In our goal-driven society, most people want to get a lot done. The multi-million-dollar productivity market is full of apps, books, and other products to help us maximize our days and enjoy that feel-good moment of accomplishment. The only problem is the persistent bane of our productive existence: procrastination. Everyone procrastinates — some more than others. And in this age of constant notifications and instant gratification, it’s painfully easy to procrastinate.
So, how can we overcome this terrible issue? How can we achieve our ever-growing to-do lists and stop throwing away valuable time on social media, YouTube, or channel-surfing? (Or whatever your vice is.) It all starts with understanding why we procrastinate — then learning some key strategies for getting off our butts and back to work.
- Step 1. Understand The Psychology of Procrastination
- Step 2. Use One (Or More) Proven Techniques
- Step 3. Review and Repeat or Adapt
Step 1. Understand The Psychology of Procrastination
Procrastination may seem like a character flaw, a symptom of laziness, or a horrible compulsion that sucks up your time, but it’s actually none of these. The real reason we procrastinate is quite simple. It’s a way to protect ourselves from fear, whether it’s fear of failure, fear of missing out (FOMO), or fear of encountering our rawest emotions. When we procrastinate, we’re not necessarily bad at time management. In fact, many procrastinators make great use of their time once they get to work. The problem is that it’s just too scary to start, and procrastination is a great way of swapping a daunting situation for one that feels good.
That’s why many procrastinators do things that could be considered productive, such as organizing their closets or answering emails. These tasks reward short-term interests, and it’s no surprise that they leave us feeling satisfied: humans are wired to prioritize immediate needs with easy gains. Sure, these tasks need to be done. A clean house or office is important, but not at the expense of your higher-value work. And unfortunately, that feeling of accomplishment you get from color-coding your notes or sorting your files is short-lived. Once you’ve finished procrastinating, you’re left with even more fear of tackling that scary task, so you start a new round of procrastination.
And so the vicious cycle continues.
We tend to procrastinate when the task at hand taps into deeper fears: feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, or past failure. After all, if your closet goes un-organized, no one gets hurt. But if you fail at your big presentation at work, you could lose a client or even your job. To quell those fears, you procrastinate, waiting until the eleventh hour when panic is enough to get the job done.
The Types of Procrastination
Of course, not all procrastination is alike. Knowing what type of procrastination you do is the first step toward stopping it.
As the name suggests, perfectionist procrastination happens because you’re afraid of your work not being perfect. You may even make some progress on your project, only to have feelings of worthlessness or self-doubt. Perhaps you write a few pages of your novel, then start playing around on Pinterest because you can’t “get it right.” Or perhaps you don’t even start, opting instead for “quick wins” that help you avoid those feelings of insecurity.
If you simply have too much on your plate, you’ll likely find low-effort, easy-reward things to do instead. Sometimes, you may tackle your easy tasks and leave your hard work for later. Other times, you may just run and hide. Either way, the pleasure of avoiding your responsibilities is quickly replaced by further anxiety about all that you have to do.
Busy-bees may seem like they’ve escaped the pain of procrastination. They’re getting a lot done, right? Ironically, busy-bees are often some of the top procrastinators. They’re essentially stacking their to-do lists with unimportant tasks to occupy their time. This conveniently fills up the day so they don’t have to do their more meaningful yet scarier work.
Sometimes, you procrastinate because you simply don’t have a plan of action. This is especially common if your work is of a creative or innovative nature. When there are no guidelines in place, you’re much more likely to simply do something else, keeping your scary task on your wishlist instead of actually tackling it.
Step 2. Use One (Or More) Proven Techniques
No one deserves to live with a feeling of perpetual failure. Unfortunately, procrastinators create their own hell, struggling to overcome negative feelings and falling behind on their goals. To stop procrastinating and start getting things done, you can use one or more of these psychological tricks to quell your fears.
The field of psychology has tons of information about how reward schemes can motivate behavior, but in short, they work. You don’t have to be a rat in a maze to want to get the cheese. Try pairing up your dreaded task with a simple yet valuable reward. Perhaps if you get your top three tasks done in a week, you treat yourself to pizza and a movie on Saturday night. Just be sure that you don’t make basic self-care your reward; if you deprive yourself, it defeats the purpose of incentivizing hard work. Use a goal-oriented planner such as Panda Planner and/or have an accountability buddy to keep yourself on track.
