How to Beat Procrastination and Get Things Done
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NOTE: This article was originally published on CredibleMind
Do you find yourself putting off tasks till the last minute? Do you get stressed out that you have so much to do just before deadlines? You might be suffering from a common case of procrastination. In this article, I’ll teach you a few tried and true ways to move beyond your procrastination tendencies and how to move into action. But before helping you understand why procrastination is so widespread, let’s define what it is.
What is Procrastination?
Procrastination— an age-old problem that continues to be widespread and may be getting worse— can be defined as voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.
To understand why procrastination is so widespread, it is helpful to consider what behavioral psychologists call ‘time inconsistency’— the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. The consequence of this tendency is that your ‘Future Self,’ who values long-term benefit, is often at odds with your ‘Present Self,’ who values immediate benefit.
Imagine a college student who wants to get a good grade on a test in two weeks (long-term benefit) but also wants to hang out with friends (immediate benefit). Because the student has ample time to study, and the reward of studying is not immediate, the motivation to socialize is greater than the motivation to study. However, as the test gets closer, the benefit of studying becomes more immediate, so the motivation to study will eventually surpass the motivation to socialize.
Even though the student’s Future Self knows that studying now would be beneficial in the long run, the student’s Present Self is willing to tolerate the discomfort that comes from delaying studying in order to experience the immediate benefit of socializing. In other words, we will procrastinate as long as the discomfort of doing a task is greater than the discomfort of not doing it. Only when that experience flips, and the pain of putting the task off any longer is greater than the pain of getting started, will we actually begin.
Building Anti-Procrastination Habits
This guide to overcoming procrastination by James Clear, author of the New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits, provides a plethora of insights and strategies that can help you cross the ‘Procrastination-Action Line’ by finding ways to move future rewards and punishments into the present moment and make it as easy as possible for your Present Self to get started.
My favorites are:
Utilize implementation intentions. The formula is: “I will [BEHAVIOR] on [DATE] in [PLACE] at [TIME].” Studies show that implementation intentions can make you two to three times more likely to perform an action in the future.
Example: “I will exercise for at least 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings in my bedroom at 6:30 a.m.”
Make it as easy as possible to get started. Motivation is more likely to come after you begin, and momentum will often carry you further along because it’s less trouble to keep working once you’ve started.
Example: Instead of “I will exercise for 30 minutes,” commit to “I will do 10 pushups.”
Create a supportive environment. Remove distractions, and add visual reminders to your physical environment. Also, develop relationships with others who support your intentions such as an accountability buddy, a support group, or a coach.
Rather than relying on sheer willpower, focusing on reducing friction and increasing support are powerful ways to make it easier to get started and make progress.
Procrastination and Emotional Intelligence
While habit-building methods can be effective, closer examination reveals that procrastination is ultimately a challenge of emotional regulation, not productivity.
Procrastination is a strategy to cope with challenging emotions and negative moods associated with certain tasks. It is the expression of a choice to prioritize feeling better in the short term over the potential long-term benefits of following through with the intended behavior.
However, choosing to prioritize improving your mood fails as a strategy because avoiding the task will only compound negative feelings of stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, and self-blame. This is why procrastination is often seen and experienced as a form of self-harm or self-sabotage.
Given this understanding, one of the best approaches to overcoming our tendency to procrastinate is to develop emotional intelligence.
Mindfulness and self-awareness help us recognize the temptation to procrastinate in order to improve our mood rather than follow through on our intentions. And by developing our emotion regulation skills, we can more easily stay focused on the task at hand.
Of course, sometimes we will succumb to the habit of procrastinating, which is why it is also important to practice compassion and forgiveness toward ourselves. These tools have become especially relevant in the current context of the coronavirus pandemic.
Procrastinating in a Pandemic
When the COVID-19 outbreak brought life’s daily rhythms to a sudden halt, many people (although not most parents) suddenly found themselves with more time and an ensuing pressure to use the time ‘productively.’ But this impulse reflects our culture’s obsession with the idea that every aspect and every second of our lives must be oriented toward ‘progress’ and ‘growth.’ The effect is that we end up adding even more pressure and stress during a time that’s already incredibly stressful.
We are living through an unprecedented disaster that continues to have a profound impact on our daily lives. Even as we attempt to adapt to ‘the new normal,’ we are confronted with a constantly changing situation and indefinite uncertainty.
So, rather than forcing yourself to be ‘productive’ and then beating yourself up for being ‘lazy,’ maybe now is the perfect time to practice radical self-acceptance, lower your expectations, and focus on doing the things that truly nourish you. Maybe procrastinating is your body’s way of telling you ‘no more.’ Or at least ‘not right now.’ And maybe it’s a good idea to listen to that message.
Maybe now is instead the time to explore the things that come easily to you and to do things that bring you simple feelings of pleasure and joy. And maybe now is a time to consider other forms of ‘creating value’ that aren’t as easily measurable, like playing with children, talking with friends, or walking in nature.
Rather than looking to squeeze more out of every moment, what about allowing ourselves to quietly experience the miracle of life for the brief time we are here to enjoy it?
Life is hard right now. It is enough to take care of your heart and to help others if you can. But life is also beautiful. Instead of pushing ourselves to do more, maybe we can fight procrastination by learning to be okay with just being.
 Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65–94. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65
 Clear, J. (2020). Procrastination: A Scientific Guide on How to Stop Procrastinating. James Clear. Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/procrastination
 Clear, J. (2020). Achieve Your Goals: Research Reveals a Simple Trick That Doubles Your Chances for Success. James Clear. Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/implementation-intentions
 Clear, J. (2020). How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the “2-Minute Rule”. James Clear. Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/how-to-stop-procrastinating
 Lorenz, T. (13 Jul 2020). Stop Trying to Be Productive. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/style/productivity-coronavirus.html