Let's face it. We procrastinate at some point. Some more so than others.
It's in our nature to want to avoid things that require effort because we're conditioned to associate short term rewards as pleasing even though the tasks that require effort may in fact bring us greater satisfaction later on.
We're just impatient beings!
We prioritize our feelings in the present, and do things that will help us feel better immediately, even if this comes at the expense of taking action that aligns with our long-term goals.
Also, you may think that procrastination only affects you. But the truth is, when the procrastinator finishes his binge of work, social devastation lays all about. You may end up cancelling on social engagements, break certain promises, or call in for favors to have others problem solve last-minute catastrophes just because you decided to wait till the last minute.
Sure, this may sound extreme.. but if you're a hardcore procrastinator, do you realize the impact it could bring on your relationships at home or at work?
Of course, all hope is not lost!
As no matter what degree of procrastination you're in, there is always a solution to reduce the procrastination. And you can start off by using the Life Time Calculator Assessment to find out just how much of your time is spent procrastinating, or doing things that don't bring about meaningful outcomes.
By being aware of what you're using your time for, you'll be in a much better position to change things around!
Life Time Calculator Assessment
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Why Mindfulness is The Key
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a procrastinator.
It’s a dreadful habit that prevents me from reaching my full potential. Which is why I’ve been actively working on reducing my procrastination for years.
I’m not lying when I tell you that I’ve tried every trick in the book. Some tricks worked; some didn’t. The ones that worked I’ve probably already mentioned somewhere in my previous articles on procrastination.
If I could only give you one piece of advice for overcoming procrastination, I would point you to the article you’re reading right now. I’m about to show you exactly what procrastination boils down to, the #1 skill you need to overcome it, and exactly how to obtain this skill. Sounds good?
When and How Do We Procrastinate?
Procrastination happens when we feel negative emotions — anxiety, boredom, frustration, overwhelm — toward a task. Because these emotions are uncomfortable (they literally cause pain in our brains!), we try to avoid them. Hence, we procrastinate.
It’s always the same story. We want to do something, but end up doing something else that feels better. In other words, we run away from our negative thoughts and emotions.
At its very core, procrastination is an emotion management problem. It will always come down to that all-important moment of facing a task, experiencing the negative emotions associated with it, and doing the task despite those negative emotions.
That’s the #1 skill needed to overcome procrastination: taking action despite experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. Taking action even if you don’t feel like doing it, even if you feel anxious about doing it, even if you feel overwhelmed, even if you feel stressed out.
We need to understand that our thoughts and emotions don’t have to dictate our behavior. But first, let’s have a closer look at exactly how our thoughts and emotions get us into trouble in the first place…
How Your Thoughts & Emotions Convince You to Procrastinate
Newsflash: You are not your thoughts. And you are not your emotions. Thoughts and emotions just pop up, they come and go like clouds in the sky. They are like the weather. Sometimes it’s sunny; sometimes it rains — sometimes you feel happy and motivated; sometimes you feel sad and depressed.
Let’s try an experiment together. Notice what pops into your head when you read the following statements. Don’t make any effort, just watch what happens:
- Blondes have more…
- Every cloud has a…
- Plenty more fish in the…
- Children should be seen and not…
See what happened there? Without any effort of your own, the “right” sentence completions just popped into your head. “Blondes have more…FUN!” “Every cloud has a… SILVER LINING!”
You didn’t author these thoughts — they just popped up out of nowhere. That’s what thoughts (and emotions!) do. That’s their nature. They pop up and then they disappear. They come and go.
Just as the word ‘sea’ pops up when you encounter the phrase ‘Plenty more fish in the…’, negative thoughts and emotions will pop up when you’re trying to accomplish a challenging and somewhat uncomfortable task.
If you’re trying to finish your essay, meditate, hit the gym, or do anything else worthwhile, chances are that negative thoughts and emotions will pop up. You feel a sense of anxiety, you feel overwhelmed, you feel stressed out, and you certainly don’t feel motivated. Your mind is telling you to do the task tomorrow. That’s when you’ll feel like it, that’s when you’ll be motivated.
You see, your mind is a reason-giving machine. It will rationalize the shit out of anything that’s just a little bit uncomfortable and create endless excuses as to why you shouldn’t do something now. Those excuses are irrational, but sound superficially reasonable. Some common examples are:
- “I’ll feel more like it tomorrow!”
