Procrastination: We’ve all done it. Putting off an important task from your to-do list over and over again, even though you should know better.
Pretty soon, the task deadline is looming over you. Yet you still choose to do something else less important. And as the deadline creeps closer, you finally scramble to do what needs to be done, barely completing the task in time.
Or perhaps you even miss the deadline and endure the consequences.
Nothing good comes from the decision to procrastinate. It’s a self-destructive behavior that has perpetuated feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment. It’s not laziness. In fact, there’s a good chance that we actually care a lot about the tasks we delay doing. So why do we continue to do it over and over again?
Some research shows that 20 percent of us are chronic procrastinators, while a much higher percentage of us admit to doing it occasionally. Simply put, procrastination is acting against your better judgment to delay a task. While perhaps there are some thrill-seekers who get a rush from this kind of behavior, a lot of us just default to procrastination out of habit. And absolutely nothing good comes from it.
Why We Do It
Before we figure out how to beat procrastination, we have to understand why we do it. Because unless we understand the cause of something, we won’t be able to find the appropriate solution. So here are a few reasons that we fall prey to the procrastination trap.
Human behavior can be odd. What a mystery it is to care about an outcome and willingly choose to sabotage it! The disconnect often lies in what we want in the moment (in the present) and what we want in the long term (in the future). Instant gratification wins over accomplishing a bigger goal.
I’m reminded of the marshmallow experiment — a study done in 1972 by psychologist and Stanford University professor Walter Mischel. In the study, children were offered the choice between having a single marshmallow immediately or multiple marshmallows if they could wait until later to have them.
Those who were able to delay their gratification and wait for the “bigger reward” of more marshmallows seemed to fare better in life (higher SAT scores, lower BMI, and other measurable factors of life success).
How does this relate to our discussion on procrastination? Those successful kids were able to make a decision based on a future personal goal (e.g. more marshmallows). They didn’t choose the immediate satisfaction of the single marshmallow. As we talk about procrastination in our adult lives, the thing we choose to do over the thing that is truly important — that is the single marshmallow.
Resistance / Resentment
Sometimes we delay doing something because we hate that we have to do it in the first place. It’s boring. It’s too hard. We are resentful that we even have to do it. But the task must get completed. I immediately think about preparing income taxes. It’s a task that is required of me as a citizen abiding by the law. But I dislike how complicated it is and therefore put it off. (I don’t seem to be alone in this procrastination either!)
Fear of Failure / Perfectionism
Sometimes we put off a task, not because we dislike it, but because we really care about the outcome. A lot. And we don’t want to fail. Our brain tricks us by thinking, “If we don’t start, then we can’t fail!” It’s the same thing for perfectionism.
A perfectionist can’t bear to do things at less than 100 percent, so if they put off the task, they can delay the let down of anything less than that. It’s a temporary solution, but there’s a subconscious thought that maybe in the meantime, they will discover some pertinent knowledge that will help them succeed.
Overwhelm / Uncertainty of Where to Start
When a project is too big and unclear, we tend to put it off because we don’t know where to start. It’s messy, and it’s much easier to kick it under the bed than actually sort through it.
These kinds of tasks or projects are very easy to delay indefinitely. And when they are personal goals and there is no set deadline, it gets even trickier. With the overwhelm comes a sense of doubt and lack of confidence, and we may procrastinate until we have simply changed our own mind about needing to get it done in the first place.
Why We Shouldn’t Procrastinate
Now that we know why do it, here’s a few reasons why we should stop:
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Disappointment in ourselves and disappointing others who are expecting the task done
- Anxiety and stress that comes from trying to get the task done last minute
- Doing the task poorly because you didn’t allow enough time or focus
- Missed deadlines
- Losing clients
- Losing a job
- Breaking trust or ruining relationships
Clearly, there are consequences. And they outweigh any temporary benefit you might gain. But my suggestion isn’t to focus on all the negative stuff. You should be aware of what your choices can lead to, but your focus should be on a solution. So let’s dive into several ways to beat procrastination.
8 Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination
Before you jump into a strategy, you have to be aware that you are actually procrastinating. Make note of when you find yourself procrastinating and why you are doing it. (We talked about several of the most popular reasons earlier in the article.) When you have identified the facts, you can choose which solution will work the best for you.
Here are 8 different strategies for beating procrastination:
Commit to just getting started.
Procrastination is a habit. It’s a default mode that we fall into without even thinking about it, so it can take some time to change that habit. Getting started is most often the hardest part of tackling a task so simply commit to a small amount of time on a project — for instance, 10 minutes.
When I have a challenging writing assignment that I want to do well, I often commit to simply making a quick outline (10 minutes or less). Once I dive in and just get started, it’s infinitely easier to keep going.
Sometimes I think procrastination is simply the product of too many distractions. We put off a task because we have so many other options right there in our faces that we can’t say no to.
Imagine if you were trying to eat healthier and your partner came home with ice cream, chocolates, donuts, and chips (or whatever your favorite junk foods are) and just put them out on the counter for you to see. How hard would it be to stick to your plan of healthy eating? Recognize what is distracting to you and turn it off, tune it out, or keep it out of reach.
Get some accountability.
Don’t go it alone. If you are working with a team, set deadlines for your tasks and commit to checking in on them on a daily basis. (Or more often if you need to.) If you work solo, then find yourself an accountability partner or a mastermind group.
When you tell people you will do something by a certain time, you are making a promise. It works wonders, especially when the tasks have no external deadline and it’s your own personal goals.
Improve your focus.
A lack of focus can be the cause of procrastination. You may need to take a break to get refreshed. Try moving your body with exercise or taking a walk to get the blood flowing to your brain.
You can try mindfulness or meditation exercises to center and ground yourself. This strategy also partners with minimizing your distractions, as doing that will also improve focus.
Get organized and use a productivity strategy.
If you procrastinate because you don’t have a clear idea of what your priorities truly are, then get organized. Decide what’s truly important and align your tasks with bigger goals.
Write things down, keep a to-do list, and use a system like the Ivy Lee Method, the GTD framework, the Eat That Frog Method, or the Eisenhower Matrix to help you make decisions on priorities. Plan out the agenda for your day ahead of time so that you don’t have to make choices about what to do in the moment, but rather have a clear plan laid out.
Break up your big projects into action steps.
When overwhelm is the problem, you probably have too big of a task. And it’s not actually a single task. If it’s a big project, try deconstructing it into more digestible pieces. List out all the steps it will take to complete the project, in order. And as you do each small task, check it off or visually cross it out so you can see progress being made. That will give you a nice sense of accomplishment.
Because we often need a short-term incentive (like the kids in the marshmallow experiment), try giving yourself a reward for completing a task. Maybe you allow yourself a treat. Or have a partner responsible for giving you the reward only if you don’t procrastinate.
Shift your mindset to the positive.
If tricking yourself with rewards doesn’t work, focus on changing your mindset. Recognize that putting off a task and letting it intimidate you gives the task power over you. You are in control and can take back the power by tackling a task head-on. Focus on the feeling of accomplishment you will experience by completing a task ahead of time and the sense of calm and relaxation (and the stress you will avoid by not doing it last minute).
You don’t have to let procrastination rule you. Understand when you do it and why you do it. And then take action to beat it.
A simple awareness of behaviors is truly the key to making changes for the better. You’ll be moving forward towards your goals faster than ever, in no time at all.