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How to stop procrastinating (but not feel like a failure when it happens)

The best time to read this article is right now. Not later, or tomorrow. Don't open it in a browser tab and switch over to social media. Don't bookmark it and hope you'll remember to come back and read it.

Keep your attention on this page for a few minutes, and you'll find out the best ways to stop procrastinating and start getting things done. 

Everyone does it. 20% of the adult population are chronic procrastinators. Somewhere between 23-52% of students engage in it too.

It's observed evenly in males and females, adults and children. (Have you ever tried to ask a small child to brush their teeth or go to bed?) Schoolkids, workers, academics, politicians and celebrities do it. Even pigeons do it.

But it's not simply a symptom of poor time management.

Despite its widespread nature, procrastination is something that can be overcome. You don't have to go through life juggling tasks, anxiously putting off important things for another time. You can start checking things off your to-do list with pride and satisfaction, by considering why you put things off in the first place.

The first step is to understand why you procrastinate, and how your personality type affects your tendencies towards it. Then, we'll look at how to stop procrastinating and get things done using 

some smart strategies and tips.

Table of contents

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is when you voluntarily delay doing something important, even if it'll eventually lead to a negative outcome. In postponing your task, you might doom yourself to an even bigger task as a consequence.

You might be avoiding it due to fear, laziness, tiredness, or the need to wait for more information or resources before proceeding.

People commonly procrastinate things like studying, working, performing domestic chores, making decisions, going to bed early, and exercising.

It's generally seen as a bad thing, because it's a 'self-regulatory failure' that often results in poor performance and negatively impacted wellbeing. If you're a student, for example, and you consistently put off your essay-writing until the last minute, it'll be less likely (although not impossible) for you to graduate at the top of your class. If you put off going to the dentist, you might end up needing expensive treatment down the line that could easily have been avoided.

Procrastination can be a cause of poor wellbeing and mental health, but it can also be caused by them.

Some people seem to procrastinate a lot and still get by in life just fine, though. Are they just lucky? Are they succeeding because of their procrastination, or in spite of it?

The answer is that it's different for everyone - we all approach task-setting and goal completion differently, and we're wired for different optimal behaviors.

So there's not one definitive answer for how to stop procrastination, because we've all got our own distinct personalities, motivations and psychological make-up. But there are some key insights and strategies that'll help you overcome your tendencies to put things off 'til another day. Let's find out what they are.

Why is it so hard to stop procrastinating?

It's hard because you're a human. We all procrastinate from time to time, and an episode of avoidance for whatever reason isn't something to be too ashamed about. Because there are so many causes, it's not helpful to moralize and try to pin it all on failures of judgment or willpower.

And some personality types are just more wired towards it, too.

If you've got a high motivation for problem solving, it means you find satisfaction in overcoming specific, solvable problems. Seeing issues and fixing them is what fires you up, and you're more of a technician than a visionary.

This can often correlate with a low goal orientation motivation, which means you won't be driven by abstract or long-term goals as much.

The combination of these two can promote procrastination because you won't get motivated to do things until a problem appears that needs solving. In many cases, this would be a deadline; you might not feel really energized until one is approaching, and if it's far away, you won't feel the pressure to do things earlier than necessary - even if that'd make life easier for you in the long run.

So if you tend to get really fired up the night before an assignment is due, you're not alone. Some people genuinely feel more creative under that kind of pressure. But the trade-off is the risk that positive pressure becomes unhealthy stress, which is not a great way to live.

There's also the case that your task doesn't match your tendency. Let's say you're taking a Winter break and have some free days for 'life admin' at the end of the year.

If you're planning on writing your goals for the year ahead, and need a few hours to sit down and do some life strategizing, it's easy to keep putting it off if you're more of a problem solver.

You might choose to tidy up your house instead, because that's a specific, visible problem that you'll get an immediate hit of satisfaction by completing. You'll justify it by thinking "well I can't concentrate in an untidy house", so you've got a reason to fix it. But your other task might not seem immediately necessary, so you'll keep putting it off 'til another time - even though it might have huge consequences in the way your year turns out.

One of the ways to overcome this is by learning to get more specific: we'll take a look at this below.

So the next time you're faced with competing priorities and mixed motivations, have a think about your proclivity towards certain task types, and consider if you're really trying to do the right things in the first place.

Is procrastination a mental illness?

No, procrastination is not a mental illness or disorder. It may be a symptom of certain disorders, though, if it becomes regular and debilitating, rather than just occasional.

If your difficulty in concentrating reaches a point where you're consistently having problems getting things done, it's probably worth talking to a medical professional about the possibility of underlying causes. Chronic procrastination can be linked to certain disorders like:

  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). This is characterized by regular inability to concentrate, impulsive behavior and risk-taking. It usually appears in childhood, but even if you're well into your adult years, you may be diagnosed with this condition that goes unnoticed by thousands of people around the world.
  • Depression. There is some evidence to suggest that this condition has procrastination as a side effect. While lack of energy and motivation can affect us all from time to time, low self-esteem and drive over a long period of time can be symptoms of depression.
  • Anxiety. Fear is a part of life, especially when you're pushing yourself to do new or challenging things. But if that fear regularly overcomes your ability to get things done, it might be a sign that you're experiencing anxiety.

