How to Stop Procrastinating

Content Updated on January 4, 2008

I’m a procrastinator, so I know how this song and dance goes.

You’re supposed to be exercising, but you’ll do it later, right after you finish watching this show on TV. Oh wait, this next show is good too. And you really do need to finish reading these magazines that are piling up, so you can throw them in the recycling bin, which reminds you that you need to take out the trash. Besides, exercising only takes 30 minutes, and you still have 2 hours before you have to leave for work. You’ve got plenty of time to do this other stuff first. Oh no! Look at the clock. You’ve got to head out the door. Maybe you can exercise when you get home. After that long day of work, you’re exhausted. You don’t have the energy to exercise. Oh well, you can just skip today and watch the evening news instead. You promise yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow.

By the end of the week, you look back and realize that you haven’t exercised once during the week, or even during the entire month. Where did the time go? Maybe you just need more time.

In reality, you probably already have enough time to accomplish your goals, to check tasks off your to-do lists. But for some reason, you keep finding “more important” things to do. Why is that? Why can’t you just get these things done? Why do you distract yourself from them?

Understand Why We Procrastinate

We procrastinate because we believe that the experience we are putting off will be painful in some way. We naturally fear anything painful. So procrastination is really just a defensive skill to avoid our fears. It’s rooted in anxiety.

They first step to overcoming procrastination is to figure out what pain you expect to happen:

  • Rejection
  • Failure
  • Making mistakes
  • Loss of feeling important
  • Loss of time to do the things you really want to do
  • Unwanted stress
  • Physical exertion
  • Emotional exertion
  • Boredom
  • Feeling like you’re giving in or being manipulated
  • Feeling like you are losing control
  • Possibility of not being able to stop the activity
  • Possibility of action leading to even more unforeseen problems
  • Others may expect you to meet higher standards all the time (which may result in more stress and more possibility for failure and rejection)
  • Having an ethical objection to the task

If you find that you have an ethical objection to the task, then perhaps you actually shouldn’t do the task at all. For example, if you keep putting off advertising to your clients about the latest product that your company sells because you honestly don’t believe that they should buy the product, then you may need to rethink how you interact with your customers, and you may even want to rethink whether or not you should look for a new company to work for.

If, on the other hand, you realize that the project you’re avoiding is actually necessary and not in violation of your ethics, then read on.

Imagine Your Fears Coming True

Take a moment to imagine that the worst thing that can happen actually does happen. How are you going to deal with it?

Let’s say that you are supposed to be working on a project for your job, but you’re procrastinating because you expect that you won’t do as good as a job as your boss wants you to do. You begin to think about how if your project doesn’t meet your boss’s standards, then he’ll scold you in front of all your coworkers, and everyone will end up rejecting you. You’ll be fired and won’t be able to get another job with equal or greater pay because as the potential new employer will somehow find out that you aren’t very good at your job. Eventually, you use up all of your savings and can only manage to get a minimum wage job. Your family sinks into poverty, and you have to move into a bad neighborhood. Your kids start hanging out with troublemakers and start getting into trouble themselves. Your marriage crumbles under the stress… (I’m sure you get the picture by now.)

Now rewind your worst-case-scenario back to the beginning. What could you have done to avoid all of this?

Perhaps you could have started working on your project early to ensure that you did a good job. If your boss did scold you, perhaps you could respond by standing tall and voicing your opinion that you thought you had met his standards, so perhaps he could clarify what it is exactly that he wanted. If your coworkers rejected you, perhaps you could remind yourself that anyone who would reject you over something so small must have deeper emotional issues themselves, and perhaps you could feel pity for them for being so shallow. If you were fired, perhaps you could immediately put together resumes and start networking. If could only get hired at a minimum wage job, perhaps you could use that job to make more networking connections while you continue to diligently hunt for a higher paying job…

This exercise seems time-consuming, but you don’t need to do it every time you procrastinate. It’s just to help you train your brain into recognizing that those things you fear really aren’t that scary because no matter what happens, you can handle it.

Know Why You WANT to Do It

There must be a benefit to doing the task at hand. What are the benefits of doing it? What will you gain by doing it? What will you lose if you don’t do it?

It’s much easier to find motivation to do something if you realize that you actually do want to do it.

Recognize Your Excuses

It’s easy to convince ourselves to procrastinate just by making up excuses:

  • I work better under pressure.
  • I have too many other things to do.
  • I need to learn more about this before I start.
  • I always wait until the last minute, but I always get it done.
  • Does it even really matter?
  • It won’t make any difference anyhow.

No matter what excuses you use, you need to recognize when you make them. Catch yourself in the act of making the excuse, and remind yourself (aloud or silently) that it is, in fact, just an excuse. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll probably find that most of those excuses aren’t true at all.

Get Yourself Moving

My motto to overcome procrastination: “I don’t have to do everything. I just have to do something.” This is by far my best method for overcoming procrastination.

You don’t need to wash the entire sink of dishes. You just need to empty all the silverware from the dishwasher. You don’t need to do your entire term paper. You just need to scribble down some brainstorming ideas in your notebook. You don’t need to do your entire workout. You just need to march in place for 2 minutes.

The nice thing about this technique is that it even if you do just the minimum, that’s far better than doing nothing. By doing a little-at-a-time, before you know it, your project will be done. So by just doing a little, you’re still accomplishing something big.

Another nice thing about this technique is that once you get started, continuing doesn’t seem so difficult.

You empty the silverware from the dishwasher and then think, well I can put the cups away too, and then the plates, etc. You scribbled down some brainstorming ideas and say, “Well, I might as well start putting together some sort of outline for the paper.” You march in place for 2 minutes and think, I think I’ll go for another 2 minutes.

