindful throughout your day, get a small buddha statue.
The possibilities are endless. You can use anything as a potential trigger – images, quotes, physical triggers, post-it notes, and so on.
Even more powerful, you can make your work place a cue itself. So that every time you enter that environment, concentration and focus happen automatically. To make this happen, you need to create clear boundaries between work and leisure. You need to dedicate your work space exclusively to work – no dillydallying on Facebook, no YouTube watching, no goofing off on distracting websites. Make the boundary as strong as possible. Maybe get a second computer (or at least create a separate profile!). Maybe change clothes once you’re done with work. Whatever it is, give your mind the clear message of working or not working.
According to Dr. Piers Steel, this segregation between work and play makes a big difference. He writes in The Procrastination Equation:
“If you keep work and play in discrete domains, associations will build and attention will become effortless – your environment will be doing all the heavy motivational lifting. Three studies have investigated the effectiveness of this technique with students, and found that the use of dedicated work areas decreased procrastination significantly within weeks.”
27. Practice Urge Surfing
All the way back in strategy #1 we discussed how procrastination is an emotion management problem. We want to get stuff done and work in a timely fashion, but our thoughts and emotions convince us otherwise. The same thing happens with temptations. In this case we don’t want to play video games or spend so much time on Facebook, but again our thoughts and emotions convince us otherwise.
In both cases, we can talk about having an ‘urge’ to act in some way – we have the urge to procrastinate, the urge to check Facebook, or the urge to play video games.
In order to procrastinate less and resist temptations, we need to learn how to deal effectively with these urges and not let them derail us from acting in accordance with our goals. One effective strategy to make this happen is called ‘urge surfing’.
If you’ve ever sat on a beach, you’ve probably noticed the waves coming and going. A wave starts off small and builds gently. Then it gradually gathers speed and grows bigger. It keeps growing and moving forward until it reaches a peak, known as a crest. Then, once the wave has crested, it gradually subsides. The same happens with urges. They start off small, steadily increase in size until they crest, and then subside.
Urge surfing is a simple but effective mindfulness technique in which you treat your urges like waves and “surf” them until they dissipate. Instead of struggling with your urges, you simply watch them, stay with them, and make peace with them until they dissolve. The key is to mindfully observe your urges until they go away all by themselves.
So, next time you experience the urge to go on Facebook, play video games, watch TV, or procrastinate in any other way, simply watch the urge in a curious and non-judgmental way. Don’t act on it, don’t struggle with – simply observe the bodily sensations and the accompanying thoughts until they disappear. Then, take effective action.
Part 4: Long-Term Solutions
Welcome to the last section where we’ll discuss some of the long-term strategies for overcoming procrastination. These are tactics that may take some time to take full effect. They’re not necessarily going to be helpful in the short-term, but will make all the difference in the long-term.
If you’re a chronic procrastinator and/or are serious about overcoming this dreadful habit, then this section is of major importance to you.
I can tell you from first-hand experience that combining these strategies makes all the difference for me, not only in terms of procrastination, but also in terms of productivity, happiness, and general well-being.
28. Grow Your Self-Control Muscle
Procrastination, when we boil it down, is simply a form of self-regulation failure.
You want to study harder, you want to get up earlier, you want to do your taxes on time, you want to meditate daily, you want to exercise more often, you want to do all these great things for yourself. But you can’t get yourself to do it – you don’t have the necessary self-discipline, self-control, willpower, whatever you want to call it. Timothy Pychyl sums it up nicely in Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:
“Procrastination is a form of self-regulation failure. We fail to regulate our behavior to achieve our own goals. We make an intention to act, but we do not use the self-control necessary to act when intended… There are many types of self-regulation problems, including problem gambling, overeating, reckless spending, and drinking too much. Procrastination is best understood as a problem like these – a problem with our self-regulation.”
So yeah, that’s procrastination in a nutshell. We want to do X, but we fail to regulate our behavior and procrastinate instead.
(Note: I mentioned a couple of times in this guide that procrastination is an emotion regulation problem. Now I’m saying it’s a self-regulation problem? What’s going on here? Well, both are true. Emotion regulation is an important piece of the self-regulation puzzle – if we can’t regulate our emotions, we fail to control our behavior.)
