Do you have a tendency to put things off — even though you know that doing so will make your job harder and your life more stressful? You’re not alone. About 20% of U.S. adults are “chronic procrastinators,” according to Joseph Ferrari, author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done.
“These people don’t just procrastinate occasionally; it’s a major part of their lifestyle,” writes Kendra Cherry, a psychology expert at Verywell Mind. “They pay their bills late, don’t start work on big projects until the night before the deadline, delay holiday shopping until Christmas Eve, and even file their income tax returns late.”
All this putting off has a big impact on chronic procrastinators’ health, happiness and success, according to Cherry. Students who procrastinated reported higher levels of illness and stress by the end of the academic term.
If you have a tendency to leave work until the last minute, you’re probably not surprised to hear that it might be keeping you from living your best life at work and everywhere else. Why do so many of us put things off, when we know that it will negatively affect our lives — and can we stop procrastinating if we try?
Why Do We Procrastinate?
People procrastinate for all kinds of reasons; however, laziness usually isn’t one of them.
“Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond,” writes Charlotte Liebman at The New York Times.
“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,” said Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, speaking with Liebman for The Times.
In other words, procrastinators often have trouble managing the negative feelings that certain tasks — or all tasks — inspire. It’s not that you think it will be more fun to clean the fridge than complete your weekly report. It’s that the important task (the report) inspires negative emotions, while the unimportant task (the fridge) does not.
In addition, many procrastinators fear failure … or success.
At Psychology Today, Pamela Wiegartz Ph.D. explains how these opposing fears can lead to putting things off. On the fear of failure side, she says:
The thought of putting in effort but still failing makes you anxious, so you choose avoiding and procrastinating instead. In this way, when your project fails you can rationalize that it wasn’t a true test of your abilities anyway-if only you’d had more time.
On the other hand, those who fear success may be insulating themselves from higher expectations:
Procrastination protects you from the higher expectations and greater responsibilities that may come with succeeding. Like those who procrastinate because they fear failure, you keep yourself safe from facing your true limits by avoiding challenges and putting things off.
Still other reasons include perfectionism, ineffective work habits, or burnout. Some people may even believe that they work better under a deadline, and procrastinate in order to give themselves the pressure they feel they need in order to get things done.
But even for people who like to work under pressure, procrastination is obviously not a good strategy for success. You never know when a last-minute complication will arise that will throw off your schedule and make it impossible to deliver your project on time.
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How to Stop Procrastinating
1. Know Why You’re Getting in Your Own Way
The first step to getting back on track is to understand why you ran off the rails to begin with. That means knowing why you put things off. A mental block like a fear of success or failure might require a change in mindset. On the other hand, if you’ve learned bad habits from your parents or peers, you can create new ones instead.
If you tend to procrastinate about certain tasks, but not others, you might try making a list of the activities that put you into “do-it-later” mode. You could discover a common thread that helps you tackle the problem more effectively. Even if all you learn is that you tend to put off boring activities in order to focus on ones you find more exciting, at least you’ll be prepared the next time you face that task.
2. Try the Pomodoro Technique
Is distraction your main obstacle to productivity? It’s no wonder. Today’s office workers contend with an unprecedented number of distractions, from social media alerts to multiple messaging platforms. It can be hard to stay on top of your email, never mind find heads-down time for the projects that are supposed to make up the bulk of your responsibilities. If you’re someone who tends to put off important tasks, you have plenty of things to distract you.
Working in sprints can help you stop procrastinating. There are multiple methods of doing this, but the basic idea is the same: work for X amount of time, rest for Y amount of time. For example, the Pomodoro Technique uses a timer to split work into 25-minute segments, separated by a three- to five-minute break.
Each work segment is called a “Pomodoro,” in honor of the tomato-shaped timer Francesco Cirillo used when he invented the technique in the 1980s. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for “tomato.”) After each Pomodoro, the worker makes a check mark. After four check marks, they take a longer break, typically for 20 to 30 minutes.
Systems like Pomodoro help you stop procrastinating because they require a relatively small commitment on the part of the user. As Cirrillo says on his site, “After all, it’s just 25 minutes.”
Don’t have a tomato timer lying around? Try one of the many free Pomodoro timer apps out there on the internet.
3. Focus on the Tasks That Cause You the Most Stress
Want to feel better about your to-do list in a hurry? Focus first on the items that are stressing you out the most. This productivity hack comes recommended by Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. In a 2014 podcast, Ferriss explained how to tackle these tough to-dos.
Richard Feloni at Business Insider summarizes this approach:
– Before starting your day, get a piece of paper and write down three to five things that are causing you the most stress. “They’re often things that have been punted from one day’s to-do list to the next, to the next, to the next, and so on,” Ferriss says. He likes using a Post-It note because it forces him to keep things short and sweet.
– Then go through each point and ask these two questions: “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?” and “Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?”
If you answer “yes” to one or both of those questions, keep that item on your list. Pick one — and just one — from this smaller list and devote a few hours to tackling it.
4. Be Nicer to Yourself
“Research shows that the more you can forgive yourself for past procrastination, the more likely you are to overcome your current procrastination and take action,” writes Vanessa Loder, entrepreneur and cofounder of Mindfulness Based Achievement, at Forbes. “Practice self-compassion when thinking of your past experience procrastinating.”
The stories we tell ourselves are powerful. If you tell yourself that you’re a procrastinator, it will be that much harder to break the habit of putting things off. On the other hand, if you forgive yourself for not being proactive in the past, you may be able to stop procrastinating and create a new pattern for the future.
5. Get a Partner
Have you ever had a workout buddy or joined a meal prep group? If so, you’ve already learned one of the secrets for beating procrastination: get a partner who will keep you accountable.
At Psychology Today, Elizabeth Lombardo Ph.D. explains:
Establish specific deadlines for completing a task. Then find someone who will help you be accountable. It could be a promise to your boss or client that you will complete the job by a certain date. Or it may be a coach who helps you stay on track. Or simply find an accountability partner. In this relationship, you connect with someone (on the phone, for example) at certain time intervals (such as once per week) and commit to what you will do before your next meeting. Not wanting to go back on your word, this can be a great way to squash procrastination.
6. Start Small
Beginning a task is often the hardest part — especially if you focus on the entire project instead of the first step. To get motivated, Atomic Habits author James Clear suggests adopting “The Two-Minute Rule.”
“’The Two-Minute Rule’ states, ‘When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do,’” Clear explains at his blog.
For example, “work out every day” might become “drive to the gym,” while “clean out my inbox” becomes “answer one email.” Whatever you need to do, break it down to its smallest possible component … and begin there. It’s easier to stop procrastinating when you’re not trying to do everything at once.
“A new habit should not feel like a challenge,” Clear says. “The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. What you want is a ‘gateway habit’ that naturally leads you down a more productive path.”
Tell Us What You Think
Have you learned how to stop procrastinating and get things done? We want to hear from you. Share your tips in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.