How To Stop Procrastinating In 8 Workable Steps
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step – Lao Tzu
Most of us struggle with procrastination from time-to-time, but for some people, procrastination can be a significant hurdle that can threaten the things and people you care about most. Knowing how to stop procrastinating can be humbling, and tough.
Procrastination may have as much to do with emotional regulation than self control, according to the NY Times. In other words, it isn’t just that you lack discipline, it’s that more is going on for you and procrastination is an attempt to help you feel better.
Most of us know the crummy feeling associated with procrastination – needing to get something done, and dreading the doing of it. The dread is visceral and for whatever reason, you just can’t get past it. So you do something else, anything else, and tell yourself it’s better than doing nothing. After all you are doing something, which is better than doing nothing you reason to yourself.
Not surprisingly, you start to feel better about your efforts, and yourself, which in turn fuels even more of whatever it is you’re doing. You can be cleaning your closet, going through your mail, or playing candy crush. It feels good to be distracted and doing something you can succeed at, so you keep doing it.
Thanks to intrinsic reinforcement, the more you procrastinate, the harder it is to stop. Your sense of dread is still there, and building, but so is your resistance. The more you avoid, the bigger your dread and anxiety become, making it harder to face the task at hand. This is how procrastination ultimately reinforces itself, driving anxiety up rather than relieving it.
The latest research confirms procrastination is more related to regulating your emotions than the task itself. When faced with a dreaded task, your temptation to relieve your gloomy mood wins out against your desire to chip away at a longer term goal. Your anxiety and gloomy mood trump the task at hand, a cycle that repeats itself over and over.
The key thing to recognize is that the dreaded task isn’t the issue driving your procrastination. The issues driving your procrastination are your feelings about the task.
Often the steepest hurdle to knowing how to overcome procrastinating is missing its relationship to underlying anxiety while focussing too much on task management and self discipline. When it comes to knowing how to stop procrastination, the first thing to address is the anxiety that’s holding you back.
So if you’re wrestling with the intoxicating temptation to put things off, I would advise you to consider these quick ways to get on with things.
Here are 8 simple ways to overcome procrastination and turn the tide on your resistance.
1.Take stock in why you procrastinate.
Be honest with yourself about how often you procrastinate and recognize the unique scenarios for you that set up this process. Recognizing that you procrastinate, and suffer from its ill effects, will help you recognize its impact when you are next at risk.
For example, do you only procrastinate at work? Only when you’re tired? Only on certain tasks? Knowing where you struggle in tackling procrastination is the first step in finding a solution.
2. Understand your anxiety, and notice how you avoid getting things done by procrastinating.
Tune into the anxiety you feel when something is asked of you – and more importantly, the expectations and meaning that you assign to it. The more important and meaningful a task, the more you will experience anxiety about it, and the more tempted you may be to avoid it.
Responding to mounting anxiety with mounting avoidance only makes things worse and obviously doesn’t work. Understanding when you are avoiding allows you to notice when is the time to try something different.
3. Break the task into small, manageable chunks.
So small, that it fools your resistance. For example, if you have a memo to write, the first step is perhaps to read the assignment. The second task is to create a document. And the third would be to write a title.
Thinking about it in this way, you can further break your task into very small steps that allow you to sidestep your avoidance and stimulate the momentum so you can keep going.
4. Use your anxiety to get started.
This is all about doing it right away. It will never get easier to do than it is right now. This step is really about acknowledging that avoidance behaviors don’t change with time, they often root down even more.
So when you feel that first pang of anxiety, that’s the time to take action. It allows you to sidestep your avoidance from the get-go. This could be anything from brainstorming, making a first phone call, or breaking the task into small pieces to get started.
5. Resist hollow self-assurances as well as panic – both are energy sappers.
If, in spite of your best efforts, you find yourself in a cycle of procrastination, resist the urge to pretend that it will be “OK” or conversely, to panic. Tackling procrastination requires mental focus.
- Avoidance and worry fuel anxiety.
- Action diminishes it.
Letting yourself freak out about how bad things are will only make things worse by exhausting you, and consuming more precious time. This action causes anxiety to rise making it harder to channel. Instead, direct the anxiety you feel towards facing the task at hand. Let it fuel you, not stop you.
6. Keep going until anxiety diminishes.
Once you have started, keep going. Repeat this exercise as long as you need to until you fully engage and you are no longer tempted to avoid.
When anxiety is channeled into action, it feels so good that you may forget how worried you were in the first place. This is the sweet spot of using the felt-pressure of a deadline to fuel activated engagement, and perhaps peak productivity, according to M. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model.
This experience is sometimes referred to as being in the zone, the groove, or flow.
