Procrastination Pointers – The Top Ten Tips to Stop Procrastinating Today

Dr. John Schinnerer

Recently, I have been procrastinating on writing on article on procrastination. And then, a friend who took my online anger management class recently wrote me with the following question:

“Dear Dr. John, what is the solution for procrastination?  I get that there is no pill and that there will be a lot of work involved. If I am ever to reach my full potential personally and professionally I need to beat this other problem. There has to be some connection between the emotional brain and the rational brain.  Has to be.  Procrastination is straight-up self-sabotage.  You know you have to do it, you know you’re going to do it (eventually), you even want to get it done but still you wait ’til the last minute and create huge problems for yourself and even the people around you. Do you have any good resources on this?  If I can change myself in regards to anger, I can change myself in regards to procrastination.”

In order to help him, me and, hopefully, you, here are the best tips from science to help you stop procrastinating and start acting now. These tips largely come from procrastination expert, Tim Pychyl, Ph.D. who wrote, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Positive Change. Let’s begin with defining procrastination so we know what we are dealing with.

What is Procrastination?

Procrastination is the gap between your intention and your action. It is a voluntary, irrational, delay despite the expectation of a potential negative outcome, which can include the negative impact on your performance, well-being, health, relationships and regret. It also hinders the enjoyment of accomplishments for many people. Interestingly, procrastination is NOT about time management; it IS about poor self-regulation, that is, you give in to yourself to feel better in the moment. It is short-term mood repair at its worst. So my client was absolutely right – procrastination does have to do with the emotional mind. The biggest excuse you hear in your mind is “I don’t FEEL like it.” Yet, there is no reason that you have to feel like it to begin a task. That is simply an error in thinking.

Alright, onto the good stuff – the tips to stop procrastinating forever (or at least some of the time!)…

1. Switch up a task’s characteristics so it is less aversive

It’s important to realize that many tasks are aversive and unappealing; here are the six characteristics of tasks to look for:

Boring – You have little interest in the task and it does not excite you.
Frustrating – The task leads to increased frustration and irritation.
Difficult – The task is simply demanding and hard.
Meaningless – It doesn’t mean much to you personally.
Ambiguous – You are unclear what is required or how to proceed.
Unstructured – There is little structure to help you make progress on the task.

Tasks can have several of these characteristics simultaneously. By increasing your awareness of which characteristics of the task are causing you trouble, you can begin to reframe your relationship to them. And thus, make the task more appealing and help reduce your procrastination.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you have to write a three page economics paper on the tools used in 16th century farming in Scotland. Needless to say, for many people, this task is largely boring, difficult, and meaningless. To flip some of these characteristics, you can make a game out of it and ask yourself, “How much can I get done in 30 minutes if I really focus?” then you focus on this artificial competition to make the task less boring and more engaging. In the same manner, by making jobs more engaging, breaking them down into smaller, concrete steps, making them very specific in terms of when and what and how, you can reduce the amount of procrastinating you do.

“Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.” –Christopher Parker

2. Practice mindfulness

On the surface, mindfulness seems to be completely unrelated to procrastination. So allow me explain how they relate.

As I mentioned earlier, procrastination is not about time management. Most people can accurately estimate how long a task will take and how long they will spend on it. Procrastination is about a break down in emotional self-regulation. People are presented with a tough task and they feel bored or frustrated. So people give in to not completing it to feel better. And it works…in the short term. But not in the long-term. Procrastinators experience more stress and suffering over the long term and this compromises their health. What’s more, procrastinators show fewer healthy behaviors – less sleep, poorer diet, less exercise. Procrastination is ultimately a way to avoid unpleasant feelings. And we are often unaware of these subtle and fleeting aversive emotions.

To combat this, the first step is to become more aware of what you are feeling in the present moment. To do this, you have to spend more of your time in the present moment. One study showed that Americans spend nearly 47% of their waking moments with a wandering mind. This means that their minds are taking them to the past or the future. And this wandering mind is associated with more misery. So you are much better off to the extent you can train yourself to spend more time in the present. And the most powerful tool to do this is mindfulness which is, at heart, a technique which can be used to train your attention. Once you spend more time in the present, you can also notice how you feel. Then you can pay attention (in a nonjudgmental manner!) to how you act in response to how you feel. The more you can be in touch with these emotions, the less likely you are to procrastinate.

3. Make a predecision

Set yourself up for success by making predecisions. How do you do this? Train yourself to be very specific, “On Saturday morning, right after my coffee, I’m going to start working on my research paper.” This puts the trigger for action in the environment (e.g., finishing my coffee). Or “I like to have a cold beer at night.” So I can set myself up for success such as, “When I finish my three mile run, I will have a cold beer. And I’m going to put the beer in the fridge while I’m out running.”

