Most of us are all too familiar with procrastination — putting off something you need to do until the last minute. And chances are, you’ve probably procrastinated on lots of important tasks, projects, or assignments in your lifetime. You may even be procrastinating on something right now, as you’re reading this article.
Why do we procrastinate?
According to a 2015 study, the tendency to procrastinate can be linked genetically to impulsivity. Not only that but if you struggle with procrastination now, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll struggle with it for the rest of your life.
There are lots of reasons why we procrastinate. We could be afraid of failure, unsure of how to start, or just don’t see the task at hand is urgent. However, regardless of why we are doing it, we know from experience that procrastination only hurts us in the long run.
“This is why we say that procrastination is essentially irrational,” Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, said. “It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences.”
Sirois went on to explain what this means.
“People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task,” she said.
Simply put, we procrastinate to avoid feeling the negative emotions that come along with whatever task it is we are putting off. This could be because the task itself is unpleasant, or it could be related to our own deeper feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and anxiety.
Psychologist Dr. Hal Hershfield said we make the decision to procrastinate due to something called present bias, which causes us to prioritize short-term needs over long-term ones.
“We really weren’t designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now,” he said.
Hershfield went on to explain that in some ways, our brains even view our “future selves” as strangers, convincing us that the tasks we are putting off are actually someone else’s problem.
Over time, chronic procrastination can wreak havoc on our mental health leading to chronic stress, depression, anxiety, chronic illness and even cardiovascular issues.
So, how do we manage these negative feelings and stop procrastinating? Here are four ideas to get you started.
1. Break up the task into smaller tasks
Sometimes we put off a task or a project, because looking at it as a whole feels overwhelming. Breaking it up into smaller tasks can help.
Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, said that after doing this, it’s important to only focus on the next task in front of you. This can help calm your nerves by creating what he calls, “a layer of self-deception.”
As you start checking things off your task list, one by one, you will feel motivated to keep going.
“Motivation follows action. Get started, and you’ll find your motivation follows,” Pychyl said.
Another thing to consider once you’ve broken down your tasks is setting specific deadlines. Estimate how long each task on your list will take you and give yourself a day and time to complete it. This way, you have some accountability and motivation to get things done on time.
2. Make distractions inconvenient
We all have our go-to list of things that we turn to when we are avoiding a task. It could be social media, Netflix, or even something that feels productive, like cleaning up around the house.
Whatever your “thing” is, find a way to make it less accessible. Turn your phone off (or turn off notifications) and leave it in another room. Block social media tabs on your browser for a few hours. Work outside of your home (if you can and it’s safe) to avoid distractions there.
Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits,” said by doing this, you are making it more difficult to distract yourself, which interrupts the procrastination cycle. When it’s harder to reward yourself for procrastinating, it frees you to focus on the task at hand first.
Rubin also suggests that, on the other hand, you make getting your current task done as easy as possible.
“Try to remove every, every, every roadblock,” she said.
3. Reward yourself
Procrastination feels like a reward at the moment. We want to avoid the negative emotions associated with a task or project. So, we put it off and are rewarded with good feelings that come with whatever we’ve chosen to distract ourselves with.
“Our brains are always looking for relative rewards. If we have a habit loop around procrastination but we haven’t found a better reward, our brain is just going to keep doing it over and over until we give it something better to do,” psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer said.
Brewer suggests the key to getting around this is to give our brains the “Bigger Better Offer.”
Brewer said this means focusing on internal solutions, like self-compassion and self-forgiveness. When we offer ourselves these things, we can decrease the psychological distress surrounding our procrastination. Studies also revealed that self-compassion boosted motivation and increased positive emotions, making it less likely that procrastination will continue.
When we stop procrastinating and start accomplishing the tasks in front of us, that can feel like a reward on its own. However, if you need a little extra push, you could offer yourself a physical reward after completing a task. Get yourself a treat, go see a movie or hang out with a friend — but only after you’ve finished what you need to get done.
Knowing you have something exciting to look forward to may propel you to tackle what’s in front of you.
4. Find an accountability partner
We are so much more likely to accomplish our goals when other people are paying close attention. Find a friend, colleague, mentor, etc. who you look up to and let their drive push you forward too.
Tell your accountability partner what you need to accomplish — goals, tasks, projects — big and small. Ideally, they’ll share their goals with you as well and you can check in on each other and push each other forward.
You can also look for people who have already accomplished the things you’re trying to accomplish. Seek them out and learn from them. Seeing someone else’s success can show you what is possible and give you the extra motivation you need to take the first step.