Note: This post was updated on January 3, 2020.
Have you been struggling with how to stop procrastinating? If so, you’re far from alone. Up to 20% of people may be chronic procrastinators. And almost all of us struggle with procrastination at one time or another.
Procrastination can feel good in the moment. That’s why we do it. But there’s a high long-term cost of that short-term mood boost when we put something off. Procrastination takes a toll on our finances, our physical and emotional health, and, of course, our productivity.
I define productivity as achieving your significant results, whether in your professional life or your personal life. We often procrastinate on the things that are most important to us and instead get caught up in busy work that doesn’t advance our significant results.
All of this means that we’ll have trouble becoming more productive if we don’t give some serious thought to how to avoid procrastination.
Learn How to Stop Procrastinating with These Strategies
In this post, I’ll share some of the most effective tips to stop procrastinating. These include:
- Breaking down big tasks.
- Taking advantage of “activation energy.”
- Setting cues.
- Rewarding yourself.
- Enlisting others.
- Honoring your mood and energy levels.
1. Break Down Big Tasks
As I touched on earlier, one common example of procrastination is putting off working on something you need to do because it feels too big and too vague. You might have some ill-defined tasks lurking on your to-do list — or, worse, in the back of your mind — that you just never seem to get around to. The way to stop procrastinating on these is to avoid the “speed bumps.”
- Plan annual conference
- Mom and Dad’s anniversary party
- House remodel
- Look for a new job
When you come to tasks like this on your list, or in your mind, they slow you down just like a speed bump does. 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! You may think, “Right, I need to plan that conference…where was I on that…”
Don’t Go Around Speed Bumps
But figuring out exactly what to do about the conference seems overwhelming, and slowing down to think about it makes you impatient. You want to keep moving with all the things you need to accomplish today. You’re itching to check something off your list.
So just like on the road (you know you do!), you “go around” the speed bump of planning the conference and look for a task that takes less thought and attention but that still makes you feel like you are keeping things moving. Very often, that “task” ends up being email.
When you consistently decide to focus on low-value, but “fast and easy” tasks like email, and push your important work until later, you end up with days (and weeks, and months) that are busy but not productive. “Later” never actually comes, or “later” ends up being too close to the due date, so everything about it is an emergency—the hotels are sold out! The catering prices went up! The flights are all booked! Can you remember a time you left a big project to “the last minute?” Does this scenario sound familiar?
The hardest part is getting started
So how can you stop procrastinating on big projects? First, break them down into specific tasks right at the moment you put them on your to-do list. For example, you could break down planning the annual conference into smaller, immediately actionable items such as “email 3 local hotels for quotes” and “google keynote speakers on conference theme.”
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 breaking down your big projects into specific tasks, you’ll save yourself a lot of time in executing those tasks. And that will help you stop procrastinating because you’ve made it easier to take action—that’s key: make the things you want to do as easy as possible to get started. “Plan” is a speed bump because what exactly does that mean? Words like “email” and “google” are immediately actionable.
If you would like to learn more about creating a task list that spurs you to action and helps you stop procrastinating, see the detailed information in my book Personal Productivity Secrets.
2. Take Advantage of Activation Energy
Another way to make it easy to get started on your important work is to set a timer for a period of time that seems short (and therefore easy), but not so short that you don’t have time to really get your head in it.
For example, set a timer for just seven minutes. You can do anything for seven minutes, right?
During those seven minutes, shut out all distractions. Work offline. Set your phone to “do not disturb.” Close your office door or put on your headphones. Then commit your full attention to the task you’ve been putting off.
When the timer goes off, stop if you want to. But I suggest seven minutes because it’s probably long enough for you to take advantage of something called “activation energy.”
The idea of activation energy comes from physics. But it’s useful in our daily actions as well. Basically, once you’ve started doing something, 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. (I like to think of it like “brainpower momentum.”)
And even if you don’t keep going, seven minutes of doing the thing you’ve been avoiding is still better than zero minutes!