If we want to stop procrastinating so much in the future, one long-term solution is obvious: we need to become more self-disciplined. So, how do we do it? How do we grow our self-control muscle?
Interestingly, the key to more willpower is willpower itself. Research has found that self-control is like a muscle that grows stronger after use. The more you apply self-control in your life – to exercise, to sit up straight, to wash the dishes, to clean your room, to meditate – the bigger your overall self-control becomes. Self-discipline begets self-discipline. So, what are some of the best ways to give your willpower a good workout? According to research, it’s meditation, deep breathing exercises, and physical exercise. In general, the best way to boost your self-control is to live a life of discipline, as we’ll discuss in strategy #33.
29. Optimize Your Energy: Nutrition, Exercise, and Sleep
What’s the #1 reason people give for procrastinating? Dr. Piers Steel gives the answer in The Procrastination Equation:
“Whether tiredness is drug-induced or not, being too tired is the number-one reason given for procrastinating; 28 percent of people claim, ‘Didn’t have enough energy to begin the task’ as the cause… Fatigue increases task-aversion, saps interest, and makes the difficult excruciating.”
Think about it in your own life. When are you most likely to procrastinate – when you are full of energy or when you’re dead tired after a long day’s work? Research shows that self-control is intricately linked with energy. People with chronic or temporary energy deficiencies (e.g. diabetics or other people with impaired glucose tolerance), do worse in self-control studies. One study, for example, found below-average glucose levels in 90 percent of juvenile delinquents taken into custody.
Clearly, optimizing your energy lies at the core of overcoming procrastination. The best way to maximize your energy levels is by optimizing the three fundamentals of eating, moving, and sleeping. Eating well, moving regularly, and sleeping well will not only give you more energy, but will also increase your overall self-control and positively impact any other areas in your life.
Take exercise for instance. Kelly McGonigal mentions just some of its benefits in her book The Willpower Instinct:
“Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. For starters, the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and smokers with cigarettes. The long-term effects of exercise are even more impressive. It not only relieves ordinary, everyday stress, but it’s as powerful an antidepressant as Prozac. Working out also enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart rate variability and training the brain. When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter—brain cells—and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other. Physical exercise—like meditation—makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect.”
Impressive, huh? Exercising regularly, getting high quality sleep, and eating healthy are absolute musts if you want to live optimally, be more productive, and procrastinate less.
30. Grow Your Self-Compassion
I’ll keep this short because I have already written an entire article explaining how self-criticism leads to more procrastination in the future, while self-compassion leads to less procrastination in the future.
In a nutshell, self-compassionate people procrastinate less because they experience less fear of failure – they’re not afraid of beating themselves up or being overly critical. If they fail, they take it as data, forgive themselves for any stupid mistakes, and move on with their lives. This lack of fear of failure results in less self-sabotaging and allows them to risk more and take more action.
I believe self-compassion is directly correlated with procrastination. The more self-compassionate you become, the less you’ll struggle with procrastinating. So, how do you grow your self-compassion muscle? I suggest doing two things:
First, get in the habit of forgiving yourself after an act of procrastination. This is essentially what we talked about in strategy #18. When you catch yourself procrastinating, refrain from being overly self-critical and giving yourself a mental beating. Instead, acknowledge that it happened and forgive yourself. After all, this stuff happens to all of us. It’s natural. You’re working on it and you’ll get better at it. No need to get all self-critical. Resolve to do better next time.
Second, actively develop your self-compassion. Forgiving yourself for procrastinating is a great start and will undoubtedly help you become more self-compassionate. But you can do more. Resolve to become a genuinely self-compassionate person. Not only will it help you procrastinate less, it will make you happier, healthier, and more successful as well. You can check out my previous articles for lots of practical ways to grow your self-compassion. Oh, and the next strategy has been proven to grow your self-compassion muscle as well!
31. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
Like I said so many times before, procrastination is largely an emotion management issue. It always comes down to the moment of facing an uncomfortable task. One part of us wants to do it; the other part doesn’t want to experience negative thoughts and emotions and wants to run away.