- “I work better under pressure.”
- “I’m too tired. I’ll do it later on or tomorrow. I’ll have more energy then.”
- “I’m trying, but it’s not working. What’s wrong?”
- “There’s even more work after this. I can never get it all done.”
- “Damnit! I should have started earlier. Now it’s too late. I might as well give up.”
- “I need some more preparation before I can start.”
- “I’ll feel more like doing it after another cup of coffee.”
- “I’m too jittery to get work done. I shouldn’t have drank that last cup of coffee.”
- “It’s already 4pm. Now it’s too late to start. I’ll just do it tomorrow.”
- “Today is Sunday. It’s okay to rest and do nothing. I’ll just do it tomorrow.”
- “I’m not motivated. Let me google how to increase motivation. I’ll do the other stuff tomorrow.”
- “I can’t concentrate well today. It would be a waste of time trying to get anything done today.”
Do any of these sound familiar? Of course, right? It’s these thoughts and the accompanying emotions that lead us to procrastinate and keep us from engaging in healthy behaviors such as meditation, regular exercise, and so on.
You see, it’s always the mind (thoughts and emotions) that gets in the way. You want to meditate, but your mind tells you to start tomorrow. You want to get up early, but your mind urges you to hit the snooze button. You want to finish your project on time, but your mind prefers to watch TV.
Now, here’s the good news. Like I said earlier, thoughts and emotions don’t need to dictate your behavior…
Stop Letting Thoughts & Emotions Dictate Your Behavior
Emotions and thoughts influence us to act in certain ways. Under the influence of strong emotions, we commonly make changes to our posture, voice, facial expression, and behavior. This is known as an ‘action tendency’ — when we feel angry, we have a tendency to shout, clench our firsts, and lash out physically or verbally.
The key word here is tendency.
Yes, we may have the inclination to do something, but that doesn’t mean we have to do it. We can feel angry but act calmly. We can feel afraid but act courageously. We can feel discouraged but keep going nonetheless. You can take action and do the thing despite experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. You can do things whether you feel like it or not.
David Reynolds refers to this as ‘becoming a mature human being’ in his book Constructive Living:
“The mature human being goes about doing what needs to be done regardless of whether that person feels great or terrible. Knowing that you are the kind of person with that kind of self-control brings all the satisfaction and confidence you will ever need. Even on days when the satisfaction and confidence just aren’t there, you can get the job done anyway.”
How to Beat Procrastination
As I mentioned earlier, procrastination is an emotion management problem.
When we procrastinate, that simply means we let our thoughts and emotions control our behavior. We run away from negative feelings and give in to feeling good. It always comes down to this. Do we stay put, experience the negativity, and act in spite of it? Or do we run away, give in to feeling good, and procrastinate.
It’s always that moment that counts. We can either do the thing or run away. If we want to beat procrastination in the long-run, we need to get better at this. We need to take action and follow through despite experiencing negative thoughts and emotions.
So, how do we get better at this? How can we loosen the grip our emotions and thoughts have on us? How can we do the thing whether we feel like it or not?
Step 1: Become Aware
The first step is to become aware of any negative emotions you feel and the myriad of excuses your mind is telling you right when it’s time to work on a task.
When your mind tells you stuff like “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow” or “I’ll first check Facebook; it’ll only take a minute,” you need to become aware of such thoughts. Recognize that it’s just your mind trying to keep you from doing what you want to do.
When you’re feeling anxious, bored, restless, or frustrated, you need to become aware of those feelings. “Oh, I’m feeling resistance towards this task. I feel an urge to procrastinate.” When you feel the urge to check emails, go on Facebook, have a cigarette, or run away in some other form, you need to notice that as well.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a famous mindfulness teacher, puts it well in his book Wherever You Go There You Are:
“If we are unaware of what we are doing a good deal of the time, and we don’t particularly like the way things turn out in our lives, perhaps it’s time to pay closer attention, to be more in touch, to observe the choices we make and their consequences down the road.”
If you don’t know that you’re about to procrastinate, how are you going to prevent it? You’ll just follow your unconscious urges and before you know it, you’ve wasted an hour dillydallying on Facebook.