7. Use tools that can help.
Especially if you struggle with attention issues, self discipline, or impulsivity, traits shown to predict procrastination, recognize that staying on task might be particularly challenging and require that you plan accordingly. Be mindful of distractions, and minimize their risk.
Turn off music, TV, social media, telephone, email and other digital distractions if your task requires using your computer. Make sure that your workplace is also free from distraction – clear your desk space, close the door if coworkers are nearby, avoid workspaces where you might be tempted by other activities (like the kitchen, or family area).
Some people find a timer useful to help them maintain focus and resist distraction during a fixed amount of time. Smaller 10-30 minute chunks of time are believed to be useful to maintain focus, so long as you have timed breaks as well.
8. Make procrastination inconvenient.
Just like a dieter is warned to keep unhealthy food outside of the house or an alcoholic to avoid bars, a procrastinator will have a tougher time procrastinating if temptations are not easily accessible.
Consider making stalling activities harder by adding mini-delays, or “micro-costs.” For example, remove a tempting game app from your phone or computer, turn off your email notifications, or disable auto login to your social media or web browser, requiring you the inconvenience of typing in your passcode.
Adding physical distance between you and your tempting distractions can also help – including separating yourself from your comfortable home, a comfortable room, your smartphone, TV, snacks, or even your loved ones. Requiring a walk or travel time can thwart temptations.
Like with most things, baby steps can bring about huge changes. As you read over the list, make note of the things that spark curiosity, resonate for you, or simply have you reading them twice.
Changing behavior is a process that begins with a new awareness, a decision to change, and simply a single step to begin. When it comes to tackling procrastination, why not make things simpler, try something different, and see what happens?
Today, not tomorrow.
How To Stop Procrastination FAQs
Do I procrastinate just because I’m lazy?
No. You procrastinate because you are afraid to face a task that’s scary. This is the opposite of laziness: you care too much and are afraid of what’s ahead of you. It’s anxiety about a task that fuels procrastination, not laziness. In fact, most procrastination techniques involve doing something, even if it’s simply playing a game. By doing something, especially something productive, we give a physical and cognitive outlet to our anxiety. This is what helps temporarily distract you from your worry about the bigger task.
Is there something mentally wrong with me that I can’t just get things done?
There is nothing wrong with you if you struggle to get things done. But not being able to get things done can be a problem if it consistently gets in your way or causes unwanted consequences in your life. Procrastination is one of the most common threats to performance but can be one of the trickiest behaviors to understand and solve. Getting to the bottom of your feelings about the stuff you have to do can help. The more you understand your feelings and the anxiety that’s holding you back, the more you can take control and get back to feeling strong and confident.
Why is it so hard to stop procrastinating?
The feedback loop of procrastination is powerful. It feels good to engage your attention to something you can control and succeed at, while also avoiding something that’s scary. The more you procrastinate, the more you avoid. But rather than making the dreaded task more manageable, avoidance through procrastination makes the task more dreadful. This is how anxiety works: the more you try to avoid anxiety, the bigger it gets. And the bigger your dread of a task, the more you will want to procrastinate, making procrastination harder to stop the more you do it.
Is it necessary to go to therapy to stop procrastinating?
It isn’t necessary to go to therapy to stop procrastinating. Tuning into your anxiety and letting it motivate constructive, manageable effort is the key to turning procrastination around. This is absolutely possible without professional help. But if this feels too tough to do alone, therapy can help you uncover the anxiety driving your procrastination and help you so you can develop so you can develop more productive strategies of for dealing with it.
Why is anxiety a super tool for stopping procrastinating?
Despite its bad rap, anxiety can be a useful emotional tool. Signaling that something you care about that’s at risk, anxiety’s neurological role is to harness attention and deliver energy to forge solutions. In short, anxiety delivers focus and energy to solve the problems you care about most and can be a super tool when you embrace its inherent discomfort rather than avoid it.
The key to harnessing anxiety to stop procrastination is to recognize how it’s trying to help you, and use its energy to fuel on-task behavior. No matter how small, pick a starting place to tackle the problem that anxiety is signaling, and direct its energy to solutions that incrementally solve it. Fool your resistance by starting small, and use anxiety’s focus to stay on the task. Rather than trying to quell your discomfort through procrastination, use your anxiety to fuel the behavior that’s needed, step by step. You can do it. Soon, your efforts will yield progress, and anxiety will give way to intrinsic motivation, negating the need for avoidance or procrastination.
Looking for more help in understanding anxiety? Learn more about my book Hack Your Anxiety and access free tools to help you manage the fear and anxiety going around the world today.
Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash.
Updated January 15, 2024