Before we get into how to tackle procrastination, let's consider whether it's really a cause for concern. Isn't procrastination okay for some people? Isn't it just a benign habit? After all, even procrastinators get some work done. And it could be argued that procrastinating helps you work. Leaving everything until the last minute has a way of focusing the mind.
Some productivity experts even argue that procrastination helps productivity. Even if you're not doing what you should be doing, they argue, you're doing something. So everything works out in the end.
The problem is, research doesn't back this up.
One of the earliest studies into how procrastination affects productivity was conducted in 1997. Psychologists at Case Western Reserve University tracked students for a full semester. They looked at the academic performance, health, and stress levels of the students throughout the semester. To begin with, the procrastinators fared better. Because they avoided work, they had lower stress levels. But as the semester progressed, everything switched. The procrastinators got lower average grades and had higher levels of stress and illness.
In other words, procrastination doesn't only hurt your work. It also damages your physical and mental health.
"Despite its apologists and its short-term benefits, procrastination cannot be regarded as either adaptive or innocuous," the study's authors wrote. “Procrastinators end up suffering more and performing worse than other people.”
Around one in five people are chronic procrastinators. For these people, putting things off is integral to their lifestyle. Everything from Christmas shopping to paying bills to filing tax returns is left until the last minute.
If you get to set your own work schedule, then you're even more likely to be a chronic procrastinator. One study in 2007 found that up to 95% of college students procrastinate on a regular basis.
Procrastination hurts. When you're stuck procrastinating, you're extending your working day. What's more, by leaving everything until the last minute, you find yourself frequently diving into emergency mode. Allowing a procrastination habit to invade your professional life can mean you miss opportunities to advance in your career, or worse, you lose your job.
It's such a big problem that procrastination support forums have spring up across the web. As one anonymous procrastinator confesses in a forum:
I still have a job, but I have made a huge mess of things. I can't ever undo the damage I've done in the past, professionally and personally. It's time to accept that and move forward in a resilient, wholehearted way. I can't stop the anxiety, but I can stop running away.
If you have a procrastination problem, it's time you stopped running away, too. Reading this tutorial won't solve everything for you, but it will provide you with various tools to help you keep your procrastination under control.
You can follow the steps of this tutorial in any order. Choose the steps you like, and leave out others. It's important that you do what works for you.
Step 1: Commit to Building Better Habits
Like smoking, overeating, or biting your fingernails, procrastination is a bad habit. You do it unthinkingly—even though you'd prefer not to. Because it's habitual, you'll have to work hard to change it. It's a big commitment to build new habits.
Popular wisdom is that it takes 21 days to build a habit. The truth is a harder pill to swallow. Scientific research shows that it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit, and it can take up to eight months.
Integrating more productive habits into your life will take time and effort. Don't worry if you face setbacks on the journey. A small amount of procrastination is normal. The important thing is that you're progressing and reducing the amount that you procrastinate.
As you make this commitment, it can be helpful to remind yourself of the damage procrastination is causing in your life. Do you recognize any of the following?
- Tasks take longer than they need to. You find yourself spending a full day on work that you know you could have completed in a couple of hours.
- At the end of the day, you feel guilty and exhausted. Procrastination is hard work. It's a bit like driving with the brakes on. You've noticed that goofing off when you should be working uses more energy than just getting on with the task at hand.
- You've become cynical about your dreams, whether they're learning a new language, writing blog posts every week, or starting a business. You believe they're not possible for you because you don't have the commitment.
Once you start to tackle procrastination, these struggles will become a thing of the past.
Step 2: Practice Mindfulness
Procrastination is usually the result of choosing the least bad option. Either you've got to get on with work that you don't enjoy, or you can avoid that work and feel guilty for doing so.
What if instead you could be happy whichever option you chose?
Being mindful is a way of bringing a happy state of mind to whatever you're doing. It involves taking a step back from yourself and becoming aware of the present moment.
Mindfulness helps you stop procrastinating in a few ways:
- It reduces stress and tension. Procrastination is a downward spiral of stress. The more you procrastinate, the more scary it seems to get started on the task you're meant to be doing. Mindfulness reduces your stress levels, helping you break out of this downward spiral.
- It helps you notice yourself procrastinating. That doesn't mean you have to do anything about the fact that you're procrastinating because being mindful is about observing yourself non-judgmentally. But as you notice the patterns you use to avoid work, you'll increase your desire to change.
- Opening up choices and removing guilt. When you procrastinate, you can end up shrouded in guilt. You know you should work, but you resent that "should." As such, your procrastination is a form of rebellion. Mindfulness is non-judgemental. When you're mindful, you take away the "shoulds." This leaves you with a guilt-free choice of whether to work or procrastinate. When guilt is removed from the equation, you'll often find that you're inclined to work rather than delay.
For more tips on being mindful, check out our article How to Be Happy and Get More Done.
Step 3: Stop Being a Finisher
Invisible scripts are the stories we tell ourselves that powerfully influence how we live our lives. Procrastination is the result of many invisible scripts. One of the most powerful scripts for causing procrastination is the I have to finish this script.
You might be raising your eyebrows in surprise right now. Isn't the procrastinator's problem that they don't finish anything? Perhaps for some procrastinators that's the case. But most procrastinators finish tasks that they must do. It's just that they leave things until the last possible moment. This causes them unnecessary stress and means they're not able to give their best.
