How to stop procrastinating

“When I ask my children about feeding the fish, dogs or horses (or any other chore, including homework) and they say, “I don’t feel like, I don’t want to,” my typical response is, “I didn’t ask you how you felt or what you want to do. I asked you about that action.” Maturity is in applying that to ourselves, recognizing that “not feeling like it” is not a reason, it’s an excuse.” -Timothy A. Pychyl Ph.D.

This is the last part of my series on overcoming procrastination. Part 1 went over the definition of procrastination, while part 2 covered the reasons for it. I highly recommend reading them first if you are serious about beating this habit.

Now, it’s time to give you some in-depth and actionable advice on how to stop procrastinating. I’ve researched all the ways I could find in books, articles, videos, and presentations. I hope some of these tips resonate with you and help on your journey.

Sadly, there is no magical cure for it and even if you apply all of the advice down below you might still struggle from time to time. But from my experience, I can guarantee you that the tips I’ve researched help tremendously.

The 5 Second Rule

The 5-second rule is a principle established by Mel Robbins. It is as simple as it is effective.

Whenever you are about to start a task and suddenly start making excuses as to why you shouldn’t start right away, or why you should check your e-mails first, follow this routine:

  1. Acknowledge the stress, the tiredness, or whatever is on your mind
  2. Go 5-4-3-2-1 in your head
  3. Work for 5 minutes

That’s all you got to do. No matter how you are feeling, no matter if you are tired. It’s 5-4-3-2-1 and you start and work for 5 minutes, even if the work you do might be the worst you’ve ever done.

This achieves multiple things. First, procrastination can become a habit if you’ve done it for a long time. This means that your brain connected sitting down to work with avoiding work. Essentially, the habit is structured like this:

Trigger (e.g. stress) > Pattern (avoidance) > Reward (stress-relief)

Now if the above habit is stuck in your brain, you want to change it to this:

Trigger (e.g. stress) > Patter (Acknowledge it but start anyway) > Reward (Getting more done than you thought you would, being proud, actually feeling less stress overall…)

You do that by actively breaking the loop lots and lots of times.

Second, research shows that about 80% of people keep working way longer than 5 minutes once they start. This leads to third: if you don’t, you still worked for 5 more minutes than you would have otherwise.

Break the Ability=Performance=Self-Worth equation in your brain

We tend to feel like shit when we look at our peers with better grades, a better job, more successful relationships, or other achievements.

Truth is that your performance doesn’t always show your ability. There are so many factors that can bring down your performance. The best athletes in the world have bad days; it doesn’t mean their ability isn’t great.

It’s the same with your sense of self-worth. Your performance doesn’t determine your worth as a human being.

Do you value your friends because of their job or because of their behavior? Your parents because of how much money they make or because of the things they taught you and the love they showed? Do you like a person because they are successful in their job or because they are nice?

Every human being is so much more than just their achievements and performance level. You probably don’t judge those around you based on their income, but on whether they are good human beings. Treat yourself the same way.

If you feel you are struggling with this a lot, don’t hesitate to seek out counseling or therapy. It’s hard to reverse thought patterns that have been hammered into your brain for decades.

You can also read my article on how to become a happier person by changing how you think of others and yourself:

Forgive yourself for past procrastination

We know that procrastinating sucks, that’s why we beat ourselves up about it. Others might call you lazy, further enforcing that belief.

Truth is, everyone procrastinates. There’s a high chance those who look down to you have quite some issues themselves. As you’ve learned in this article, procrastination is often 100% unconscious. At its core, procrastination even is a defense mechanism.

Acknowledge that you have procrastinated and will procrastinate, understand that it is not because you are lazy or unmotivated, but the result of conflicting motivations. Mindfulness exercises can help become aware of your own emotions. You can find some in the self-improvement section of this website.

In the future, you’ll have the tips from here to help you beat procrastination. It’s a 2 steps forward 1 step back kind of thing.

I’ve spent months reading books, watching videos, reading studies, and getting immersed in the world of psychology. I know most of the ways around procrastination, yet I do it almost daily.

The same goes for the authors, bloggers, and YouTubers in the scene. Knowing about how stuff works sadly isn’t enough to get rid of it completely. Else psychologists would probably be the happiest folk on earth.

But I have gotten better at managing procrastination and working when I am not feeling like working. Right now, my main problem is the opposite where I feel guilty while I’m working because I think I could be more productive. Both extremes suck, finding a balance is key.

Temporal Motivation Theory

The model of Temporal Motivation Theory by Piers Steel and Cornelius J. König provides insight into why we procrastinate.

The basis of the model is the following equation:

According to this equation, your motivation to perform a task comprises 4 factors. The perceived chances of success, the value of completing the task (the reward), impulsiveness (likelihood of getting distracted), and the delay (time until you get the reward or time until the deadline).