If enticing yourself with a reward doesn’t work, you may need to promise yourself a loss. Again, don’t deprive yourself of key routines such as time to relax and unwind. Instead, choose a specific action that you do not want to do, and commit yourself to do it if you don’t finish your task. This replaces the fear you have about the scary task with a greater fear: what will happen if you don’t finish the task. An accountability partner is crucial to this tactic. Use a program such as ActionBuddy to set up your “negative rewards.”
Most people don’t set goals the right way. They make a general list of what they want to achieve, then file it away in a dusty drawer. To ensure that your goals come to fruition, you must be quite specific about them. This helps you feel more in control and less anxious about tackling those goals. A good approach is the SMART Goal framework. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. When you write your goals with each of these characteristics, you overcome the sources of anxiety that you associate with the work. Knowing when, how, why, and to what extent you will do something gives you a feeling of confident control rather than vague panic.
The Eisenhower Matrix
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list, you need a way to reliably prioritize your tasks. Once that’s done, you’ll automatically feel more capable of tackling your work — and less likely to procrastinate. The Eisenhower Matrix is a fantastic tool for quickly sorting your work. It forces to separate urgent tasks — those that have to be done within a certain time, no questions asked — from important ones, i.e. those with a greater impact but don’t have to be done right this minute. Many tasks are neither urgent nor important, and surprise, surprise, those are the ones that procrastinators tend to do instead of their real work. Try posting the Eisenhower Matrix above your work area for quick assessments of every task on your list.
Refine Your Task List
Still not able to break free from procrastination? Your task list might be the problem. Many people keep their to-dos fairly broad and vague, e.g. “write a book.” This is obviously a huge amount of work, and we know it. When we see it taking up one tiny line on our to-do list, we panic. It may seem counterintuitive, but it is much more effective to break out big tasks into many smaller tasks. Think of it as a huge meal placed before you: it’s not as overwhelming if you remember that you’re taking only one bite at a time. Don’t be afraid to break down your big project into super-manageable tasks. Your anxiety will thank you.
Eat the Frog
Mark Twain famously said, “If your job is to eat a frog, eat it first thing in the morning, and if your job is to eat two frogs, eat the big one first.” Gross, but effective. Let’s face it: some work is unpleasant. Even if we’re not feeling anxious or insecure about a task or worried about failing, there are some things we just don’t want to know. Twain advises doing this nasty task first thing in the day. If you commit to “eating the frog,” you’ll remove a lot of your temptation to procrastinate and will probably get more done overall. By contrast, if you keep putting off that frog, you’ll probably put off other tasks as well and end up getting nothing done. So dive right in every morning and eat that frog!
Procrastinators often feel a compulsion to do anything but the scary task, and with easy access to social media, email, and other distractions, it’s all too convenient to do those instead. If nothing else works and you simply have zero self-control, it’s time to take more drastic measures. Try using your phone’s screen-time controls to limit your access to social media apps and games — or better yet, delete them completely. Use an app such as RescueTime to block your ability to visit distracting websites or programs on your computer. In fact, you should maintain a separate digital workspace and uninstall any apps that you use to procrastinate. Leave your phone in another room. Studies show that the more obstacles you throw up for yourself, the more you need to get your work done will prevail.
Step 3. Review and Repeat or Adapt
Don’t stop after Step 2! Without reviewing your week and learning from the mistakes, you might not maximise the benefits of the chosen technique. This is one of the main reasons why ActionBuddy has weekly check-ins.
At the end of the day, you don’t want to feel like you’ve gotten nothing done. That sets you up for feelings of failure and stress the following day, and you continue to turn to procrastination to cope with the anxiety. Long-term procrastinators end up crafting elaborate schemes to overcome these negative feelings, such as by piling on meaningless tasks or saying yes to too many projects. By stopping procrastination now, you can start pursuing your daily work with more confidence and control — and you’ll discover more time in the day to do things that make you happy.
If procrastination is self-sabotage, then overcoming procrastination is self-care. You owe it to yourself to identify the reasons for your procrastination and implement some techniques to regain control. Our advice: take it slow and be forgiving of yourself. Many procrastinators have built up these bad habits over years, and you won’t be able to transform your productivity in one day. Just remind yourself that self-reward, loss aversion, proper prioritization, and effective goal-setting are ways to shift your mindset from overwhelmed to empowered. When it comes to stopping procrastination, that’s the primary ingredient of your impending success.