The treatments for each of these can vary from simple lifestyle advice to pharmaceutical interventions, but many people find that a diagnosis from a medical professional can help them understand their behaviors and impulses much better, and design a lifestyle that helps them work around them.

What are the best ways to stop procrastinating?

So now that you know the causes of procrastination, and to what extent you're prone to doing it, it's time to consider what you can to stop it from happening. If you’re stuck on a task, wondering “how can I stop procrastinating immediately?’ then these strategies will help you out. Here's some universal tips that should work for pretty much everyone.

Get a good night's sleep first

Students wondering how to stop procrastinating in college will often ponder why they're so unfocused. Is their brain just not cut out for studying, or are they cranky and distracted due to sleeping 4 hours a night?

Sleep is the foundation for a focused brain, and if you're not treating your sleep schedule with respect, any other tactics you try just won't have the right impact.

If you're staying up late to do your assignment, but you're not getting anywhere, maybe it's time to hit the hay and come back swinging when you've got the energy to do it properly.

Put your temptations far away

Everyone has some sort of kryptonite that steals their attention away from virtuous habits. You can't just rely on willpower to save you when they're at arms reach though, because willpower is limited and your brain will trick you into justifying indulgences.

So if you can't make your temptations impossible to reach, at least make it more difficult.

For digital devices, this is fairly straightforward. Delete the social media apps from your phone. Or turn your phone completely off and put it in another room.

Apps like Self-Control can block you from visiting distracting websites for certain periods of time. While methods like this might not stop you from sneaking around them and getting your fix, by adding a layer of friction like this into your bad habits, it makes you less likely to indulge.

For physical items, do anything you can to get in your own way. Put them in a box underneath a bunch of heavy stuff that's awkward to retrieve. You might really want to eat cookies and read the newspaper, but if they're in a box buried under a pile of encyclopedias, is it really worth the effort getting them out?

Likewise, make the tasks you normally procrastinate as easy as possible. So if you're delaying a gym visit, make sure your workout shoes and clothes are visible and ready to put on, rather than tucked away in the cupboard.

Calculate the value of your time

Procrastination doesn't just mean avoiding the start of a project. It can also involve allowing yourself to get distracted halfway through, and being unable to get back in 'the zone' to actually complete it. This can primarily be the sign of a tired brain.

So the solution is... take a break! If you've got a single page left to write in your report, you can either drag it out over two hours, forcing yourself to trudge through it while giving in to distracting temptation every ten minutes, or you can take a proper break away from your desk for twenty minutes, then come back refreshed and ready to write in a steady bout of concentrated deep work for half an hour. Simple mathematics will tell you which option is the more efficient, but while you're in the midst of things it's not always easy to see the obvious solution.

This strategy can be extrapolated outwards to most life tasks with a simple question: "what's the most efficient approach to this?" If the difficult thing you're avoiding is affecting your performance in other areas, you're going to lose more in the big picture.

If it'll take an hour to clean your home office, but you put it off for a week, how many hours will it be that you're spending in an unpleasant environment, unable to fully concentrate? If your unclean office distracts you 5 times per day, that's 25 times a week. Think about how long it takes to really get back into 'the zone' where you're doing great work, after having your attention stolen.

Chances are, that's more than an hour of lost work. The obvious solution is to move that task right up to the top of your priority list and give it a sense of urgency - go clean your desk, right away!

Make use of the two-minute rule

You may have heard of the two-minute rule when it comes to avoiding procrastination. It's generally used in the context of habits - repeated healthy actions that have a beneficial outcome, but might not be so attractive that you'd do them for fun. But what is the two-minute rule? 

It’s a fun and satisfying way to help you make progress in pretty much any goal you have.

The rule is as simple as it sounds. It states that "When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do".

Essentially, instead of trying to force yourself to commit to a heavy session of working, studying, exercising or whatever, you just do whatever you can in two minutes, and count that as an accomplishment.

So, studying a language can become "learn one new word". That's way easier to achieve than doing an entire hour-long lesson. But here's why it works: once you've spent that 'activation energy' to begin the task, you'll most likely want to continue. Momentum propels you forward and it becomes harder to stop than it does to continue.

Think of lifting a weight. If you've got a barbell at home and your routine consists of 10 reps in three sets, you might find yourself grimacing at the thought of 30 lifts if you're having a low-energy day. But if you simply commit to doing whatever you can in two minutes, it really doesn't seem so bad. You can even say "I'll lift for two minutes then watch Netflix for two hours".

But here's the thing: that two minutes will remind you how satisfying it is to work out, and often you'll think "actually, I might as well just do the full thing." The same goes for other types of task, whether it's physical or mental.

If you keep these little micro-wins sacred and commit to never missing them, over time you'll find that you end up doing a lot more than you planned for. Two minutes at a time.

Learn the art of setting and achieving goals

Beating procrastination is something anyone can get better at, no matter what kind of personality they have.

If you'd like a structured way to understand how you can accomplish more, take the Fingerprint for Success Goal Catcher coaching program. The program can help increase your motivation for setting and achieving goals, helping you neutralize your procrastination habits and become an accomplishment machine.

It's delivered over the course of eight weeks, so the sooner you start, the sooner you'll be cruising through those to-do lists with supreme satisfaction. We could tell you to sign up whenever you want, but that wouldn't really be in the spirit of this article, would it?

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