Everybody's been there — sitting at our desks, scrolling through social media apps or listening to podcasts, not getting anything done.
We tell ourselves we'll start working on that project "in a minute," but minutes turn into hours, and it's the end of the day before we know it.
Sound familiar? (Are you procrastinating right now?)
If so, you’re not alone. Procrastination, the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions, affects millions of adults and students every day. And getting caught up in the endless social media scroll isn't the only reason. Procrastination is far more complex.
This article will uncover what procrastination is, why we do it, and seven ways to stop procrastinating for good.
Everyone occasionally ignores or avoids tasks they don't like, and it's usually not a big deal. Plenty of us check the simple things off our to-do list first while postponing any complex or unimportant tasks.
But there’s a big difference between occasionally putting off a dreaded task and being a procrastinator. Psychologists refer to procrastination as a self-defeating behavior. The Association for Psychological Science calls it the “‘quintessential’ breakdown of self-control.”
And many of us are suffering from the breakdown. Twenty percent of the population chronically procrastinates, putting off essential tasks even when they know they'll suffer negative consequences.
The repercussions of procrastination are serious, including missed deadlines, lost opportunities, and increased stress. Stress can negatively impact your health, causing problems such as insomnia, anxiety, and burnout.
So why do we do it? Before we can learn how to stop procrastinating, we have to understand the reasons behind our behavior.
The Real Causes of Procrastination
It's common for people to associate procrastination with laziness, but that's not usually the case in reality. Procrastination often has very little to do with laziness.
Procrastination is a sign of a dysfunctional self-regulation system, researchers say. When we are overwhelmed with emotions, we avoid unpleasant situations — for example, an unpleasant task — to control our mood. But this never works. In the long run, self-defeating behaviors lead to guilt, shame, and anxiety rather than soothing dysregulation.
To learn how to stop procrastinating, we have to identify and understand why we are doing it. Research has identified many contributing factors to procrastination, and among the top are:
- Task aversion: We avoid tasks that are difficult, challenging, or just not interesting.
- Time delay: We procrastinate because we think we have more time than we actually do.
- Delayed rewards: The gratification we receive from completing a task is delayed, so we postpone it.
- Perfectionism: We procrastinate because we want everything to be perfect.
- Fear of failure: Similar to perfectionism, we might avoid starting something because of a fear of failure.
- Unclear goals: We don't start a task because we're unsure what the end result should look like.
- Lack of motivation: When we don't care about an unimportant task or don't see the value in a difficult task, we're less likely to want to start working on it.
- Distractions: We lack self-control and get sidetracked by other, more exciting things.
These are just a few reasons behind our procrastination habits, but understanding why you personally procrastinate is a crucial first step in breaking the habit.
7 Tips for How to Stop Procrastinating
When you understand the cause of your procrastination habit, you can start putting some strategies in place to overcome it. Tackling the root of the problem, such as poor time management or fear of failure, can help you eliminate the habit of procrastination and start getting things done.
Here are seven ways to stop procrastinating.
1. Set Your Own (Early) Deadlines
A common piece of advice for people who procrastinate is, "Set deadlines!" And for some people, strict deadlines help.
But if you suffer from chronic procrastination caused by perfectionism, deadlines may not be enough to motivate you. And in fact, research suggests they may even have negative effects.
Surely a perfectionist would certainly never miss a deadline, right? It may seem like a logical inference, but actually, it's the opposite. To avoid feeling overwhelmed, perfectionists may delay starting a difficult task until it's too late — or ignore it altogether. Similar to analysis paralysis, perfectionism paralysis is a common cause of procrastination.
You can solve this problem by setting your own personal deadlines — and setting them earlier than the actual deadline. For example, if you have a task due Thursday, set yourself a personal deadline of Wednesday. Log that deadline on your calendar, in your reminders, on your to-do list — whatever tracking system you use.
If you do this immediately, you're likely to set that "new" deadline in your mind and avoid working at the last minute. If you finish on your personal deadline, you can submit your work early and celebrate your victory. And if you fall behind, you'll have an extra day to finish up and still be on time.