The point is, we need to become aware of what’s going on. Only then can we change something. It’s like they say, with awareness comes choice. Once you see your thoughts, feelings, urges, desires from a certain distance, you can choose a different response. And that’s step 2…
Step 2: Learn to Deal Effectively With Emotions
Our natural tendency of coping with negative emotions is avoidance — we feel anxious, frustrated, or bored when faced with a task and we run away. We distract ourselves with something that feels better; we give in to feeling good, we procrastinate.
This is clearly not a healthy coping mechanism. So, what should we do instead? We must learn to tolerate negative emotions. We must realize that emotions are not the end-all-be-all. They are merely bodily sensations. Yes, they may feel uncomfortable. So what? They are just emotions. They come and go. We don’t need to react to them. Instead, we can just accept them and do the thing whether we feel like it or not.
Remember, emotions are just ‘action tendencies’. We can feel angry but act calmly. We can feel anxious but act courageously. We can feel unmotivated but do the thing anyway.
That’s the whole secret to overcoming procrastination. Become aware of negative thoughts and emotions. Let them be there. Accept them. Do the right thing despite them.
Isn’t that great news? It means you’re no longer at the mercy of your thoughts and emotions. You’re no longer at the mercy of your motivation. No longer do you need to “feel like it”. You can just do the right thing — whether you feel like it or not. That’s freedom. That’s maturity.
Now, the remaining question is: how do you get better at this? How do you become more aware and how can you learn to deal with those negative thoughts and emotions?
Your Strongest Weapon in the Procrastination Battle
The best way to get better at what we’ve been talking about so far in this article is the practice of ‘mindfulness’. The dictionary defines mindfulness as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.’
Mindfulness is all about maintaining a non-judgmental, moment-by-moment awareness of whatever is happening in the present moment. This involves awareness of bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, and the surrounding environment. The non-judgmental part is important because it entails acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them. We watch them without labeling them as “good or bad”, “pleasant or unpleasant”.
Mindfulness is the very thing that allows us to do what I’ve described in this article. It allows us to step back and watch our thoughts and emotions from a certain distance, without identifying with them. It allows us to feel negative emotions without freaking out and without reacting to them.
Bringing it back to procrastination, it allows us to take action despite experiencing negative emotions.
First, it raises our awareness of what’s going on. Second, it lets us stay with negative emotions without reacting to them, giving us the opportunity to do the right thing, regardless of how we’re feeling.
And that’s not everything that mindfulness will do for you. Research has shown that it will make you happier, healthier, more self-compassionate, more self-disciplined, better at tuning out distractions, and much more — all things that have been proven to lower procrastination.
All in all, mindfulness offers the following benefits regarding procrastination:
- It raises our awareness.
- It lets us act regardless of whatever emotions or thoughts we’re experiencing.
- It makes us more self-compassionate (read why that’s important here).
- It improves our self-control and emotion regulation abilities.
- It helps us tune out distractions (read more about distractions and procrastination here).
- It makes you a better entrepreneur.
- And much more.
This isn’t just wishful thinking by the way. Research has proven that mindfulness is an effective strategy for dealing with procrastination. Here’s how procrastination researcher Timothy Pychyl puts it in one of his articles:
“What I want to emphasize and make clear in this post is that effective self-regulation relies on emotion regulation, and this emotion regulation in turn relies on mindfulness. There is clear evidence that mindfulness is related to less procrastination (including a thesis that is just wrapping up in my research group now).”
My own experience supports this 100 percent. As I’ve said multiple times in previous articles, mindfulness is the #1 most important skill we can ever learn in our lives. Regarding procrastination, it definitely makes a huge difference for me — for all the reasons we have discussed in this article.
It makes me more aware of my thoughts, emotions, urges, and drives, allowing me to consciously choose to either react to them or not.
It allows me to stay with negative emotions and thoughts, and to just let them kind of be there in the background while I’m doing what needs to get done.
In addition to that, mindfulness improves my self-control, makes me less self-critical, and reduces feelings of guilt after procrastinating — all things that help with procrastination. I could go on, adding more and more reasons, but suffice to say, mindfulness is one of the most important tools to have in your procrastination toolkit.