3. Set Cues
Use a tactic called “implementation intentions.” This 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 guided meditation to start the day.
- When I first turn on my office light, 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 an effective way to stop procrastinating because pairing the action you want to take with something you do automatically makes you less dependent on your willpower and discipline.
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 and procrastinate working on your job search. But with an implementation intention paired with a cue, you’ve already made the decision for your future self, and tied it to a behavior that will probably happen automatically. That’s a powerful way to stop procrastinating.
4. Reward Yourself
As we talked about earlier, putting something off feels (in the moment) like a win: You’re doing something that provides some sort of reward (like clearing out an email) instead of tackling an onerous task. It’s not long before that procrastination results in guilt or stress, but that initial craving to escape from something we don’t want to do can be hard to overcome.
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 to stop procrastinating if you’ve been putting off getting started. As a strategy to avoid procrastinating, 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 stop procrastinating 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. Small rewards in the moment can be helpful, too, like, “I’ll go out in the sunshine and take a walk as soon as I complete this one task.”
5. Enlist Others
One of the reasons you might struggle with how to stop procrastinating is that you believe you have to do everything on your list. But 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. This is one of the most underutilized strategies to stop procrastinating, especially among perfectionists who believe there’s only one right way to do something: their way.
Sometimes it’s enough to get help with starting a project, which is always the hardest part. For example, let’s say you’ve been putting off cleaning out your overflowing garage because you just don’t know where to start. A great strategy to stop procrastinating is to hire a personal organizer for a couple of hours to create a plan for you (and give you some activation energy). Their help will make the rest of the project feel much more doable.
Another way to enlist others is to count on them for accountability. For example, writing articles like this one is a task I sometimes tend to avoid. To stop procrastinating on my writing, I’ve found a writer’s group that meets on Tuesday evenings not far from my house. Everyone socializes over dinner and then spends the next couple of hours writing. I’m less likely to write when I’m alone in my office, and much more likely to get a lot of writing done when I participate in the group.
6. A Final Tip to Stop Procrastinating: Honor Your Mood
Have you ever tried making appointments with yourself to get things done? This is an anti-procrastination strategy that does work for some people. But in my experience, most people who do this spend a lot of time reorganizing their calendars. That’s because we’re more likely to break an appointment with ourselves than one with someone else (another reason the “enlist others” tactic above helps).
Schedule Proactive Time
One reason we break these appointments with ourselves is that it’s hard to predict whether we’ll be in the right mindset for the task we need to do when we schedule ourselves to do it. You can’t know in advance whether you’ll be feeling more creative or more logical at a given time. You don’t know if your energy will be low or high. If the time to work on a task comes and you’re not in the right mood for it, you’re likely to procrastinate.
As a strategy to stop procrastinating, it’s great to block time in your day to get important work done. But don’t assign a specific task to a specific time. Instead, call the block you’ve set aside on your calendar “proactive time.”
Honor How You Feel in the Moment
During that time, just work from your to-do list, based on how you’re feeling in that moment. If you’re feeling more creative, it’s 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 editing that report.
Schedule Shorter Chunks of Time for Focused Work
Another way to ensure that your time blocks actually help you to stop procrastinating is to avoid making them too long. It can be hard to do focused work on one thing for a very long time (unless it’s something you love to do) because of both internal distractions (like hunger and restlessness) and external ones (like other people needing you). A long block of time on your calendar might seem too intimidating — and, thus, be too tempting to reschedule, again and again.
Careful time blocking helps you stop procrastinating while maintaining some flexibility. If everything you need to do is on your task 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 you have choices to match your mood.
Now You Know How to Stop Procrastinating
Armed with these tips, I hope that you are feeling some fresh motivation to revamp your behaviors and make more progress on your most significant results!
But be gentle with yourself. You’re forming some new habits, and that takes time and practice.
Some days it will be easier than others to engage in these new behaviors. But, over time, you should find that you are more consistently avoiding procrastination and that you are better able to direct your focus to the work and other activities that are most important to you.