Procrastination has been extensively studied by psychologists, probably because they have some world-class procrastinators close at hand: students.
Students don’t have a monopoly on wasting time, though, almost everyone procrastinates now and then.
The difference is that some people learn effective strategies for dealing with it and get some stuff done; others never do.
Here are ten tips for overcoming procrastination, based on science:
1. Start easy
The first tip is simply to start with whatever is easy, manageable and doesn’t fill your mind with a nameless dread.
Have a look at your project, whatever it is, and decide to do the easy bit first.
The great thing is that after getting going, you start to build momentum and the harder bits are more likely to flow.
The tip relies partly on the Zeigarnik effect: the finding that unfinished tasks get stuck in the memory.
Unfinished you see: a task can’t be unfinished until it’s at least been started.
2. Start anywhere
The trouble with ‘starting easy’ is that it can be difficult to know where to start: there might be several easy bits, or it might be difficult to tell what should be done and what shouldn’t.
Planning can help with this, but planning is also a trap.
Too much planning and not enough actual doing is another form of procrastination.
Take a tip from writers, artists and creatives down the ages: just start anywhere!
You may chuck away the stuff you start with, but at least it gets you into the project.
3. Beware excuses
OK, now all sorts of excuses are crowding into your mind.
Be aware that these will come, and they’ll come big.
Here are a few of the excuses that psychologists have found people express to themselves:
- Not feeling in the mood to do it.
- Believing that you work better under pressure.
- Thinking that you can finish it at the last minute.
- Blaming sickness or poor health.
- Waiting for the right moment.
Recognise some of these? You’re not alone.
This tip is all about developing an awareness that these are excuses.
Be mindful of anything that’s expressed like an excuse and label it as such. It’s natural, but it will also stop you getting anywhere.
4. Up the value
A massive cause of procrastination is simply not valuing the goal enough.
If we don’t care that much, we’re not going to be that motivated.
Other times the goal is unpleasant or aversive and we need to be super-motivated to do it.
Cleaning is a great example of something people often procrastinate on.
The value of this task could be increased by making a game out of it or setting time limits or unusual conditions.
For any task, though, thinking about why it’s important and trying to up its value in our minds will help fight demotivation.
Another way of cognitively increasing value is to think about the costs of not getting the task done. Does that make the task seem more valuable?
5. Procrastination personality
Some people are just born procrastinators. You know who you are.
These people are easily distracted, impulsive and have low self-control (have you even read down to number 5?).
The bad news is that you can’t change your personality (well, not much anyway).
The good news is that you can change your environment.
You can put yourself in an environment in which there are fewer distractions, temptations and all the right reinforcing signals.
Procrastination tends to strike when you have to stop and think, so have everything you need to hand and then lock yourself away.
The more you have a procrastination personality, the more the environment needs to be just right for you to get it done.
6. Turn up
So far, so easy.
Here things get a little tricky.
That’s because when you expect a project to be difficult or hard to complete, then you are more likely to procrastinate.
But, there’s only one reliable way to increase expectations of success and that is by experiencing success.
But, without starting, you can’t experience success. It’s a Catch-22.
This tip is more of a warning about this Catch-22 and a reminder of that Woody Allen quote:
“80 percent of success is showing up.”
You’ve got to at least show up to find out whether you can do it.
7. Think concrete
Here are two ways of thinking about a task:
- Abstract: Wouldn’t it be great to write a song expressing how I feel about the state of the world right now?
- Concrete: What’s the first line?
When you are getting started on a task, it’s much better to think about the concrete steps you are going to take, rather than abstract aims and ideas.
Thinking concrete helps you get started.
8. Don’t rely on memory
Sometimes procrastination is less an intentional thing and more about memory failures.
Most solutions to this problem are some variant of: write it down.
It may not matter that much how you make a list, or where you record the reminder — carve it into a tree if you like, as long as it’s a tree you walk past every day.
Just don’t rely on your memory.
Not, at least, until you have formed a habit which doesn’t rely on memory and you start doing it automatically.
9. Avoid over-thinking
Doubts will arise for even the most confident of people.
Unfortunately, doubts cause procrastination.
Here’s a little tip for side-stepping doubts: try doubting your doubts.
One easy way to do that is by shaking your head while thinking those negative thoughts.
It may sound childish, but according to a study it can help the chronically uncertain (see: How to Fight Excessive Doubt).
There are other kinds of over-thinking which are also dangerous:
- all-or-nothing thinking,
- impossibly high standards,
- catastrophising (thinking everything will be a catastrophe).
Being mindful of when we’re wasting mental energy rather than getting on with the task at hand can be useful.
10. Forgive yourself
Yup, sometimes it’s just too hard, it will take too long, you really didn’t have the time, or it wasn’t worth it.
Here’s a wonderful effect of forgiving yourself: one study has found that it can actually break you out of the cycle of procrastination (see: Procrastinate Less By Forgiving Yourself).
As the authors say:
“…forgiving oneself for procrastinating has the beneficial effect of reducing subsequent procrastination by reducing negative affect associated with the outcome of an examination.”
In other words: forgiving yourself for procrastination makes you feel better about the task, and so more likely to attempt it again in the future.
My all time favourite procrastination quote comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
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Image credit: Ruth Tsang