Essentially, this means it is easiest to work on tasks when:

  • We are certain we can complete them successfully
  • There’s lots of value in doing them
  • We are not getting distracted
  • The reward is immediate, not 2 weeks from now

According to Temporal Motivation Theory, we can increase our motivation to work on a task by increasing expectancy and value, and by decreasing impulsiveness and delay.

The theory surely doesn’t account for all factors which go into procrastination, as detailed by Pychyl’s blog post on Psychology Today, but provides a solid base model to work with.

Increase Expectancy

We can increase our perceived chances of success while doing any task by making it seem more manageable. Dividing big tasks into smaller tasks, informing ourselves on how to do the tasks before starting or doing them with others can influence this.

Write your plans down

Write what you plan on doing, when you plan on doing it and where you’ll be doing it down on a piece of paper or in a journal. Research shows you’ll be more likely to complete a task if you’ve done this.

Divide Tasks

Cutting a large task up into a bunch of smaller tasks is proven to help tremendously with procrastination. Instead of putting “write an essay” on your to-do list, go with “Make up a heading“, “Create the table of Contents“, “Write the introduction“…

Each one of those tasks seems very manageable. Now if you put one of those tasks on every day of the week, you’ll only have to work for 10 minutes a day and you’ll have the essay done with no effort or stress.

Schedule in a Journal

Work on your time management

Time management is another huge factor in procrastinating. Different time management methods work for different people. I recommend simple to-do lists or bullet journals.

Some general advice I can give:

  • Complete the important tasks first. If you have work to do, do the most important thing first. Your motivation will dwindle throughout the day and you won’t procrastinate by doing all the less important tasks.
  • Limit yourself. Don’t fill your schedule. Focus on the 1-2 most important things every day and do a terrific job. Try to get rid of all the small things you dislike and the stuff with little value.
  • Stop using your phone for 1 day. Turn it off completely and put it in a drawer for one day. If you’re a regular phone user, you’ll be shocked by how many times you’ll be searching for your phone. This is a simple exercise to raise awareness about how much time you spend on your phone and the impact on your attention span it has.
  • Write down everything you do for 1 day. Take your journal out and write down what you spent the last hour on for 1 day. You’ll realize how much time gets lost with random stuff.

Increase Value

By increasing the perceived value/reward of doing a task, you are more likely to complete it.

Tip the balance from fear to motivation

When we’re procrastinating, we tend to motivate ourselves by increasing our fears.

What will others think of me when I don’t do a good job?” or “If I don’t get started on this I’ll fail the exam.” are common ways we try to convince ourselves to work.

Motivation is much more effective the other way around. Instead of looking at what’ll happen when you don’t complete the task, look at what will happen if you do.

Make a physical list of why it is worth completing the task, what benefits there are for your future self, whether it aligns with your personal mission, and what you can learn from the experience. It’ll reduce the mental blocks tremendously.

Reward yourself

Rewards increase the value of a task. You can make a list of things you want to do and tie them into the things you’re working on.

If you finish writing the introduction of that essay by Friday, you’ll watch a movie on Saturday.

If you finish half of this project within 2 weeks, treat yourself to a massage. Make sure the rewards are special and not something you’d probably do anyway.

Punish yourself

For some people, rewards just don’t cut it. Punishments can be a good motivator. Give a friend $200 and tell them to only give it back if you complete the task within a given timeframe. Various online services for this exist, too.

Make sure the punishment is large enough to hurt you; Else, this won’t motivate you much.

Keep in mind that while this method can be effective, the anxiety and fear of loss can impact you negatively in the long run.

A man in front of a calm lake

Decrease Impulsiveness

Impulsiveness relates to the likelihood of getting distracted. You can decrease it by making it harder to get distracted or to distract yourself.

Revamp your Environment

The harder it is for you to indulge in something unproductive, the less likely you are to do it. The same goes the other way around.

  • Put your phone on silent. Only take important calls while you work and only ever check your phone during your breaks.
  • Block distracting websites. Block the websites you use to procrastinate while you are working (Reddit, YouTube, Social Media). There are various apps and browser extensions with this functionality. I have all those blocked during my work time. I used them a lot to do research before, but I adjusted and get much less distracted now.
  • Go to a quiet place where you can focus and concentrate. Being at home can lead to many distractions. Coffee shops or libraries are usually better for working as there are fewer things you could possibly do.
  • Put a barrier between yourself and distractions. If you get distracted a lot by something like video games, create a second user account that is dedicated to working so there’s more of a barrier between working and gaming. Make it inconvenient to get distracted.
  • Have a dedicated workplace. If you play video games at your desk regularly, it will be harder to work while you’re sitting at the same desk. Have a separate place where you go to work and do nothing else there.
  • Make it easy to be productive. Keep your files organized so you can quickly find what’s important. Optimize work processes you have to do often so you can do them more quickly. Maybe even delegate work you don’t like to someone else.
  • Make time for the fun stuff. You’ll get stressed out quickly if you remove all the fun from your day-to-day life. Have some time to relax and do what you like to do. Play some video games after work, go get a massage, and unwind at the end of the day. You can find strategies for this in my article on sleep.

