Think back to high school for a moment. The hour is midnight. You’ve spent all evening texting your friends, playing video games, or daydreaming about your favorite celebrity. You’ve known the whole time that a 3k-word essay about The Space Race is due tomorrow, and what you’ve written so far will definitely not fetch a passing grade.
So what do you do? You sacrifice a few hours of sleep to speed-type your way to a final draft. When your paper comes back with a decent grade, it is proof that you simply work best when under pressure.
This, however, is procrastination in action. But it isn’t just high schoolers who are subject to procrastination’s persuasive grasp. Anyone, regardless of age, career, or education can be prone to putting tasks off to the final minute. And, since they have a wide range of responsibilities, entrepreneurs are especially at risk.
What is procrastination?
Everyone avoids projects or activities they don’t want to do sometimes. But those who repeatedly put off necessary tasks may seek other, often unproductive ways to occupy their time.
Procrastination is the act of needlessly avoiding, delaying, or postponing required tasks or responsibilities.
Whether you know you tend to procrastinate or are blind to its influence in your life, use this guide to learn how to become more productive in your personal and professional life.
How to stop procrastinating
If you were to ask your friends, family, or colleagues how they stop procrastinating, you’re likely to get a range of responses. That’s because everyone works a little differently and the tools they use will vary.
While figuring out what works best for you requires some trial and error, here are nine tips to get you started.
Physical productivity strategies
Change your environment
If your workspace is cluttered, noisy, or just not working for you, switching up your location can get you back in the zone. Consider reducing the number of physical distractions on your desk such as stacks of paper, sticky notes on your monitor, or open apps on your phone.
In today’s hybrid world, eliminating household and office noise can be a challenge. Consider investing in some noise-canceling headphones or find a quieter space. If all else fails, pack up your stuff and go. Head over to your favorite coffee shop, park bench, or a peaceful corner of the office where the noise and light conditions meet your preferences.
Use the Nothing Alternative
A common theme among procrastinators is that they waste time on unproductive alternate tasks. In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney suggest the Nothing Alternative.
The authors argue that forcing yourself to either complete the task at hand or sit there and do nothing will force you to get to work. Doing nothing is a complete waste of time, and that’s the whole point. By removing the temptation of checking Instagram or scrolling through the news, you’ll be encouraged to get to work instead.
Rewards aren’t just for children who finish their chores. Adults can also leverage the power of rewards to push past procrastination. Next time you finish a job you’ve been putting off, consider giving yourself a treat by going for a nice walk or picking up something from your favorite bakery.
Whatever your reward may be, the small act of self-appreciation can go a long way when crossing off items on your to-do list.
Psychological productivity strategies
Organize your day with time boxing
Take a look at your calendar. Is it cluttered with a patchwork of meetings? Is it wide open? Does it leave you wondering how you’ll ever tackle that big-ticket project? Consider time boxing, a process of setting aside a specific and limited amount of time to complete a task. If you don’t finish your task in the time allotted, you move on to the next project and find time to complete the task in a future allocated time box.
The key to success here is to fill your calendar with specific projects you’re planning to complete and scheduling the right amount of time for them. By committing to the when and where for every task, it’s easier to get right to work at the beginning of the day.
Keep your to-do list short and simple
Procrastinator or not, no one likes the feeling of to-dos piling up. Mallory Choate at Natural Nutrition by Mallory knows this feeling all too well.
“An endless to-do list can make you feel as if you’ve gotten nothing done, even if you’ve accomplished 40 tasks out of the 100 you think you need to do today,” says Choate. “Pick your top 5 priorities for the day and tackle those. You’ll feel way more accomplished at the end of the day once you complete them all!”
Establish a framework
Starting a new project or a responsibility that’s outside your wheelhouse can be both exciting and daunting. You might be eager to get going, but have no idea where to begin. Thus begins the procrastination.
To avoid this trap, establish a framework for tackling new tasks. For example, you could document three ways you might approach this assignment and make a list of questions or requirements that you’ll need answers to before you begin. Breaking down a big goal into smaller, more manageable items will help you see progress more easily.
Shift your focus
Similar to the Nothing Alternative, changing your focus can help reignite your energy and boost your productivity. Instead of doing nothing, shift your attention to another project that is easier to accomplish or more interesting at the moment.
Beyond helping you get stuff done, shifting your focus can also help relieve stress and anxiety.
Emotional productivity strategies
Everyone has procrastinated before, and will likely procrastinate again in the future. It can be easy to slip into a negative mindset and ask questions like “Why am I like this?” or “What is wrong with me?” These thoughts are not helpful and will only hurt your mental health and productivity.
Use self-compassion to overcome moments of unproductivity. Tell yourself “I realize I’ve put this task off, but I can get through it,” or “I’m proud of how many tasks I have accomplished today.” Whatever mantra works for you, remember to fill yourself with positive thoughts and emotions.
Use a challenger mindset
No matter how gifted you are, there will always come a task, project, or assignment that challenges your talents. This is where procrastination can rear its ugly head and test all the skills you’ve built to overcome obstacles.
A challenger mindset sees obstacles as opportunities to grow and learn. This small shift in perspective can help pull you out of a negative emotional state when you face something difficult that you’d rather avoid.
Why do people procrastinate
Why can’t I stop procrastinating?
Despite how procrastination might feel, it has nothing to do with laziness. Chronically putting things off is usually tied to your emotional state. An academic study discovered that procrastination is a byproduct of one’s inability to repair and regulate their emotions.
You may be asking yourself, “So, I’m just putting things off because I’m in a bad mood?” Effectively, yes! It can be difficult to stop procrastinating because of the negative emotions associated with the project at hand or chronic conditions like anxiety and depression that cast a negative shadow on your day-to-day life.
Procrastination and your health
While avoiding a task here and there might not be a big deal, chronic procrastination can have serious negative health implications.
In their book Procrastination, Health, and Wellbeing, editors Fuschia Sirois and Timothy Pychyl compile decades of research to investigate the correlation between procrastination and personal health. They demonstrate that procrastinators are less likely to seek preventative health, are at higher risk for increased stress, and consequently suffer more health problems.
Procrastination and anxiety
Two health conditions that are commonly associated with procrastination are anxiety and depression. When we feel anxious about something, the urge to avoid it is natural. However, for folks who suffer from this chronic nervous disorder, procrastination and anxiety can be a crippling one-two punch.
The same is true for people who suffer from depression. Studies show that these medical conditions can significantly contribute to procrastination cycles or chronic and compounding procrastination.
The largest contributing factors to people who both procrastinate and suffer from anxiety and/or depression include ruminating and reduced mindfulness and self-compassion. Ruminating, or engaging in repetitive negative thoughts, can worsen your procrastination. Furthermore, continuously putting tasks off can add more fuel to your rumination fire.
Self-compassion is the key. If you have a mental health disorder or are actively trying to improve your mental health, be warm and understanding to yourself during times of failure and unhappiness. And, of course, always seek advice from a trained medical professional.