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How to Finally Stop Procrastinating

Six simple tricks to get you back on track.

Key points

  • Procrastination is less about avoiding a task than avoiding the negative emotions associated with that task.
  • Procrastination is rooted not in laziness, but in perfectionism, anxiety, or fear of failure.
  • Building momentum by tackling smaller tasks first can help to rebuild confidence to meet larger goals.

We often mistake kicking the can down the road for laziness, berating ourselves for delaying unchecked boxes on our to-do lists. However, procrastination isn’t mere laziness. It actually buys us something valuable—avoidance of feeling bored, incompetent, or stressed. But procrastination costs us more than it buys us. So, without further delay (ha ha—see what I did there?), here are six tips to help you stay on task.

Tip #1: Change “I have to” to “I want to”

A subtle shift in perspective can be just the nudge your psyche needs to get moving. Try changing the dig-in-your-heels phrase of “I have to do this,” to a chomping-at-the-bit phrase of “I want to do this.” The moment we change that tedious, looming task from a threat to be endured to a challenge we can overcome in order to level up, we shift our feelings of dread to drive.

So, for example, “I have to make those slides for my boss’ upcoming presentation,” becomes “If I ace these slides, I’m one step closer to that promotion.” Or, “I have to clean out this disgusting freezer,” becomes “I want to make room for a new tub of ice cream” (no judgment!).

Tip #2: Aim for greatness, not perfection

”Perfectionism” is actually a misnomer. Perfectionists don’t actually aim for perfection; they are instead focused on avoiding failure. They adopt an all-or-nothing mindset: If I’m not perfect, I’m a total failure. If I’m not a winner, I’m a loser.

Perfectionism often comes from conflating performance and self-worth. Perfectionists are focused on their relative position to those around them, rather than their intrinsic value and that of everything they deliver. They believe that their grades, evaluations, rankings, or other measurements determine their worth as a person. In my clinical practice, perfectionism manifests itself most often as depression or an eating disorder.

So to deflate perfectionism, try two things: first, If you must evaluate yourself, approach your performance not as black or white, but as a continuum. Rather than 100% or 0% with nothing in between, take a balanced perspective. Evaluate using all percentage points from 0 to 100, not only the extremes. Think about how a teacher grades a paper—one misspelled word doesn’t sink the whole ship. Rather, there are weightages placed on spelling, grammar, creativity, and flow, and a quality paper is not limited to one domain. Similarly, when evaluating yourself or your performance, take a wider perspective to avoid the all-or-nothing trap.

The next ninja level is to think of yourself differently so you can stop evaluating altogether. Broaden your view of yourself to include hundreds of interlocking skills, relationships, talents, and gifts. That way, one task can’t sink your ship. If you are your performance, you’ll end up feeling stressed and shallow. Does that one low mark on your paper define you? Rather than linking your worth to each performance, instead, if you are simply you—complex, multilayered, glorious you—you’ll not only procrastinate less, you’ll be much more comfortable in your skin.

Tip #3: Change your mood by diving in, not by stepping away

In a 2013 study, Dr. Timothy Pychyl and colleagues found that individuals procrastinate not necessarily to avoid a tedious or overwhelming task itself, but to avoid the unpleasant feelings related to such a task. When faced with starting a school project, doing your taxes, or even folding the laundry, we “give in to feel good,” or do something that we think will make us feel better, like check Twitter, have a snack, or doodle. Some procrastination is even quite honorable, like cleaning our desk before we get down to business.

Procrastination may offer short-term mood relief, but it costs us by prolonging guilt and stress. Instead, paradoxically, what will most likely make us feel better is doing the very task we’re avoiding.

So when tempted to improve your mood by procrastinating, first tell yourself procrastination is a fake, fleeting boost. Then, improve your mood for real by diving in. In order to build momentum, you might take on smaller tasks first to get you in the mood to keep going. You’ll feel relieved to get started and satisfied that you’re getting something done.

Tip #4: Don’t shoot yourself in the foot to make yourself feel better

Good things take time. Waiting until the last minute creates a problem: not enough time to do something well. But waiting until the last minute also creates a convenient excuse. Indeed, procrastination allows us, in advance, to blame our failures on something other than ourselves. This is called self-handicapping. We try to preserve our positive beliefs about ourselves, using lack of time as a crutch, like: “I failed the exam, but I’m still smart, I’m just not good at time management.” Other examples of self-handicapping besides procrastination might include getting drunk when you’re supposed to be studying or deliberately going to a distracting environment, like studying in a crowded café (yes, we’ve likely not come for that chocolate croissant alone).

In a 2012 experiment, researchers asked high school students, many of whom were self-handicappers, to generate “if-then” thoughts about how to do well on a math exam. One group was given the following positive “if-then” statement as an example: “If I think about the problems thoroughly, then I will do better on the exam,” while the other group was given a neutral, unrelated statement. Then the students were left to come up with additional statements of their own.

After they made their lists, the self-handicappers who were exposed to the positive sample studied for an average of two and a half hours longer than the self-handicappers who were exposed to the neutral sample. Why? Self-handicappers, it turns out, are generally uncertain about their abilities and what to do next. Getting them to think of specific positive actions eliminated the scope for excuses, in turn reducing their procrastination.

So the tip is this: Think of concrete ways to improve your performance and you just might end up using them, there’s no reason not to!

Tip #5: Use technology to fight technology

The internet is an endless treasure trove for procrastinators. But the bane can also be the benefactor.

Use apps like Freedom or RescueTime to keep yourself off Instagram and on task. You can even take inspiration from the Pomodoro method—set an alarm for 25 and five-minute intervals on your smartphone or device (or even a good old-fashioned kitchen timer). Work for 25 minutes and take measured five-minute breaks to refocus and (with the blare of the alarm) snap your attention back to what you’re supposed to be doing. And yes, there’s an app for that!

Tip #6: Rethink procrastination

Vindication for procrastinators came in the form of a 2005 study from Columbia University and McGill University. Researchers found that the kind of procrastination you engage in can make a difference. Passive procrastinators match our traditional understanding of procrastination: they are paralyzed by indecision, can’t get started, and cope poorly. Active procrastinators, however, make a deliberate decision to put off doing work until the last minute to maximize motivation or performance. If you procrastinate because you do your best work under pressure, you’re an active procrastinator.

In the study, the research team found that active procrastinators looked more like non-procrastinators. They appeared less like passive procrastinators in terms of using time purposefully, possessing conviction in their ability to achieve their goals, coping effectively, and most of all, in achieving excellent academic performance.

So, no need to wait until the eleventh hour to see what works best for you. Use procrastination to your advantage and before you know it, you’ll be turning procrastination into motivation.

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