At its very core, procrastination is an emotion management problem. When we face uncomfortable tasks, we feel negative emotions — anxiety, boredom, frustration, overwhelm — and our strategy for coping with them is to run away and distract ourselves. That’s when we procrastinate, as a tool to relieve negative emotions.
We sincerely want to study harder, exercise regularly, meditate daily, or do our taxes on time. But because these tasks make us feel so uncomfortable, we end up delaying them.
The key to overcoming procrastination is not to get rid of negative thoughts and emotions, but to act in spite of them. We need to learn to do the thing whether we feel like it or not. To make that happen, we need to cultivate our mindfulness. We need to become aware of when we’re about to procrastinate, stay with the negative thoughts and emotions, and then act in spite of them.
Mindfulness, therefore, is one of the most important skills needed to overcome procrastination.
One of the best ways to strengthen our mindfulness is of course meditation. If you’re not yet in the habit of meditating daily, I highly suggest you get started as soon as possible. My recommendation is to simply download the Headspace app and start with their 10-Day Journey — that’s the best way I’ve found to learn how to meditate and establish a daily routine.
P.S. Want More?
Mindfulness is just one of many research-backed strategies to overcome the habit of procrastination…
If you want to learn some additional strategies that are proven to work, you’re probably going to find my new free guide, 33 Proven Tactics to Procrastinate Less and Get More Done, really helpful.
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Procrastination is a challenge we have all faced at one point or another. For as long as humans have been around, we have been struggling with delaying, avoiding, and procrastinating on issues that matter to us.
During our more productive moments, when we temporarily figure out how to stop procrastinating, we feel satisfied and accomplished. Today, we're going to talk about how to make those rare moments of productivity more routine. The purpose of this guide is to break down the science behind why we procrastinate, share proven frameworks you can use to beat procrastination, and cover useful strategies that will make it easier to take action.
You can click the links below to jump to a particular section or simply scroll down to read everything. At the end of this page, you’ll find a complete list of all the articles I have written on procrastination.
I. The Science Behind Procrastination
II. How to Stop Procrastinating Right Now
- Make the Rewards of Taking Action More Immediate
- Make the Consequences of Procrastination More Immediate
- Design Your Future Actions
- Make the Task More Achievable
III. Being Consistent: How to Kick the Procrastination Habit
- The Daily Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity
- How to Avoid Chronic Procrastination With Visual Cues
I. The Science Behind Procrastination
Let's start by getting the basics nailed down. What is procrastination? What does procrastination mean? What exactly are we dealing with here?
What is Procrastination?
Human beings have been procrastinating for centuries. The problem is so timeless, in fact, that ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia.
Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control.
Here's a modern definition:
Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing a task or set of tasks. So, whether you refer to it as procrastination or akrasia or something else, it is the force that prevents you from following through on what you set out to do.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Ok, definitions are great and all, but why do we procrastinate? What is going on in the brain that causes us to avoid the things we know we should be doing?
This is a good time to bring some science into our discussion. Behavioral psychology research has revealed a phenomenon called “time inconsistency,” which helps explain why procrastination seems to pull us in despite our good intentions. Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.
The best way to understand this is by imagining that you have two selves: your Present Self and your Future Self. When you set goals for yourself — like losing weight or writing a book or learning a language — you are actually making plans for your Future Self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future. Researchers have found that when you think about your Future Self, it is quite easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits. The Future Self values long-term rewards.
However, while the Future Self can set goals, only the Present Self can take action. When the time comes to make a decision, you are no longer making a choice for your Future Self. Now you are in the present moment, and your brain is thinking about the Present Self. Researchers have discovered that the Present Self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.
So, the Present Self and the Future Self are often at odds with one another. The Future Self wants to be trim and fit, but the Present Self wants a donut. Sure, everyone knows you should eat healthy today to avoid being overweight in 10 years. But consequences like an increased risk for diabetes or heart failure are years away.
Similarly, many young people know that saving for retirement in their 20s and 30s is crucial, but the benefit of doing so is decades off. It is far easier for the Present Self to see the value in buying a new pair of shoes than in socking away $100 for 70-year-old you. (If you're curious, there are some very good evolutionary reasons for why our brain values immediate rewards more highly than long-term rewards.)
