Procrastination is the bane of many people’s work and personal lives. Whether it’s putting off starting your new fitness program, dawdling away the hours at work scrolling through Facebook or squandering your study time so that you have to pull an all-nighter on the eve of your essay deadline, procrastination can wreak havoc on your goals and your ability to succeed.
Why do we do it? Well there are plenty of distractions all around us that can affect our attention span—Instagram, Netflix, YouTube and so on. But psychologists think there’s more to it, and that procrastination can stem from fear. Fear of both failure and of success.
Ahead, you’ll find 13 fool-proof tips that’ll help kick the habit of procrastination, covering everything from in-the-moment solutions to tackling the underlying causes. So close your twitter feed, switch off your phone (unless you’re reading this on your phone!) and keep scrolling.
The first step in any battle is studying your enemy. This means observing—without beating yourself up about it. Exactly how do you procrastinate: what sites you go on, what sort of things you try to put off, what emotions lead you to want to delay things. The more you know about your habits, the better equipped you will be to notice when you fall into them, and the easier it will be to eliminate them altogether.
If you know you have a mind that wanders off task easily, doing your important work in a distraction-free environment can help you stay on track. Find somewhere quiet where other people aren’t likely to bother you, away from your TV or anything else you might be tempted to kill time with. Avoid listening to music while working as this just clutters your thoughts and makes you more likely to sit there humming along without actually doing anything.
On the subject of distractions, one way to remove the temptation to check emails or Facebook while working is to install temporary blocking tools. There are loads of programs available online which simply don’t let you access certain sites within a set time. Cutting out social media entirely during your work day can be infuriating at first but you’ll thank yourself when you see how much your productivity soars.
Starting a new project or aiming for your next life goal seems a lot more daunting when you see the entire task before you, like a mountain to climb. The impossibility of it might make you more likely to put off starting. You can fight this by breaking the task up into smaller chunks or stages. Nobody ever climbed a mountain in one go, but simply getting to your first milestone doesn’t seem so hard.
Similar to breaking up tasks is the idea of splitting up your work time and allowing yourself time to recuperate in between. No matter how badly you need something done, you can’t concentrate indefinitely. Working on the same thing for any more than an hour without a short break is going to be tough and will likely lead to poor concentration and procrastination. Fully applying yourself to something for 50 minutes is way better than half-heartedly paying attention to it for the whole afternoon.
It’s harder to waste time if you know exactly what you are supposed to be doing and how long you have to do it. Clarify your vague plan of action into something specific and measurable so that your mind doesn’t slip each time you wonder what’s next on the list. Explaining your plan to someone else is great for this. Planning on losing weight? How much, and by when? Applying for jobs? How many will you have hit “send” on by this time tomorrow? But at the same time…
Realistically, most everyday goals or tasks shouldn’t take hours to plan. Be careful that formulating and preparing don’t turn into putting off actually starting. Limit your plan to what you are going to do, how you will do it, and how long it will take. You can figure out the rest as you go.
The concept of mindfulness is great for sharpening your thoughts and taking more control of what comes in and out of your brain. There are all kinds of exercises and routines you can try that will help you slow down your thinking and get better at focusing on one thing at a time. Mindfulness is also great for keeping you relaxed and improving your sense of self-worth, which is always a good thing.
One specific aspect of mindfulness we wanted to pull out for you is the idea of the “sacred” pause. This essentially means that whenever you move from one task to another, or when you reach one small milestone, or anytime you reach a natural break in the rhythm of your work, stop for a moment. Just take a few seconds to breathe calmly and re-focus yourself on the present moment. You’ll help your mind stay fresh and keep yourself going for longer.
Cluttered house = cluttered mind. There’s more truth to that simple saying than you might think. Having lots of mess around you makes you more easily distracted, while making achieving anything that much harder because you’ve got to wade through piles of rubbish to actually find anything. Tidiness on the other hand, can help reduce stress and can even help you feel more optimistic.
This is a big one. The root cause of procrastination in a lot of people is fear that their best efforts won’t be good enough, so they’d rather put things off than risk feeling inadequate. Better to do a rushed, last minute job and be able to say “I only failed because I didn’t give it my all” than to actually try your best and find that it wasn’t enough.
This is a big problem for people who are only satisfied with being perfect. It’s also an issue for those whose sense of self-worth is directly tied to their abilities. You need to learn to be happy with “good enough”, and to see yourself as more than just a list of achievements. Changing how you think isn’t easy but the benefits of it will be far more than just overcoming procrastination.
The flipside to putting things off because of fear of failure is that maybe you’re aiming too high. Maybe you’ve set yourself an insurmountable task and an impossible hurdle to tackle. And maybe that’s why you’re always delaying getting started, because you know it’s not going to work. Scale your goals back a bit, or allow yourself more time. Better to get started on some modest goals than to never get anywhere with the big ones.
You might not have ever thought about this, but fear of doing well can be just as paralysing as fear of failure. Success can be scary—it can bring about big life changes like promotion or new jobs, and it can make you feel like a target for other people’s jealousy. Better to be part of the pack than be out in front and have everyone hating you for it. So you put things off and you squander your time and talents so as to maintain the status quo.
Recognising your conflicting feelings about success and coming to terms with the fact that doing well brings its own challenges can be hard. But it’s worth it, and it’s a far better thing to spend your time on than procrastination.
In a weird way, procrastination can sometimes come from a desire to take control of when you do things, and a desire to do them on your terms rather than someone else’s. Did your boss set you a totally unfair and unrealistic deadline for a project? Put off delivering it till the very last second just to spite him. Is your partner nagging you about when you’re going to finish painting the spare room, or do that bit of housework? Hold off on doing it for even longer because they’re being annoying.
Sometimes you need to be honest with yourself and recognise that procrastination is your slightly petty way of getting back at people, or of increasing your sense of control over things. Ultimately, the person who gets hurt most by this mentality is you.
Finally, you need to learn how to properly switch off and enjoy yourself. Spending all your time with unfinished tasks looming over you or spending your work day in a state of half working, half messing around will leave you tense, stressed, and probably feeling pretty guilty about all the stuff you haven’t got done. So set a clear end-time for work and then go and have fun. You’ll be far sharper and more focussed next time it’s time to get things done.
Angus Munro is a registered Sydney-based clinical psychologist and director of Angus Munro Psychology. He excels in evidence-based therapies for a comprehensive range of emotional and psychological challenges. He has also previously been involved in delivering anxiety programmes at the Anxiety Research Unit at Macquarie University. One of his passions is engaging, educating and helping people work through all manner of mental health issues to live their best life.