How to Stop Procrastinating
The Cycle of Procrastination
If you want to learn how to stop procrastinating you may find that you’ve gotten caught in the cycle of procrastination. It might start with optimism about what you’re going to get done this time. Gradually it can lead to feeling overwhelmed, guilty paralysis, or even magical thinking. (My future self will have more focus/motivation!) Perhaps you find yourself distracted, taking breaks, getting a snack, or avoiding doing the work that will move you forward and focusing instead on small tasks. If you get caught in the cycle of procrastination you can easily feel discouraged overwhelmed and wonder “what’s wrong with me!”
For many people, the cycle of procrastination is a roller coaster. You might make some progress and feel good about yourself and your goals. Then, as a reward perhaps, you ease up and suddenly things start piling up again. Or perhaps you find yourself procrastinating one project, then suddenly everything has piled up and you feel overwhelmed and unsure of even where to begin. It can become a cycle that wears you down and lead to negative thoughts and feelings. If you ready to learn how to stop procrastinating, read on.
What is the Meaning of Procrastination?
All of us procrastinate on occasion. For some people, it’s a chronic procrastination problem; for others, it’s only a problem in certain life areas. If you want to learn how to stop procrastinating, you must first identify why you procrastinate in the first place.
Procrastination is always frustrating because it results in wasted time, lost opportunities, disappointing work performance, and generally feeling bad about yourself.
When you procrastinate, you allow less important tasks to take up the time and space that should be devoted to more important things. You do things like hanging out with friends when you know that an important work project is due soon, or going shopping instead of doing your homework. It can also be evident in behavior such as talking about trivial things with your partner to avoid discussing important issues in your relationship.
Examples of Procrastination
Most people don’t have a problem finding time for things they want to do. But once they see a task as too difficult, painful, boring, or overwhelming, the procrastination behaviors begin. You are not alone if you have ever made any of the following excuses to yourself:
1. It’s too cold to exercise outside today. I’ll wait until tomorrow when it’s warmer.
2. I’ve got too many other things to do first.
3. I’ll do a better job when I can concentrate on this project.
4. I still have lots of time to get this done.
5. They don’t pay me enough to do a more complete job. This is good enough.
6. This problem is too hard to talk about. I wouldn’t know where to start.
7. I work better under pressure.
8. It’s too noisy to work while my teenager is at home.
9. I should get the shopping down now because the stores will be more crowded later.
10. I can eat this pie tonight, because I’m starting my diet tomorrow.
11. My tooth doesn’t really hurt that much. The pain will probably go away tomorrow.
Most of the time, these excuses seem fairly innocuous. However, they’re not as innocent as they seem, because they cause us to postpone important duties and projects. Ultimately, these excuses can keep us from accomplishing important goals and make us feel bad about ourselves.
Stop Procrastinating by Recognizing When You are Procrastinating
You might not necessarily be aware of the little things you’re procrastinating. Notice if you’re getting distracted, daydreaming, doodling, taking more frequent breaks, snacking more, or working on tasks that aren’t a high priority (and may suddenly feel urgent). Become aware of your favorite procrastination tactics and learn to catch yourself as soon as you “wander off.”
Sometimes, this might mean engaging in behaviors which are less important or completely irrelevant to the task at hand in order to satisfy more immediate needs for comfort. While you may be “busy”, procrastination is often choosing short term rewards over larger, long term ones. Even though you are still working, if you are not focusing or working towards your goals and priorities, it can be a form of procrastination.
When I was studying for my big licensing exam, I recall having the urgent need to polish my silver candlesticks. Uh, yeah, not at all related. Fortunately, it was just a small break and I did pass my exam!
Take some time to observe your own procrastination patterns. Understanding your own triggers, is the first step is overcoming procrastination. See below for common underlying reasons why you might be procrastinating.
Reasons Why People Procrastinate
If you were hoping for a simple answer to this puzzle, you will be disappointed to learn that there are many reasons why people put things off. Here are a few of the most common reasons people procrastinate:
1. Lack of skill or clarity.
Some people procrastinate because they are unsure of their goals or how to do what they need to do. To beat this type of procrastination, reach out for support or spend some time on goal setting activities. You may also need help boosting executive functioning skills, especially if you struggle with ADHD.
2. Avoiding discomfort.
Wanting to avoid pain makes lots of people shift into procrastination mode. However, the longer we delay, the worse the uncomfortable problem usually becomes. The rash gets bigger, the tooth hurts more, or the brakes squeak even more loudly.