We can either regulate our emotions – we let them be there, and act in spite of them. OR we can let our emotions and thoughts run the show – we run away, give in to feeling good, and procrastinate.
It always comes down to that moment. We can either do the thing (whether we feel like it or not!) or run away.
Clearly, if we want to overcome procrastination in the long-run, we need to get better at this. We need to get better at regulating our emotions. We need to be able to take action and follow through with our plans despite experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. So, how do we get better at it? How do we loosen the grip our thoughts and emotions have on us?
The prime strategy for making that happen is mindfulness, a skill mainly developed through meditation, defined by the dictionary as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.’
Mindfulness allows us to take a step back, watch our thoughts and emotions from a healthy distance, and remain more or less indifferent to them. It allows us to see our negative emotions without freaking out and overreacting to them. Put differently, it allows us to be with our emotions, to experience them fully within our body, and take constructive action in spite of them.
Mindfulness puts us back in the driver’s seat, instead of being unconsciously run by our thoughts and emotions. In my opinion, it’s the most important skill we can ever learn in our lives. And when it comes to long-term procrastination solutions, there’s nothing more effective.
Timothy Pychyl, a leading procrastination expert, explains perfectly how mindfulness reduces procrastination by improving our emotion regulation and self-control capacities in one of his articles:
“What I want to emphasize and make clear in this post is that effective self-regulation relies on emotion regulation, and this emotion regulation in turn relies on mindfulness. There is clear evidence that mindfulness is related to less procrastination (including a thesis that is just wrapping up in my research group now).”
I can tell you from my own experience that mindfulness makes a huge difference. It makes me more aware of thoughts, emotions, urges, excuses, and drives, allowing me to consciously choose to react to them or not. It lets me push negative emotions into the background of my awareness while I’m doing what needs to get done.
In addition to that, mindfulness has been shown to improve self-control, make people less self-critical, and reduce feelings of guilt – all factors that help us procrastinate less. I could go on endlessly about the benefits of mindfulness, but suffice to say, it’s one of the most important strategies for overcoming procrastination and living a healthier and happier life. If you want to learn more about mindfulness as a way to beat procrastination, check out my full article on it here.
32. Find Work You Love
We procrastinate on stuff we don’t enjoy doing. It’s like I said earlier: the more aversive a task, the more likely we are to procrastinate on it.
If you can find work you truly love, procrastination will become a non-issue (concerning that work). You will feel intrinsically motivated and you will find yourself wanting to work. Imagine you were a professional online gamer – you wouldn’t procrastinate on getting up in the morning and playing, would you?
According to Dr. Piers Steel, finding work you love is a major step towards avoiding procrastination. He writes in The Procrastination Equation:
“Finding work you want to do is a major step towards avoiding procrastination. Being intrinsically motivated by your job means you are rewarded simply by doing it; no need to delay gratification here. This combination can make work almost addictive; motivation shows upwards stratospherically, souping up creativity, learning and persistence.”
Obviously, finding work you truly love and feel intrinsically motivated to pursue may not be possible for everyone. It also takes a lot of effort to set up one’s life in a way that allows for that to happen. But if it’s at all possible for you, it’s worth the effort.
Keep in mind as well, however, that you still want to work on your self-control muscle, get the fundamentals right, and overall live a disciplined life…
33. Live a Disciplined Life
You’re not going to like this, but here’s the ultimate long-term fix for procrastination: live a disciplined life.
Eat healthy, exercise regularly, meditate daily, prioritize sleep. Make your bed every morning, clean your room once a week, take cold showers. Stop wasting hours of your day watching TV, playing video games, goofing off on social media, or reading the news. Read books, watch TED talks, or listen to audiobooks instead.
Living a disciplined life accomplishes two things. First, eating healthy, exercising regularly, meditating, and prioritizing sleep have all been shown individually to reduce procrastination. Likewise, reducing the amount of time you spend watching TV, playing video games, or otherwise wasting your time, will also help you procrastinate less.
Second, living a disciplined life is the key to developing self-control. You see, here’s the secret to superhuman willpower: self-discipline begets self-discipline. If you act with discipline, you become more disciplined.
