How to escape the procrastination doom loop

Procrastination has an uncanny ability of sneaking up on us when we least expect it. One minute you’re ready to go and the next you’re checking your phone or taking a walk to “get in the mood”.

Before you know it, you’ve spiralled into the Procrastination Doom Loop—where you’ve continually pushed off starting a project to the point where the thought of doing anything is overwhelming.

We’ve all been there. But with 95% of the American population saying they procrastinate and more than 26% saying they are chronic procrastinators, this is no small problem.

So why do we feel so helpless to start, even if we know it’s in our best interest?And is there a way we can break free from the procrastination doom loop when it has a grip on us?

What the procrastination doom loop looks like (and why it’s so powerful)

When most of us think about procrastination, we blame it on poor time management or caring too much about short-term returns. But increasingly, researchers are finding the root cause of procrastination is something deeper: Our mood.

As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, it’s easy to confuse the difference between reasonable delay and true procrastination. The former can be useful (“I’ll respond to this email when I have more time to write it”). While the latter is, by definition, self-defeating (“I should respond to this email right now, and I have the time… but I just, don’t…. feel like it.”)

When we’re truly procrastinating, we delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task. And, we assume our mood will change in the near future. For example, “If I take a nap now, I’ll be able to focus later.” Or “If I check social media first then I’ll feel ready to do some work after.”

But, we’re notoriously bad at knowing what our future selves will want or how we’ll feel. And so instead, we’re pushed into a cycle of bad moods and procrastination.

  • We put off starting work because “we don’t feel like it”
  • Which causes us to feel guilty and stressed
  • This anxiety means we’re not in a good mood to start working
  • So we delay again

And on and on and on.

Procrastination doom loop

It’s devastating. But, you can break the procrastination doom loop cycle.

It starts by understanding and being aware of your mood. And then intervening before you get sucked into its vortex of delay.

Step 1: Have someone else set deadlines for you

In general, the easiest tool we have for breaking out of procrastination are deadlines. We seem to be better at pushing our mood aside and getting things done when we know it has to be done.

But unfortunately, not all deadlines are as effective.

In a famous study, behavioral economist Dan Ariely hired 60 students to proofread three passages, with rewards for the errors they found and a $1 penalty for every day they were late.

Group 1 had weekly deadlines. Group 2 was only given one deadline for all three passages. While Group 3 got to choose their own deadlines.

At the end of the experiment, Group 2 had performed the worst, while Group 1—the one with regular, external deadlines—performed best.

“People strategically try to curb procrastination by using costly self-imposed deadlines,” Ariely and his co-author Klaus Wertenbroch concluded. Yet the research showed that deadlines you set on yourself are rarely as effective as external ones.

When you’re feeling stuck in a doom loop, ask someone else to set deadlines for you. Whether that’s a boss, colleague, or even a friend. The more you can force yourself to say  “mood isn’t an option, I just need to get on with it” the better you’ll be at breaking the cycle.

RescueTime Alerts are a great way to remind yourself of what you should be working on, or if you’re spending too much time on distracting tasks. Learn more about Alerts and try these Alert Recipes to help battle your procrastination.

Step 2: Set reminders for after you were supposed to start a project

Deadlines work because they remind us we have limited time to work. However, even external deadlines are easy to ignore.

Researchers say most procrastinators are biased towards the present and can be overconfident in their ability to remember important tasks. A deadline might seem like a great idea, but we have a tendency to still push them aside and assume we’ll deal with them later (sound familiar?)

So, what can you do? One option is to set reminders for the deadline. Sounds obvious, right? Setting reminders keeps the deadline top of mind and helps you start working on it, even when you don’t feel like it.

However, too many reminders, too early on, can just as easily become a huge source of stress when you’re already stuck in the procrastination doom loop. Being reminded that you’ve procrastinated will only ruin your mood and make it harder to start.

To break the cycle, you need to remove the option to ignore your reminders. As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, this means setting “one-shot” reminders for after you ideally would’ve started working on the project:

“Not only will the last-second reminder and looming deadline break the doom loop and shock you into action, but also it won’t give you time to put off—and, potentially, forget about—the task.”

Step 3: Start with anything for any amount of time

Deadlines and reminders are great for putting you in the right frame of mind to start work. But the emotional nature of the doom loop makes it incredibly hard to cross that threshold and actually do the work.

Even worse, when you let work and deadlines pile up, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and get right back into the cycle of procrastination.

Instead, you need to find ways to do any small amount of work when the time comes. Here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Break your task down into the smallest possible action: This means being realistic about what you can get done. For example, if you’re trying to write a post, don’t say you’ll do it all in one sitting. Instead, commit to writing an outline. Setting smaller expectations and getting quick wins is a great way to improve your mood.
  2. Use Instagram founder Kevin Systrom’s 5-minute rule: If you still feel like the task is too big (and that stress and guilt are building), try telling yourself you’re only going to work on it for a few minutes. In most cases, doing the work is much easier than procrastinating. You just need a way to trick yourself into getting started.
  3. Remind yourself that it’s OK to start before you’re ready: Feeling unprepared is an easy way to put off starting to work on anything. But throughout history, the most successful people have always started before they’re ready. Remind yourself of this and try to just start. You can always do more research or prep later if you come up against a wall.

When you reframe work as something more positive, your mood and feelings towards it change

It’s easy to ignore or underestimate just how much influence your mood has over your ability to do meaningful work. But you can’t manage yourself out of a bad mood.

To break out of the procrastination doom loop, you need to face it head on. That means setting non-negotiable deadlines, using “one-shot” reminders, and breaking your tasks up into small jobs that can be done in just a few minutes.

And lastly, remember that your mood is a reflection of your perceptions. If you see “work” as something that should bring you stress, you’ll most likely feel stressed.

So when you find yourself facing the procrastination doom loop, take a second to step back and ask why. Sometimes simply understanding where the stress is coming from can help you take away its hold on you.

How do you handle the procrastination doom loop? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

  1. Hi Jory,

    great job here!

    Now I am in a point of my life with a big amount of job. I am working in my fix job and in the evening I work in my own blog. Sometime comes the stress to me and I want just leave everything. The procrastination is a factor very important to avoid.

    I try fight with him with shorts blocks of time (Pomodoro technique) and stay strong focused in one simple task. In other case, it could be happen that the digital distractions come and I lose the day.

    For the other hand, a partner like you say, is a good idea. Not only to promise a deadline, even to do some stuff with him. For example, when you don’t want to go to the gym. It is easier if you go with someone instead of.

    Cheers
    Christian

    1. Glad you found it helpful Christian. I think you’re right that there’s no clear answer to dealing with procrastination, but that the more tools and strategies we have at our disposal, the more likely we are to stay focused and do the work we want to do.

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