Most of us are apprehensive when faced with a task we expect to be unpleasant, and sometimes put off doing it to avoid the unpleasantness. But, when we constantly procrastinate, we set ourselves up for a cycle of last-minute rushing and stress, and generally don’t do our best work. With patience and persistence, it is possible to overcome the procrastination cycle. Here are some tips to get started:
1. Manage anxiety
Learn to manage anxiety around tasks and deadlines. Use affirmative self-talk, repeating to yourself things like, “I am capable,” and, “I can do this,” which will increase your confidence and motivation over time. Although it seems simple, this is a proven method. Also, be aware of the physical signs of your anxiety. When you think about drafting a spreadsheet for your monthly budget, does your body tense up? Does your heart rate change? You may not notice them, but even subtle unpleasant sensations can cause you to avoid situations that trigger them. It is important to remember that, although these feelings are uncomfortable, they do pass. In fact, for most people, discomfort abates soon after beginning the dreaded project.
2. Break up your work
If a task feels overwhelming, break it up into smaller parts. Organizing a closet, for example, may seem more manageable if you think of it in terms of sections. You might divide the the space into quarters. Give yourself permission to focus on one section at a time, then make a commitment to see it through before moving on to the next area.
3. Make a list
Write out a hierarchy of tasks from easiest to most difficult, then start at one end. Some people find that doing the most difficult task first alleviates pressure, and frees them up to take care of the other items on their agenda. Others prefer to knock out simpler tasks first, because they can then focus on the bigger job without distractions. Try both ways to see which works better for you.
4. Set deadlines
These are not the deadlines set by others (e.g., the boss who expects a productivity report by the end of the month), but your own deadlines for making regular progress. If it is several weeks before something is due, set weekly deadlines. For more immediate due dates, expect yourself to make daily progress.
5. Improve time management
Sometimes people procrastinate because they don’t have a realistic concept of time, or how to organize activities to make the most of it. If this is true for you, take a look at your schedule. Use a weekly planner to write in all of your activities, from Sunday to Saturday, and include everything you do, like work, going to appointments, commute time, meal time, and even time for bathing/grooming. Be realistic and detailed. Once you’ve done this, look for gaps in your schedule, which are times when you might take on the task. If there are no gaps, you may need to review your schedule for priority activities, and eliminate unnecessary time zappers that interfere with productivity.
6. Seize the moment
Take advantage of bursts of energy and motivation. Ever been sitting in front of the television when an ingenious idea comes to mind for a short story? When that happens, get going! Jot down main points, write up an outline, even start the project, itself. Don’t let that moment pass, because you might not get it back, and the job may be harder to do later.
7. Arrange for follow-up
Tell someone about your plans, and ask them to check up on you. A support system can hold you accountable for the work, as well as offer encouragement and/or ideas to keep you motivated.
8. Reward yourself
Set up a reward system, and make each reward appropriate to the task. Smaller tasks, like reading a book chapter for a class, might earn you 30 minutes of television, while bigger tasks, like writing a paper, might get you a night out with friends. Don’t allow yourself the reward until the task is complete. You will enjoy the reward more if it is earned, and you will build tolerance for delayed gratification.
9. Be persistent
We develop skills by practicing them, and setbacks are a natural part of making progress. When you struggle, take inventory of the improvements you’ve made so far, and identify the strategies that have worked for you. Then, identify your obstacles, and plan new ways to get around them. If you think you’ve tried everything, ask others for ideas.
10. Know when to get help
Sometimes, procrastination is not just procrastination, but a sign of a bigger problem, like severe stress or even depression. If you suspect procrastination is a symptom of something more serious, seek help from a professional, such as a psychotherapist, or your primary care doctor.