Perfectionism is built upon unrealistic attitudes and beliefs.Those who believe they must produce the perfect report may obsess about uncovering every last information source and then write draft after draft. Their search for the perfect product takes up so much time that they miss their deadline. If you equate your self-worth with high performance, then procrastination protects you against the risk of failure.
When things aren’t perfect, you might fear that others will judge you as inadequate or perhaps you judge yourself as a failure. The fear of being less than perfect can be so strong as to prevent you from taking action on what matters to you. Perhaps deep inside you believe you are imperfect and thus hide this “truth” via procrastinating. The solution is to replace “all or nothing” thinking with a recognition that you have multiple attributes, that your self-worth is not tied to your accomplishments.
4. Thinking you’re not good enough.
Some people are certain that they are incompetent. They think that they will fail, and procrastinate to avoid ever putting their skills to the test.
If you second-guess yourself, you probably suffer from procrastination. You may avoid new challenges and opportunities unless you are certain that you will succeed. Perhaps you make feeble attempts to begin a project, and you tell yourself that you could do a better job if you put in more effort.
At the other end of the spectrum, many people who work excessively also fall into this category. They drive themselves ruthlessly, fearing that if they stop working, they will not be able to start again. Most self-doubters are driven by the belief that they must meet strict standards in order to see themselves as successful.
7. Need for love.
If you feel that people will accept you only if you perform well, then procrastination protects you from the risk of rejection.
8. Anticipating the worst.
If you can only imagine disaster as an outcome of your performance, then procrastination protects you from anxiety.
If you judge yourself too harshly, then procrastination protests you from self-hating guilt and shame.
If you feel overwhelmed, immobilized and helpless to perform, then procrastination protects you from hopelessness.
If you are disappointed in your demands on life, if you feel spiteful toward teachers or parents or bosses and fail to meet their expectations, procrastination is a means of rebellion.
12. Fear of failure.
Fear of failure ultimately assumes, “What I produce is a direct reflection of how much ability I have.” From this perspective, ability = self worth, production = self worth, and self worth = ability = performance. As long as you procrastinate, you’ll never have to confront the “limits” of your ability.
Ultimately, it’s easier to see oneself as lazy, disorganized, or uncooperative than inadequate or unworthy. If you’re disorganized, you could theoretically “get organized”. If you believe that you are inadequate, it can’t be changed so it’s better to avoid facing it. To stop procrastinating, you can recognize that your belief about yourself isn’t true and find healthier and more accurate beliefs about yourself.
13. Fear of Success.
The belief systems that underlie fear of success are, “I’m not worth it”, or “Where do I go from here?”. I’m not worth it assumes that you’re not deserving. It can sound like, “who do you think you are?” “Where do I go from here” might ultimately be a fear of maintaining.
You might feel as if you’re an imposter. Though you might be successful if you worked really hard, you might believe it would take too much energy to maintain that success and continue to meet everyone’s expectations. It might sound like, “if I were actually to lose weight then I’d have to maintain it, others would expect that of me and I’d only end up disappointing everyone.”
Remember the concept of inertia: a mass at rest tends to stay at rest.
For some reason, it is more difficult for most humans to start change than to keep it going.
Why Don’t We Just Say No?
Since procrastination produces mostly negative outcomes, why don’t we just change our behavior and eliminate these undesirable consequences? The reason for this is that procrastination reinforces itself. For some reason, it is more difficult for most humans to start change than to keep it going.
We avoid getting started by cleverly diverting our attention from the things we really should be doing. We do something else instead or make up a story about how we will accomplish the task in the future—when we are inspired, or when we have completed a preliminary step, or some other trick.
Although recognizing how these diversions work won’t automatically cure your procrastination, being aware of it is a good place to start working on the problem. Once you are aware of your triggers and the ways that you procrastinate, you can start to change your behavior. Begin to beat procrastination by thinking about which causes apply to you and writing down examples of these behaviors as you observe them.
How to Stop Procrastinating:
Below are several specific, concrete things you can do to stop procrastinating. Choose several suggestions and put them into practice. If these activities work, keep on with them; if not, try different ones. Persist.
1. Set Specific Goals
The most effective goals are specific, measurable, and achievable. An example of a good goal is, “I will buy paint on Friday and paint the living room on Saturday.” This is better than saying, “I am going to get the house ready to sell.”
2. Set Priorities to Achieve Your Goals
Write down all the things that you need to do to accomplish your goal, and place them in order of importance. The most important tasks belong at the top of the list and the distractions go at the bottom. Start at the top of your list and work your way down. Select one task as your priority to focus on. If you have multiple goals, prioritize them first.
