Have you ever thought about how much more productive you’d be if you could stop procrastinating? The problem, though, is that we really, really like putting things off. In fact, our brains deliver a dose of feel-good chemicals when we choose something fun over something we should be doing. And thanks to our technology-rich world, it’s easier than ever to find distractions — from games to social media to videos — when we’re in the mood to procrastinate (or just not in the mood for whatever we need to be doing!)
But while procrastination is rewarding in the moment, it hurts us in the long run. Researchers have found that chronic procrastination makes you more anxious and less confident. Even your health and relationships suffer. So how can you break the habit of putting things off? These five strategies to stop procrastinating will help you quit dawdling and do more of what’s really important to you.
1. Remove the Speed Bumps
One common reason for procrastination is that the things you need to do feel too big or too vague. For example:
- Plan annual conference
- Mom and Dad’s anniversary party
- House remodel
- Look for a new job
These are the ill-defined tasks that lurk on your to-do list — or, worse, in the back of your mind — that you never seem to get around to. I call them “speed bumps.”
Let’s take planning your company’s annual conference as an example. Maybe you get a brief moment in your busy day to think about the conference. You’re ready to get something done! But figuring out exactly what to do seems overwhelming. You want to keep moving. You want to “check something off.” So you go around this speed bump and look for something that takes less thought — like email. That’s how we end up with so many days that are busy but not truly productive.
To stop procrastinating on big projects, break them down into specific tasks right at the moment you put them on your list, such as “email 3 hotel venues for quotes” and “review website of potential keynote speaker.” When you give your brain clear directions like these, it’s a lot more willing to spring into action for you. If you spend the few extra seconds on the “front end” (when you’re writing it down), you’ll save lots of time on the “back end” (when you sit down to do it), because you’re much more likely to take action.
2. Start Small
It’s also easy to procrastinate when there’s something you just don’t want to do. If the dread of starting a task has you dragging your feet, here’s a little trick to help you get past your mental block: set a timer for just seven minutes. (You can do anything for seven minutes, right?) Shut out all distractions: Work offline, set your phone to “do not disturb,” close your office door or put on your headphones. Now commit your full attention to the task you’ve been putting off for those seven minutes.
When the timer goes off, stop if you want to. But I suggest seven minutes because this enables us to take advantage of something called “activation energy.” This idea comes from chemistry but it’s useful in our daily actions as well. The idea is basically that once you’re started, you’re more likely to keep going. But you have to invest a certain amount of energy in the “starting.”
Fewer minutes than seven might not be enough to get your brain engaged in whatever the task is. But once your brain is engaged, you’re more likely to stick with it. Even if you don’t, seven minutes of doing the thing you’ve been avoiding is still better than zero minutes!
3. Set Cues
A tactic called implementation intention is another great way to build new, positive habits and stop procrastinating. When you set an implementation intention, you commit to engaging in your desired behavior whenever you receive a certain cue. A few examples:
- When my alarm clock goes off, I’ll do a quick guided meditation to start the day.
- When I first sit down at my desk, I’ll work offline for a set period of time instead of checking email.
- After dinner, I’ll complete one task from my job-search project.
Implementation intentions are effective because they make you less dependent on your willpower, a finite resource. Without an intention, it’s more tempting to, say, give in to the allure of a Netflix binge at the end of a long day instead of working on your job search. But with an intention, you’ve already made the decision for your future self, and tied it to a cue you’re reasonably sure will happen.
4. Reward Yourself
As we talked about earlier, putting something off feels (in the moment) like a win: You’re enjoying yourself instead of tackling an onerous task. To stop procrastinating, you can bribe yourself with other rewards. However, there’s a trick to using rewards effectively.
According to psychologist Alexander Rozental, promising yourself a big reward at the end of a project isn’t likely to motivate you if you’ve been procrastinating on getting started. It’s more helpful to reward yourself regularly as you progress toward your goal.
For example, maybe you’ve promised yourself a new computer when you finish your book. But that’s still several months away. To keep going in the meantime, give yourself incentives like burning your favorite scented candle only when you write or treating yourself to your favorite fancy coffee drink for every 5,000 words you complete.
5. Enlist Help
Just because you have something that needs to be done doesn’t mean that you’re the best person to do it. If you’ve been putting off a task you don’t enjoy, and that doesn’t seem like the best use of your time, you have more options than ever for affordable help.
Sometimes it’s enough to get help with starting a project, which is always the hardest part. If you just can’t make yourself clean out your overflowing garage, hire a personal organizer for a couple of hours to create a plan for you. Their help will make the rest of the project feel much more doable. (You’ll be taking advantage of “activation energy.”)
6. Honor Your Mood
Are you the kind of person who makes appointments with yourself to get things done? If this works for you, that’s great. But in my experience, people who do this spend a lot of time reorganizing their calendar, because we’re most likely to break an appointment with ourselves.
One reason we break these appointments with ourselves is because when we selected the task for a given timeframe, there’s no way of knowing if we’ll be feeling more creative or more logical, if we’ll have low energy or high energy.
It’s great to block time in your day to get important work done, but instead of assigning a specific task to a specific time, call that time on your calendar “proactive time,” and then just work from your to-do list, based on how you’re feeling in that moment. If you’re feeling more creative, it’s probably a better use of your time to tackle that writing project than the spreadsheet. If you’re low on energy, maybe reviewing those speaker websites is more productive for you right now than updating your résumé.
This gives you the opportunity to be flexible, but still productive. If everything is on your to-do list, and it’s all broken down into specific, manageable chunks, then you can take action, whether you have two minutes or two hours to get stuff done, and regardless of what kind of mood you’re in.
Think about something you’ve been putting off, whether it’s a large project or a small task that’s been nagging at you. How can you use the tips on this list to stop procrastinating? Once you get started, you just might find yourself getting on a roll. For more strategies like the ones in this article, pick up a copy of my book “Personal Productivity Secrets.” Click the link to start reading for free.