Procrastinators love to finish tasks. They love to get things done and dusted, out of the way and forgotten. When work's behind them, they can relax guilt-free.
What procrastinators hate is being in the middle of a task. They don't like to get started and stopping halfway through. For a procrastinator, there's no point starting something unless they're going to finish it. That's one of the reasons for leaving everything until the last minute. The deadline gives them an excuse to drop everything and focus completely on the task at hand until it's done.
What can you do to break your "I must finish" script? Instead of being a finisher, become a starter. Change the script to "I can start." Starting doesn't only mean beginning a new project. It can also mean re-starting work on a project you left half finished (or even a quarter finished or 99% finished).
As Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit, writes:
Keep on starting, and finishing will take care of itself.
One way of making starting easier is to never take a break when you're at the end of a section of work or when you're stuck. Always "finish" when you're in the middle of something, and you're performing well. This has two effects. First, it breaks your habit of being a finisher. Second, it means that when you return to the task, you'll find it easy to dive right in.
Step 4: Chunk Your Day by Time Rather than Tasks
One consequence of being a "finisher" is that you think of your working day according to the tasks you must complete. Of course, everyone needs a to-do list. But while you're working to defeat your procrastination habit, it can be helpful to think of your day in time chunks rather than tasks.
One of the simplest ways to do this is to divide your day into 25 minute sections, also called Pomodoros. During each Pomodoro, you set a timer, which helps keep you focused on the task at hand.
We've got an in-depth tutorial on using Pomodoros. You'll also find more ideas for working in chunks in Step 7 below.
Step 5: Use Rituals to Embed Productive Habits
The word "ritual" is often used to describe religious ceremonies, but it also has a broader meaning. A ritual is a set of tasks done in a specific order. As such, something as simple as making a cup of tea can be a ritual.
Rituals can be an excellent way to teach yourself the habit of starting work. You can create a ritual you use every morning before you start work, so that when you follow the ritual, getting started comes naturally.
Writer James Chartrand calls this the "click-whirr" response, named after a psychological phenomenon observed by Robert Cialdini. Cialdini found that rituals or other triggers can activate patterns in our brains. Inspired by Cialdini, Chartrand created a ritual she runs through before sitting down to write every morning. She explains:
Every day, I follow the same, fixed routine. I wake up. I grab a cup of coffee. I sit at the kitchen island and read my email. I wake up my daughter and get her ready for school – iCarly, cereal, clothes, prepare her lunch, brush her hair, walk her to the bus stop. I walk back, breathing deep, feeling grateful and thinking only about the writing task I’ve chosen to work on when I arrive home. I refill my coffee, sit down and – “click!-whirr” – hit the keyboard.
If you observe yourself procrastinating, you'll probably notice that you follow quite a specific ritual, albeit unconsciously. By setting up a new, conscious ritual, you can break the unconscious one.
Step 6: Banish Your Perfectionism
At college, one of my professors offered some profound advice for completing papers, which I still use to this day. He said:
Don't get it right, get it written.
I've since discovered that this aphorism was coined by cartoonist James Thurber. Thurber discovered the secret to beating procrastination and getting work done: stop expecting yourself to be perfect.
No writer likes to ruin the perfection of a blank page. Whatever we write will fall short of what we mean. But still, writers need to write. So instead of aiming for perfection, we just need to start working. This is the case whatever your line of work.
Of course, you should always do a good job. You should do your best with the abilities and resources you have available. But being perfect is an impossible goal. It's a bar you can never jump, no matter how tall your legs grow.
Instead of aiming to be perfect, embrace the principle of good enough. This is a philosophy used by software designers. By creating something "good enough," they have something to work with. Then if they need to, they can make it better.
Step 7: Make Procrastination Impossible
This step is the nuclear option for extreme procrastinators. It's only possible if you're someone who can arrange your own schedule. That said, if you're a chronic procrastinator, it's likely that you have a lot of choice over how you use your time.
You procrastinate when your desire to play trumps your need to get work done. But play while procrastinating is guilty play—it's never as satisfying as relaxing when you know your work for the day is done. Play is something we all need, but for procrastinators, it's become a big problem.
Neil Fiore offers an unlikely but powerful solution in his book The Now Habit. This is The Unschedule, and it operates on a simple premise: Instead of scheduling time for work, schedule time for play.
To create an unschedule, get a blank calendar for the week ahead. Schedule all your recreational activities—breaks, meals, sleep, social events, and so on. Leave the rest of the calendar blank.
The unschedule works because it makes you aware that you've committed to taking time to play, so you know you'll get your reward. It also removes the misconception that you've got 24 hours a day to get work done, which procrastinators often imagine to be the case.
Once you've created your unschedule, all you have to do is record the times that you work for an uninterrupted period of at least 30 minutes. Every time you complete a period of uninterrupted work, note it in your schedule.
Start by committing to doing 30 minutes of work a day, and let it grow from there.
You'll be amazed at what you accomplish when you focus fully on your work.
You Can Beat Procrastination
Even if you're a chronic procrastinator, you don't have to be stuck with the habit for life. You can change the way you approach work so that when you're working, you're really working. When you do this, you'll find work more enjoyable, and you'll accomplish more than you ever imagined possible.
You've gotten as far as completing this tutorial. So why not get started at beating your procrastination habit today?
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