3. Organize Your Work
Avoid procrastinating by setting up a system for yourself. Look at your task and break it down into small discrete parts, sub-tasks you can do in small amounts of time: 5 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, etc. List in order the first three to five sub-tasks you need to complete to begin making progress on your task. (Do this the night before so you can start your day with clarity).
Get a weekly calendar and plan right now, when you will do these tasks this week: schedule these tasks into your week.
Check things off as you complete them. When you are working on a project, lay out all of the needed supplies or materials before you begin. Clear your desk so you can focus.
4. Divide and Conquer
Sometimes a project is overwhelming if you think about all of the work that is involved. Do yourself a favor: Break the activity down into smaller steps and set progress goals for each of the steps. Consider what specific action steps you need to take to accomplish this goal. Each step now can be scheduled as a goal/task to accomplish.
When I organized my office, I set the smaller goal to do one file per day. I could manage one file per day instead of the bigger project, all my files, which felt too overwhelming. Achieving these smaller goals also made me feel more accomplished and motivated as I went along.
Set priorities among these tasks. Mark each one off as you complete it…and reward yourself.
Start with the most unpleasant task—to get it over with—and work down until you get to the easier ones.
5. Schedule a Small Amount of Time & Do a Little Bit Each Day
Tell yourself that you will only spend ten minutes on the task right now, just to get your feet wet. Work on the task for the ten minutes and then choose whether to continue for ten more minutes. Set a timer if you like. Continue doing this until you decide to stop, or when you are finished with the task. If you stop working on the task before it is finished, spend a few more minutes to plan a strategy for the next steps.
Do something daily on your project, even if it is only for 5 minutes. Write down two or three things you can do toward your task which you can accomplish in 5 minutes and then do one of them.
Research shows that PhD students who work on their dissertation (a major project!) a little bit at a time accomplish it faster than those who work in long stretches of time. This applies to writing a book or any other major project. The key is to do just a little bit each day instead of saving things up for “when I have time.” You’ll stop procrastinating and accomplish things faster if you work on it consistently and regularly vs blocking off days and waiting until then to work on the task.
6. Reward Yourself
When you are tempted to substitute a fun but unimportant activity (such as reading a magazine or watching Youtube videos) for an important project (such as finishing pages of your report), decide on a reward for doing the important task. Do the high-priority job first and reward yourself with the fun activity.
Just do something that fills you back up (generally these are things that are soothing, calming, connecting, playful and not mindless activities). You will have to watch out for slipping into not doing anything for a longer amount of time and having things pile up again. Choosing activities that rejuvenate you vs numbing activities such as excessive TV watching will help keep you out this trap.
Reinforcement is a very effective way to motivate yourself. When you complete even the most minor task, be sure to acknowledge what you have done. This is especially important in the beginning when you are struggling with procrastination behaviors. After you have mastered these issues and have regained your peak productivity, don’t forget to celebrate the completion of the big projects. You worked hard for it and shouldn’t take it for granted.
7. Take Action!
When it comes time to do your task and you are tempted to procrastinate, make yourself sit down for 5 minutes and think about what you are about to do. Envision the emotional and physical consequences of procrastinating—and of following through on your plan to work. After you think this over, go ahead and do what you judge best…with no apologies or second thoughts!
Imagine how you would behave in the next hour or day if you were NOT procrastinating. Get a clear picture in your mind—and then act out that role, Pretend, for the next hour or day, that you are not procrastinating. When you are done, evaluate your “acting”: did you do a good job? How did it feel?
8. Do it When You Think of It
When you feel an impulse to work on your project, follow up on it. Do it at the moment you think of it and keep at it until you don’t feel like it anymore. Do something daily. Don’t let it pile up!
9. Remind Yourself
Write notes to yourself and post them in conspicuous places. Leave them where you will see them—on places like the outside of your bag, the bathroom mirror, refrigerator, television, your front door, and the dashboard of your car. The more often you remind yourself of what you plan to accomplish, the more likely it is that you will follow through with action.
10. Break Inertia
Do something small to start. Just get started! Say you’ve been procrastinating exercise. Start with 10 minutes of activity – a brief walk around the neighborhood. That’s it. Don’t expect more of yourself or judge 10 minutes as not good enough. The key is just to get started with something very small to break the procrastination cycle. When you get going, keep going even if it involves switching tasks. To stop procrastinating, take some action vs no action.
11. Change Your Environment & Eliminate Distractions
Change the environment to make it more conducive to working. Move yourself to a more conducive environment.
Recognize when something is actually a distraction. It can be easy to say, “I have to do this” when perhaps it can actually wait and you’re using that task as a distraction. It also helps to clear your work area. Sometimes, when I need to focus on a particular project, I may even leave my work area completely as other “work” can easily become a distraction. When I’m surrounded only by my project, it can help me stay focused on the task at hand. If you feel overly disorganized, you may want to consider hiring a professional organizer to help you manage your space as disorganization can lead to sabotage and fatigue.