This isn’t science fiction, this is rock solid science. Research has shown that engaging in activities that require self-control (e.g. keeping track of what you’re eating or how you’re spending your money, remembering to sit up straight every time you think of it) helps you build your overall self-control muscle.
One study, for example, showed that students assigned to a daily exercise regimen not only improved their physically fitness, but also became more likely to wash the dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, and less likely to waste their money on impulse purchases. Roy Baumeister, a leading researcher in this field, explains it perfectly in his book Willpower:
“Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life. They smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol. They kept their homes cleaner. They washed dishes instead of leaving them stacked in the sink, and did their laundry more often. They procrastinated less. They did their work and chores instead of watching television or hanging out with friends first. They ate less junk food, replacing their bad eating habits with healthier ones.”
Self-discipline begets self-discipline.
Here’s a humbling prediction: Unless you’re willing to live a disciplined life, you will always, always, always struggle with procrastination, until the end of your life. That’s my opinion.
If you’re fine with procrastination stealing your time and killing your dreams, that’s cool. But if you’re not, then start building your self-control muscle by living a disciplined life. Not only will it help you procrastinate less, it will open up a whole new world of possibilities for you. Self-control is the secret sauce; it’s what winners are made of.
After researching these strategies and getting heavily into the science of procrastination, I figured it might help people to know some of the underlying skills that can be useful in overcoming procrastination in the long-run.
So, apart from the specific strategies, here are some general ideas to keep in mind if you’re serious about overcoming procrastination.
- Anything that improves self-control, self-discipline, self-regulation, willpower, whatever you call it, is likely to help with procrastination. So, learning about self-control (which is in and of itself a huge topic) and ways to improve it will be beneficial in overcoming procrastination. I will be writing a lot about self-control in the future, so stay tuned for more on that.
- Anything that improves emotional intelligence is also likely to help with procrastination. Like I said many times in this guide, procrastination is largely an emotion management issue. Anything that helps you improve your emotional intelligence will therefore be beneficial in reducing procrastination.
- Anything that enhances your mindfulness skills helps as well. Mindfulness is a key to emotion regulation and self-control. The more mindful you become, the less you’ll struggle with procrastination.
- Anything that makes tasks less aversive and more attractive will help. Whether you use rewards or punishments, create meaning, connect tasks to long-term goals, use public accountability, or find another way to increase the perceived value of a task – it all helps.
- Anything that makes you more aware of the negative consequences of procrastination and more aware of the positive consequences of acting in a timely fashion will help. We are motivated by pain and pleasure, approaching what feels good and avoiding what feels bad. Any ways of increasing the perceived pain of procrastination will help, as will any ways of increasing the perceived pleasure of acting in a timely fashion.
- Anything that improves your energy levels will also help. Self-control and procrastination are directly linked to your energy. The more energy you have available, the less you’ll tend to procrastinate.
- If you struggle with distractions and temptations, obviously getting a grip on those will help. We have discussed six strategies to resist and reduce the impact of temptations in this article. Obviously, there are many more, and if you’re struggling with addictive patterns, learning more about that will be hugely beneficial.
Anything that helps you get started, helps you reduce overwhelm, helps you grow your self-compassion will also be beneficial. I could go on, but you get the point.
The key skills to focus on are self-control, mindfulness, and emotion regulation. If you improve those, you’ll get much better at reducing procrastination.
Procrastination is nothing else but wasting time. Instead of doing the things we deeply care about, we spend our time on trivialities; wasting hours on social media, in front of the TV, reading gossip, playing video games.
We waste time like nothing else, failing to realize that time is arguably our most precious and least renewable resource. The great Stoic philosopher Seneca puts it perfectly:
“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
“You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!”
Stop putting things off into a future that may never come. The time to start living is now. Start pursuing your dreams and aspirations now. Start working on your legacy now. Start becoming the person you wish to be now.
After all, tomorrow never comes and you’ll be dead soon enough.
What are you waiting for?
Aaaaand, that seems to be all. Now I’d love to hear from you, what are your personal stories of procrastination? What are your best strategies to get motivated and beat this dreadful habit?
Leave a comment below, and as always, thanks for reading!
Oh, and don’t forget to grab the free checklist and PDF version of this guide.