This is one reason why you might go to bed feeling motivated to make a change in your life, but when you wake up you find yourself falling back into old patterns. Your brain values long-term benefits when they are in the future (tomorrow), but it values immediate gratification when it comes to the present moment (today).
The Procrastination-Action Line
You cannot rely on long-term consequences and rewards to motivate the Present Self. Instead, you have to find a way to move future rewards and punishments into the present moment. You have to make the future consequences become present consequences.
This is exactly what happens during the moment when we finally move beyond procrastination and take action. For example, let's say you have a report to write. You've known about it for weeks and continued to put it off day after day. You experience a little bit of nagging pain and anxiety thinking about this paper you have to write, but not enough to do anything about it. Then, suddenly, the day before the deadline, the future consequences turn into present consequences, and you write that report hours before it is due. The pain of procrastinating finally escalated and you crossed the “Action Line.”
There is something important to note here. As soon as you cross the Action Line, the pain begins to subside. In fact, being in the middle of procrastination is often more painful than being in the middle of doing the work. Point A on the chart above is often more painful than Point B. The guilt, shame, and anxiety that you feel while procrastinating are usually worse than the effort and energy you have to put in while you're working. The problem is not doing the work, it's starting the work.
If we want to stop procrastinating, then we need to make it as easy as possible for the Present Self to get started and trust that motivation and momentum will come after we begin. (Motivation often comes after starting, not before.)
Let's talk about how to do that now.
II. How to Stop Procrastinating Right Now
There are a variety of strategies we can employ to stop procrastinating. Below, I'll outline and explain each concept, then I'll provide you with some examples of strategy in action.
Option 1: Make the Rewards of Taking Action More Immediate
If you can find a way to make the benefits of long-term choices more immediate, then it becomes easier to avoid procrastination. One of the best ways to bring future rewards into the present moment is with a strategy known as temptation bundling.
Temptation bundling is a concept that came out of behavioral economics research performed by Katy Milkman at The University of Pennsylvania. Simply put, the strategy suggests that you bundle a behavior that is good for you in the long-run with a behavior that feels good in the short-run.
The basic format is: Only do [THING YOU LOVE] while doing [THING YOU PROCRASTINATE ON].
Here are a few common examples of temptation bundling:
- Only listen to audiobooks or podcasts you love while exercising.
- Only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails.
- Only watch your favorite show while ironing or doing household chores.
- Only eat at your favorite restaurant when conducting your monthly meeting with a difficult colleague.
This article covers some specific exercises you can follow to figure out how to create temptation bundling ideas that work for you.
Option 2: Make the Consequences of Procrastination More Immediate
There are many ways to force you to pay the costs of procrastination sooner rather than later. For example, if you are exercising alone, skipping your workout next week won’t impact your life much at all. Your health won’t deteriorate immediately because you missed that one workout. The cost of procrastinating on exercise only becomes painful after weeks and months of lazy behavior. However, if you commit to working out with a friend at 7 a.m. next Monday, then the cost of skipping your workout becomes more immediate. Miss this one workout and you look like a jerk.
Another common strategy is to use a service like Stickk to place a bet. If you don't do what you say you'll do, then the money goes to a charity you hate. The idea here is to put some skin in the game and create a new consequence that happens if you don't do the behavior right now.
Option 3: Design Your Future Actions
One of the favorite tools psychologists use to overcome procrastination is called a “commitment device.” Commitment devices can help you stop procrastinating by designing your future actions ahead of time.
For example, you can curb your future eating habits by purchasing food in individual packages rather than in the bulk size. You can stop wasting time on your phone by deleting games or social media apps. (You could also block them on your computer.)
Similarly, you can reduce the likelihood of mindless channel surfing by hiding your TV in a closet and only taking it out on big game days. You can voluntarily ask to be added to the banned list at casinos and online gambling sites to prevent future gambling sprees. You can build an emergency fund by setting up an automatic transfer of funds to your savings account. These are all examples of commitment devices that help reduce the odds of procrastination.
Option 4: Make the Task More Achievable
As we have already covered, the friction that causes procrastination is usually centered around starting a behavior. Once you begin, it’s often less painful to keep working. This is one good reason to reduce the size of your habits because if your habits are small and easy to start, then you will be less likely to procrastinate.