Pair the task with something you enjoy

Sometimes we end up with work that just sucks. Make it easier for yourself by pairing the task with something you like doing.

Listen do a podcast while you do the dishes, take a walk in nature while you’re memorizing your notes or study with friends.

Decrease Delay

The delay is the time until you’ll get the reward for the task or the time until the deadline. Shorten it by creating earlier deadlines and rewards!

Create artificial deadlines

You can set your own deadlines for a task or at least parts of it. This technique is especially helpful for thrill-seekers who enjoy working under pressure.

Reward yourself if you complete a task sooner than you should’ve completed it. Make sure the reward is not something trivial that you will do anyway.

Turn it into a game

You can divide tasks and then use a timer to see how quickly you can complete each step. Try to get as much done as possible within one block of time.

This method doesn’t work for everyone, but when it does it can be astonishingly effective.

General procrastination tips

Develop awareness

You can gain a lot of control over things by informing yourself about how they work.

If you understand how your mind works, it will be much easier to understand. Mindful meditation and writing your feelings down can help improve your awareness.

Knowing what’s keeping you from working allows you to acknowledge it or even fix underlying problems. It’ll also help you find out which strategy to use to get the work done.

Take some time to set up and plan the task

Dedicate the first 15 minutes of working on a task solely to set the work environment up. Open the website you’ll need, clean up your desk, get the documents you’ll be reading, make a coffee. Then take a 2-minute break, get up and stretch before starting your work.

Once everything is ready and waiting for you, it will be much easier to jump right in.

Improve your Willpower

Beating your procrastination, working when you don’t feel like it, requires willpower. You can train willpower like anything else, and the more you do something you are uncomfortable with, the more used you get to doing it. Taking cold showers, waking up early, or actively resisting cravings are great ways of working on your willpower every day.

Track your procrastination

Keep a log of when you procrastinate and write the reasoning for why you put doing a task off down.

Over time, this will help you see patterns and show you reasons for your procrastination. You’ll be able to see exactly which fears are keeping you from working.

Picture of a woman stressed out about her procrastination

Don’t overwork yourself

Our attention span is limited and we can only be productive for some time before we get distracted, unfocused, and tired.

Take regular breaks and make time for fun and relaxing things every day.

While you work, the Pomodoro Technique can be very helpful. Essentially, these are the steps to using it:

  1. Choose one task to work on
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes
  3. Fully concentrate on the task for those 25 minutes
  4. Then take a 5-minute break, get up, stretch, take a walk or whatever you enjoy doing
  5. Repeat

Every 4 cycles, take a 20-minute break instead. If you’re in a flow state, focused and productive, you might want to skip a break or two.

If you’re interested in how to best use the Pomodoro technique and want to learn more details on it, check this article out: Pomodoro technique: The easiest way to 3x your focus

Redefine success

Sometimes you already have procrastinated on a task and won’t have the time to do a perfect job before the deadline. Or you just don’t have the resources to do a perfect job.

Acknowledge that and redefine success. You need to make a switch from “I don’t have the time to do this properly anyway, why bother to start,” to “I will do the best job I can in the time that’s left“.

Getting an A when you’ve worked for a week is just as impressive as getting a B when you only had 3 days. What counts is that you can be proud of yourself.

Develop a Ship-it mentality

Perfectionism has its place and time. However, it can be a major cause of procrastination.

Understand the concept of the minimum viable product. Do only as much as needs to be done to complete a task at a satisfying level. Become comfortable with the fact that most of the time, the rough edges don’t even matter. Even when they do, you can fix them later on.

Do something else that is also productive

Find something that might be more fun for you, but that is also productive in some way. For me, that was the switch from playing games when I was procrastinating to playing the piano when I am procrastinating. At the end of the day, I will at least have practiced a ton and can feel better about myself that way.

However, you can also fall into the trap of procrastinating more because you feel you’re not really procrastinating. So this “productive” procrastination should only be the last way out.

Man happy about his success

I hope this post gave you that spark you needed to get started, that moment where something goes “click” in your brain.

As always, I am happy to hear your experiences, tips, and main takeaways from reading this article. Please share your motivation methods in the comments down below! What goals are you working on right now?

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