The nice thing about this inertia is that even though you originally only planned on doing a small task, you end up doing a much larger chunk of the task, or even the entire task, so you can check it off your to-do list much sooner.

Use Peer Pressure

Tell a friend, coworker, etc. that you are going to do the task by a specific time.

I’m going to wash the dishes before 7 o’clock tonight. I’m going to finish writing the first draft of my term paper tonight. I’m going to jog for 10 minutes during lunch.

By telling other people what you plan to do and when, you simultaneously tell yourself that this task is important and needs to be done.

You are also letting other people know that these activities are a priority for you, so if they try to distract you, you can remind them that you need to tend to your priorities first.

If you’re lucky, your peers will help you complete the task by reminding you of what your plans were: “You only have 10 minutes left of your lunch hour. You better get going if you want to get that jog in.”

In some cases, they might even do the activity with you: “You wash the dishes, and I’ll dry them.”

It’s also helpful if you have a friend who is relying on you as well. For example, if you have an exercise buddy, knowing that she is counting on you to motivate her as well can convince you to workout even if you don’t feel like it.

Make It Fun!

Doing tasks you hate doing is much easier when you decide to have a good time while doing them. Think about how you can take a dreaded task and make it fun.

  • Turn up the music so you can sing and dance while doing your chores.
  • When working on your report, read it back using funny voices.
  • Work while you’re in the bathtub, pool, or hot tub.
  • Go outside and enjoy some fresh air while you’re working.
  • Get your kids to join in your workouts, and make it a fun family time.

Leave Room in Your Schedule for Your Preferred Activities

Sometimes we procrastinate because we would rather do an activity we enjoy more than the dreaded project. If this is the case for you, then the best way to handle your procrastination habit is to add your preferred activity to your to-do list. Schedule it into your day: “From 3pm to 4pm, I’m going to doodle because I  love doodling.” This way, you won’t feel as resentful toward your less than enjoyable tasks for taking time away from things you prefer to do.

Use a To-Do List

“I forgot” is used too often as a procrastination technique. It’s harder to forget when you use a to-do list. Find a to-do list method that works for you. Some people keep their list in a small notebook that they carry with them wherever they go. Some people keep their to-do lists on their PDAs. Some people send email reminders to themselves. Some people even use their voicemail as a to-do list by leaving messages for themselves, “It’s me! Finish that report tonight. It’s due tomorrow.” There are even services that will allow you to create a to-do list and send reminders to your email, cell phone, and voicemail all at the same time, so you don’t have an excuse to miss a reminder.

Make an Appointment with Yourself

Get out your schedule and designate a time to work on your project. For some people, just writing it down on a schedule makes the difference. Somehow, writing it down makes it real and important.

If you have written down, clean bathroom at 4:00pm, then when 4pm comes, you know that it’s time to get up and start cleaning.

Use an Alarm Clock

Appointments often work as long as you know what time it is. If your problem is just losing track of time, then get yourself an alarm clock. Most cell phones and PDAs come with some sort of alarm clock feature. If you’re on your computer throughout most of the day, try scheduling alarms on your computer (available in many calendar programs as well as task schedulers).

Set your alarm clock to remind you that an appointment time has come. When the alarm sounds, you’ll know that it’s time to keep that appointment with yourself.

Let Yourself Procrastinate… for a Little While

If you know that you are supposed to be doing a task that you’re avoiding, give yourself permission to procrastinate for a specific period of time. Get out your timer (kitchen timers and computer alarms are my favorite) and set it for 5, 10, or 15 minutes. While the timer is ticking down, you can do whatever you want, but once that timer beeps, you MUST start the task. No more excuses.

Keep Track of How Much Time You Procrastinate

Since I’m on the computer throughout much of my day, I like to use a project timer on my computer, but you could just as easily use a stopwatch (they’re on your cell phone, PDA, digital watch, etc.).

Every time you procrastinate, go ahead and allow yourself to indulge in your bad habit, but click on your project timer or stopwatch and start keeping track of how much time you’ve wasted. Once you start your project, you can stop the stopwatch.

This is a good way to realize how procrastinating has impacted your life. A few minutes here and there doesn’t seem like much, but when you notice that you’ve lost 3 hours of your day to playing solitaire or reorganizing your sock drawer instead of working on that the projects you really need to finish, it’s harder to use the “I didn’t have time” excuse, and it can convince you to reevaluate the importance of conquering your procrastination habit.

Reward Yourself

For some people, rewarding yourself for finishing a task is enough motivation to get the job done. If you’re such a person, then decide what reward you will give yourself when you’ve completed your dreaded task.

Set short term, medium term, and long term rewards. The more you have to work or the longer you have to wait to get that reward, the bigger the reward should be. A short term reward may be: If I exercise today, I can watch my favorite show tonight; otherwise, I’ll have to skip this episode. A medium term reward may be: If I exercise every day for a week, I can go out with my friends; otherwise, I’ll have to spend the weekend at home by myself. A long term reward may be: If I exercise every day for a month, I can go shopping for new clothes.

Of course, this doesn’t work for everybody. The problem with procrastinators is that we often dislike delayed gratification so much that we will play games with ourselves to get to that gratification now. When it comes to rewards, many procrastinators will actually find reasons to procrastinate but still give themselves rewards (e.g. I know I didn’t do all my exercise this week, so I really shouldn’t buy this new outfit as a reward, but I’ll make up for it next week. It’s just my reward in advance.) If you catch yourself giving yourself rewards you don’t really deserve, then the reward method may not work for you.

Now Get Started

What are you waiting for? Start kicking your procrastination habit now.