One of my favorite ways to make habits easier is to use The 2-Minute Rule, which states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” The idea is to make it as easy as possible to get started and then trust that momentum will carry you further into the task after you begin. Once you start doing something, it’s easier to continue doing it. The 2–Minute Rule overcomes procrastination and laziness by making it so easy to start taking action that you can’t say no.
Another great way to make tasks more achievable is to break them down. For example, consider the remarkable productivity of the famous writer Anthony Trollope. He published 47 novels, 18 works of non-fiction, 12 short stories, 2 plays, and an assortment of articles and letters. How did he do it? Instead of measuring his progress based on the completion of chapters or books, Trollope measured his progress in 15-minute increments. He set a goal of 250 words every 15 minutes and he continued this pattern for three hours each day. This approach allowed him to enjoy feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment every 15 minutes while continuing to work on the large task of writing a book.
Making your tasks more achievable is important for two reasons.
- Small measures of progress help to maintain momentum over the long-run, which means you’re more likely to finish large tasks.
- The faster you complete a productive task, the more quickly your day develops an attitude of productivity and effectiveness.
I have found this second point, the speed with which you complete your first task of the day, to be of particular importance for overcoming procrastination and maintaining a high productive output day after day.
III. Being Consistent: How to Kick the Procrastination Habit
Alright, we've covered a variety of strategies for beating procrastination on a daily basis. Now, let's discuss some ways to make productivity a long-term habit and prevent procrastination from creeping back into our lives.
The Daily Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity
One reason it is so easy to slip back into procrastination time after time is because we don't have a clear system for deciding what is important and what we should work on first. (This is yet another example of the system often being more important than the goal.)
One of the best productivity systems I have found is also one of the most simple. It's called The Ivy Lee Method and it has six steps:
- At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
- Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
Here’s what makes it so effective:
It’s simple enough to actually work. The primary critique of methods like this one is that they are too basic. They don’t account for all of the complexities and nuances of life. What happens if an emergency pops up? What about using the latest technology to our fullest advantage? In my experience, complexity is often a weakness because it makes it harder to get back on track. Yes, emergencies and unexpected distractions will arise. Ignore them as much as possible, deal with them when you must, and get back to your prioritized to-do list as soon as possible. Use simple rules to guide complex behavior.
It forces you to make tough decisions. I don’t believe there is anything magical about Lee’s number of six important tasks per day. It could just as easily be five tasks per day. However, I do think there is something magical about imposing limits upon yourself. I find that the single best thing to do when you have too many ideas (or when you’re overwhelmed by everything you need to get done) is to prune your ideas and trim away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Constraints can make you better. Lee’s method is similar to Warren Buffett’s 25-5 Rule, which requires you to focus on just five critical tasks and ignore everything else. Basically, if you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.
It removes the friction of starting. The biggest hurdle to finishing most tasks is starting them. (Getting off the couch can be tough, but once you actually start running it is much easier to finish your workout.) Lee’s method forces you to decide on your first task the night before you go to work. This strategy has been incredibly useful for me: as a writer, I can waste three or four hours debating what I should write about on a given day. If I decide the night before, however, I can wake up and start writing immediately. It’s simple, but it works. In the beginning, getting started is just as important as succeeding at all.
It requires you to single-task. Modern society loves multi-tasking. The myth of multi-tasking is that being busy is synonymous with being better. The exact opposite is true. Having fewer priorities leads to better work. Study world-class experts in nearly any field—athletes, artists, scientists, teachers, CEOs—and you’ll discover one characteristic runs through all of them: focus. The reason is simple. You can’t be great at one task if you’re constantly dividing your time ten different ways. Mastery requires focus and consistency.
Regardless of what method you use, the bottom line is this: Do the most important thing first each day and let the momentum of the first task carry you into the next one.
How to Avoid Chronic Procrastination With Visual Cues
A visual cue is something you can see (a visual reminder) that prompts you to take action. Here's why they are important for beating procrastination:
Visual cues remind you to start a behavior. We often lie to ourselves about our ability to remember to perform a new habit. (“I’m going to start eating healthier. For real this time.”) A few days later, however, the motivation fades and the busyness of life begins to take over again. Hoping you will simply remember to do a new habit is usually a recipe for failure. This is why a visual stimulus can be so useful. It is much easier to stick with good habits when your environment nudges you in the right direction.
