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 people do it. But there’s a high long-term cost of that short-term mood boost when we put something off. It takes a toll on our finances, our physical and emotional health, and, of course, our productivity.
I define productivity simply as achieving your significant results, whether in your professional life or your personal life. We often procrastinate on the things that are important to us, allowing ourselves to get caught up instead in busy work that doesn’t advance our significant results.
This means that making meaningful progress toward the things that are most important to us requires that we give some serious thought putting an end to procrastination. If you’re with me on this, keep reading to learn a few ways you can kick your procrastination habit.
Learn How to Stop Procrastinating with These Strategies
In this post, I’ll share some of the most effective tips you can implement now to avoid procrastination. 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 sticking to your to-do list — or, worse, lurking in the back of your mind because you just never seem to get around to them. The way to overcome these is to avoid creating “speed bumps.”
For example, here are some ‘tasks’ you might find lurking:
- Plan annual conference
- Mom and Dad’s anniversary party
- House remodel
- Look for a new job
When you come to ill-defined tasks like these on your list, or in your mind, they slow you down just like a speed bump does.
Don’t Go Around 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! You may think, “Right, I need to plan that conference…where was I on that…”
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 “go around” the speed bump of planning the conference and instead look for a task that takes less thought and attention but that still makes you feel like you are keeping things moving. Very often, the “task” that takes less thought and attention ends up being email.
When you consistently decide to push your important work until later, and instead focus on low-value, “fast and easy” tasks like email, you end up with days adding up to 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 becomes 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 overcome these speed bumps? The first step is to break them down into smaller, specific tasks when you discover them lurking. Or better, 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, specific directions like these, it’s a lot more willing to spring into action for you instead of diverting to email. If you spend the few extra seconds thinking through and breaking down your big projects into specific tasks, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and heartache when executing those tasks. And that will help you avoid procrastination because you’ve made it easier to take action—that’s key: make the important tasks 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 into 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 kick procrastination to the curb.
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 make progress instead of 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.
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. But it’s typically not long before that results in guilt or stress.
And that initial craving to escape from something we don’t want to do can be hard to overcome.
To help yourself overcome the craving, 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. You can stick to this, but in the meantime, give yourself other 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, 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 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: 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.
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 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 and Be More Productive
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.
If you know others who struggle with how to stop procrastinating, share this article with them. Another great way to change our habits to maximize productivity is to surround ourselves with others who are doing the same!