12. Recharge Your Brain Before You Start
Stretch, take some deep breaths, do a few jumping jacks, or get outside briefly. Reset your brain before you get started so you have the energy and concentration to focus and persist with your task. Our brain needs to recharge in order to handle difficult tasks. Overcoming procrastination is a difficult task so prep your brain before you start.
13. Visualize Success
Imagine yourself being successful with accomplishing your goal. Focus on your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Visualize yourself coping successfully with feared situations or procrastination triggers. Pay attention to the coping skills you used.
14. Increase Pleasure & Relaxation in General
If you are struggling with procrastination, you may think you are already doing this. However, if you don’t have a regular and consistent source of pleasure and relaxation in your daily life, procrastination may be your attempt to take a break. It can become a vicious circle if you avoid relaxation due to guilt over procrastination. Ensure you have some protected time where you don’t have pressure to get things done. And add pleasure to your daily life!
15. Build Confidence
Do things you are afraid of to see that you can cope.
16. Set Realistic Expectations
These strategies on how to stop procrastinating are not an immediate cure. It takes time to build this muscle in your brain. And practice, practice, practice. Be patient with yourself. Expect some backsliding. And most important celebrate your successes instead of focusing on your failures.
Ward Off Self-Defeating Thoughts
What we say to ourselves affects our behavior, our beliefs and our feelings. A big part of learning how to stop procrastinating is about recognizing how you talk to yourself internally.
You might use words like “should”, “need” and “ought to” which tend to generate anxiety because they imply some shortcoming. Underlying the statement, “I should be able to meet the deadline” is “but I may not be able to.” Using “want” instead can reduce the emotional intensity attached to “should” statements.
Distortions in thinking such as labeling one’s self or behavior can also support procrastination. If you label yourself as a procrastinator you are more likely to behave accordingly. Labeling others or the situation can also affect your behavior; for example, “this isn’t going to impact me much anyway,” “they’re not going to appreciate my work,” “they shouldn’t expect this from me anyway.”
Telling yourself that you are going to do a poor job or even fail can seriously undermine your ability to function. It is important to realize that your negative statements are not facts. Keep your focus on the present moment and the positive steps you can take toward accomplishing your goals. If these thoughts are based on a need for perfection or low self-esteem, you may want to work on these issues.
Then think of some things to say to yourself that you trust to be true and not rationalization that, (1) direct you toward your goal, and (2) encourage you. Focus on reframing your negative thought to something positive or neutral. If you’re afraid of something, what skills can you use to cope? Who can you reach out to for support? What are the consequences of avoiding? What are the consequences of taking action?
Reach out to a therapist for help creating more helpful thoughts through cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Feelings that Contribute to Procrastination
Anxiety, fear and dread are often associated with procrastination. Turning to less urgent but easier and more pleasurable activities is a common method of coping with these feelings. For some people, this might be turning to snacks or food as a way of distracting and taking a break. It is only when the feelings of discomfort reach unbearable levels that the procrastinator acts. Often this means using a large surge of energy to get things done, which leaves the person feeling drained and exhausted afterwards resulting in things piling up all over again.
It can be helpful to talk through your feelings with someone else to release them and find relief. Working with a counselor can help you build new skills for coping with difficult emotions.
Make a Commitment
Make a verbal and written commitment to completing the task or project. Tell someone about your plans and ask them to follow up with you. Let the know you need their support. Reach out and ask for help if you need clarity or skill building.
How will you use this information to improve the quality of your life?
Get Support & Stop Procrastinating
While much of changing procrastination is simply about creating new habits, procrastination can also reflect deeper fears and anxieties about your worth, competency, capabilities and value as a person. These feelings and beliefs are often deep seated, having begun their formation at an early age. It can be difficult to change these beliefs about yourself on your own and often, they are hiding under the surface driving behavior without us even recognizing it.
Overcoming negative beliefs, impulsiveness and unnecessary worry that leads to procrastination takes a lot of practice, patience, and determination. You may have to build new skills if ADHD, anxiety, depression or perfectionism are contributing to your procrastination.
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Techniques to help any busy person get more things done more quickly, without the anxiety and stress brought on by failure to meet the workplace’s pressing deadlines.
Procrastination identifies the reasons we put off tasks—fears of failure, success, control, separation, and attachment—and their roots in our childhood and adult experiences. The authors offer a practical, tested program to overcome procrastination by achieving set goals, managing time, enlisting support, and handling stress.
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