Visual cues display your progress on a behavior. Everyone knows consistency is an essential component of success, but few people actually measure how consistent they are in real life. Having a visual cue—like a calendar that tracks your progress—avoids that pitfall because it is a built-in measuring system. One look at your calendar and you immediately have a measure of your progress.
Visual cues can have an additive effect on motivation. As the visual evidence of your progress mounts, it is natural to become more motivated to continue the habit. The more visual progress you see, the more motivated you will become to finish the task. There are a variety of popular behavioral economics studies that refer to this as the Endowed Progress Effect. Seeing your previous progress is a great way to trigger your next productive action.
Two of my favorite strategies that use visual cues are The Paper Clip Strategy, which is helpful for beating procrastination day-after-day, and The Seinfeld Strategy, which is great for maintaining consistency over longer periods of time.
Where to Go From Here
I hope you found this short guide on procrastination useful. If you're looking for more ideas on how to stop procrastinating and take action, then check out my full list of procrastination articles below.
ll Procrastination Articles
This is a complete list of articles I have written on procrastination. Enjoy!
- The Akrasia Effect: Why We Don’t Follow Through on What We Set Out to Do and What to Do About It
- The 15-Minute Routine Anthony Trollope Used to Write 40+ Books
- The Ivy Lee Method: The Daily Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity
- Two Harvard Professors Reveal One Reason Our Brains Love to Procrastinate
- How to Stop Procrastinating and Boost Your Willpower by Using “Temptation Bundling”
- Never Check Email Before Noon (And Other Thoughts on Doing Your Best Work)
- 3 Simple Ways to Make Exercise a Habit
- The Physics of Productivity: Newton's Laws of Getting Stuff Done
- The Only Productivity Tip You'll Ever Need
- How to Eliminate Procrastination (The Surprising Strategy One Man Used)
- The Power of Imperfect Starts
- What to Do When You Want to Build Better Habits But Can't Get Started
- 5 Thoughts on Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt
- How to Stop Procrastinating on Your Goals by Using the “Seinfeld Strategy”
- You Get 25,000 Mornings as an Adult: Here are 8 Ways to Not Waste Them
- The Difference Between Being “Not Wrong” and Being Right
- How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the “2-Minute Rule”
- How to Start Working Out When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing
- 3 Time Management Tips That Actually Work
- The Magic of Committing to a Specific Goal
- Why Getting Started is More Important Than Succeeding
- Are You Living an Urgent Life or an Important Life?
- Successful People Start Before They Feel Ready
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Verified by Psychology Today
What Is Procrastination?
Everyone puts things off sometimes, but procrastinators chronically avoid difficult tasks and may deliberately look for distractions. Procrastination in large part reflects struggles with self-control as well as the general human inability to accurately predict how we will feel tomorrow, or the day after.
Perfectionists are often procrastinators; it is psychologically more acceptable to never tackle a task than to face the possibility of falling short on performance. Many procrastinators may contend that they perform better under pressure, but research shows that is not the case; more often than not that's their way of justifying putting things off. And the contemporary environment abets procrastination by supplying an array of distractions, electronic and otherwise.
For procrastinators, "I don't feel like it" takes precedence over goals; however, it then begets a downward spiral of negative emotions that further deter future effort. Procrastination also involves some degree of self-deception; at some level, procrastinators are aware of the truth of their actions.
The bright side: It's possible to overcome procrastination—with effort. Changing behavior consumes a lot of psychic energy, but engaging in highly structured cognitive behavioral therapy is one approach that has worked for many.
Why Do People Really Procrastinate?
Approximately 20 percent of people are chronic procrastinators; for them, the behavior cuts across all domains of life. But some people procrastinate in specific situations.
Arousal types, or thrill-seekers, wait until the last minute in order to reap a euphoric rush. Avoiders put off tasks because of fear of failure or even fear of success; in either case, they are highly concerned with what others think of them. Decisional procrastinators struggle to make decisions; for them, not making a decision absolves them of responsibility for the outcome of events.
Whichever the type, there are big costs to procrastination: It is internally troubling, potentially leading to problems such as insomnia and immune system and gastrointestinal disturbances, and it erodes personal relationships and teamwork in the workplace.
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