4. Our feelings do NOT have to match our actions

One of the biggest excuses, which fuels procrastination is when you tell yourself “Ehhh, I don’t feel like it.” Yet no one ever said you had to feel like it to get started. Instead, when you hear that ubiquitous excuse, challenge it with “I’ve heard that before. I don’t need to feel like it to get started. Just get started.” It’s not quite the old Nike slogan (“Just do it”). It’s more of a soft push to simply begin the task. Often the internal response after you’ve begun is “This isn’t as bad as I thought.” Dr. Pychyl wrote in his book, “When you find yourself thinking things like ‘I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow,’ ‘I work better under pressure,’ ‘There’s lots of time left,’ ‘I can do this in a few hours tonight,’ let that be a flag or signal or stimulus to indicate that you are about to needlessly delay the task, and let it also be the stimulus to just get started.” Your attitudes will follow your behavior. So just get started.

5. Be kinder to your future self

Dan Gilbert at Harvard has done a lot of work on affective forecasting that has to do with how people predict how they will feel in the future. And he has found that we are terrible at accurately predicting how we will feel in the future; we are not good at it. We tend to rely on our present state to predict our future state. If we feel good right now, we believe we will feel good in the future.

What’s more, there is a difference between how we treat our present self and our future self. We look at our future self as a stranger. So why would we do something now that we can push off onto our future self, who is a stranger to us? We wouldn’t. To get around this phenomenon, researchers have presented study participants with photos of themselves which have been digitally aged so they look like they are 70 years old. When presented with such a photo, participants were found to be much more likely to save more money in their IRA (to benefit their future self).

6. Be aware of how you respond to cognitive dissonance

Psychologists refer to the gap between your actions and your beliefs as cognitive dissonance. When you become aware that you should be doing something but are not, you can respond in one of several ways in an attempt to feel better about yourself…

a. Distract yourself by doing or thinking about unrelated things
b. Forget what you have to do
c. Downplay the importance of what you have to do
d. Deny responsibility in order to distance yourself from what you have to do
e. Look for new information to reinforce your procrastination (e.g., “I need more information before I get started.” “I can’t do this by myself.”)

While these responses can improve your mood in the short-term, they also extend your procrastination and typically lead to more negative feelings (e.g., sadness, disappointment, guilt) down the road. To counter them, the first step is to recognize them. Once you become aware of your habitual responses, then write down the thoughts you normally have to justify these procrastinating responses. Next, use these thoughts as triggers to start taking action.

7. Limit the amount of time on a task

This idea is counter-intuitive in that most people think we need to spend more time on a task. However, one of the most powerful tactics to battle procrastination is to limit the amount of time you spend on a given item. When you tell yourself, “I’ve only got 20 minutes to work on this,” the response is normally “Okay, I only have 20 minutes. I’d better get to work and make the best use of this time.” And you get to work. Limiting the amount of time makes the task more challenging, more fun, more structured and less frustrating because the end is in sight. So break up your to-do’s into smaller chunks of time – 20 or 30 minutes.

8. Practice self-compassion

Procrastinators tend to be very harsh with themselves. When you procrastinate, the punitive self-talk picks up. To the extent you do not forgive yourself for procrastinating, the task becomes MORE aversive and you are more likely to procrastinate more. Beating yourself up rarely helps you to be more productive and lends itself to more depression and irritability. The more you ruminate about your procrastination and how badly you feel about it, the more likely you are to end up in an emotional funk.

What counters this? Self-compassion and mindfulness. Self-compassion has to do with how you speak to yourself when things go badly. Imagine speaking to yourself as you would speak to a 5 year old – kindly, warmly, encouragingly. The more you train yourself to speak kindly to yourself when things go wrong, the more resilient you become, and the ore quickly you bounce back from adversity.

9. Write down the costs of procrastinating

Writing down the costs of procrastination is a simple and effective tonic to get you going. And the costs of procrastination can be massive. When we procrastinate, we are delaying living our lives, postponing the pursuit of our most closely held goals. This step helps you to activate the rational mind to identify the costs of procrastinating which battles the insidious emotional mind (which is encouraging you to not do!). Simply list the tasks on which you are procrastinating. Next to each task, write down how your procrastination has negatively impacted key areas in your life such as your happiness, stress, health, finances, relationships, work life and so on. For greater effect, you can discuss the list with a close friend or coach and see what you may be missing.

10. Disconnect from the web

Did you know that one of Pychyl’s studies showed that when online, people spend 47% of their time procrastinating!? This is likely a low estimate as the study was done prior to the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. While computers are one of our greatest tools for enhancing productivity, they are also one of the main contributors to wasted time. It is quite a paradox. To stay more connected to important goals and tasks, you must disconnect from social media. Shut down any web pages or apps having to do with social media when you are working. If you have a hard time with this and can’t seem to stay away from Twitter feeds when you should be reviewing legal contracts, Self-Control (for Macs) may be the app you need. You can set it for 4 hours, for example, and your browser will act as if it’s offline for that period of time. You can whitelist or blacklist specific sites and this allows you selectively choose which sites are allowed without completely shutting down the entire internet. PC users can try Freedom. There are numerous other apps for the job as well. If you are serious about getting your work done, you have to unplug from the web and its myriad of distractions.

There will always be aversive tasks with which you must deal. However, if you find yourself constantly procrastinating due to aversive work, it may be time to find work that is more personally meaningful to you.

You now possess the latest scientifically-proven tips to combat procrastination. Now go out and get started! If you have more tips to combat procrastination be sure to add them to the comments section below.