2. Break Goals Down Into Small Tasks
Like the old analogy about eating an elephant, taking on a big project can feel overwhelming. One effective way to reduce procrastination is to eat the elephant one bite at a time — or break down your hardest tasks into small tasks that you can accomplish.
If, for example, your goal is to write a book, instead of writing down a difficult task like "write the book," break it into actionable pieces and set deadlines for each part. Your small tasks might look like this:
- Research book ideas
- Outline the structure of the book
- Write one chapter per week
- Edit and revise the book
- Publish the book
By focusing on small, manageable steps one at a time, you'll make progress on your goal without feeling overwhelmed. And if you give each step its own deadline, you know you'll stay on track for the final sprint.
As an added bonus, you can also celebrate each small victory as you check items off your list.
3. Schedule Your Time
Setting up a schedule can be very useful in fighting procrastination, which is often a result of poor time management. You're more likely to accomplish something by setting aside a specific time.
To find out which time management methods and tools work best for you, you may need to try a few. You can use a productivity system like the Eisenhower Matrix or time mapping to identify your most important tasks. Then, break them down into smaller segments and dedicate time to each one.
Dividing a big project into small tasks makes it possible to schedule time for each one. Having one simple thing to focus on makes it less likely to get overwhelmed by the hardest task or waste time multitasking.
4. Plan Your Time Wisely
We procrastinate in part because we have a distorted view of our own time. According to research, people tend to estimate how long tasks will take based on the amount of time they have available rather than how much time the work actually requires. So if you have an hour to complete a task, you're likely to think it will take you an hour, even if it really should last only 20 minutes.
This is known as the planning fallacy. It leads to procrastination by making us think we have more time than we do, which interferes with our time management.
To combat this, try to be realistic about how much time you need for each task on your to-do list. If you're unsure, try timing yourself as you complete similar tasks. Once you have a better sense of the amount of time it takes to get things done, you can improve your time management plan and avoid procrastinating.
5. Keep a Journal
Consider starting a daily journal. The practice of journaling can be beneficial for procrastinators because it's a tangible and visual way to track your progress.
You don't need to write poems or be a bullet journal expert. Just take a few minutes to consider your progress toward your goals and jot down a few notes at the end of the day. Then, review them the next day. In time, you'll see how far you've come and how much progress you're making, which is a great motivation booster.
Keeping a journal also allows you to turn inward and acknowledge the negative emotions at the root cause of your procrastination. Forgiving yourself can help you overcome procrastination, according to research.
Self-compassion is crucial to continue our personal development, despite our mistakes and fears of failure. Journaling about what's good in your life can cultivate gratitude and help you develop a more positive outlook.
6. Be Accountable
Holding yourself accountable is an effective way to combat procrastination. Practicing self-control and following through on your commitments is more likely when you are required to account for your time.
You can increase your accountability in a few ways:
- Track your time: If you want to stop wasting time procrastinating, it's essential to first understand how you're spending it. You can't improve what you don't measure! Use a time tracking tool like Rize to see exactly where your time went during the day.
- Recruit a buddy: Get a friend or family member to check in with you each day, asking you where your time was on your tracker. Reporting to someone can hold you accountable.
- Join a group: Find an online community or forum related to your goal and make some connections. This is a great way to share your progress and get support from others.
- Find a mentor: Consider hiring a coach or asking a mentor to help you stay on track and hold you accountable to your goals.
These are just a few ideas for support. The important thing is to find an accountability partner or system that works for you.
7. Create a Reward System
Another way to stop procrastinating is to create a reward system for yourself. When you accomplish a task or reach a goal, give yourself a small reward.
It can be anything you enjoy, like a trip to the coffee shop, watching a movie, reading a book, or just stopping to take a break. The important thing is to find what will motivate you to keep going. Rewards are essential to our mental health and help you stay on track by giving you something to look forward to.
Say Goodbye to Procrastination and Hello to Getting Things Done
Do you want to overcome procrastination and become more disciplined about your time management? The first step to controlling chronic procrastination is to learn how you spend your time. A time tracker is an invaluable tool for procrastinators in identifying their patterns and habits. Knowing how you spend your time (and where you waste it) can help you schedule your day in a more effective way.
Stop procrastinating and start tracking your time with Rize. Sign up for a free trial today.