We all fall victim to procrastination at some point. Maybe you planned to start your day with some writing and found yourself watching puppy videos an hour later. Or maybe you had design edits to make but chose to deal with that “pressing” Slack conversation instead.
However procrastination hits you, it’s safe to say that there’s nothing worse than putting things off that we know we need to get done.
Deffering to “someday” is one of the biggest threats to our productivity, work-life balance, career growth, and even our health and happiness. And with 95% of the American population admitting to regular procrastination, it’s something we need to learn how to deal with now.
In this guide, we’re going to dig deep into the psychological reasons why we procrastinate and then look at some specific techniques on how you can overcome it and get things done now (not later).
1. The root causes of Procrastination
- What is procrastination? And how is it different from other forms of distraction?
- The instant gratification monkey: Why we choose immediate results over long-term gains
- How we fall into the procrastination doom loop
2. How to overcome procrastination today
- Forgive yourself to break out of the cycle of procrastination
- Break your goals and tasks down into smaller chunks
- Use the “5-minute” rule to cross the procrastination threshold
- Track your progress to stay motivated and push through
- Set time to reflect to protect from the present bias
3. Using the science of habits to stop procrastinating
- Create a procrastination-free workspace
- Use the power of accountability
- Make the reward of not procrastinating more immediate
The Ultimate Guide to overcoming procrastination
1. The root causes of procrastination
Procrastination is a tricky beast to nail down. In retrospect, we all know when we’ve procrastinated. But during procrastination, we tell ourselves all sorts of lies to justify our actions.
So what is procrastination? And how can we use that knowledge to help realize when it’s happening and make it stop?
What is procrastination?
It’s pretty common to procrastinate in all aspects of our lives, whether that means scrambling to finish a work project or putting off going to the gym or doing laundry. We know what we want to do, but something gets in the way.
We get distracted or say “oh it’s fine, I’ll just do it later.” It’s no surprise the word procrastinate comes from the Latin word meaning “belonging to tomorrow.”
The problem, however, is that procrastination isn’t like other forms of distraction. An ill-timed call or meeting might interrupt your day. But true procrastination is an emotional problem that comes from within.
You can’t put do-not-disturb mode on your boredom or anxiety, which means we’re susceptible to procrastination anywhere and at any time.
Procrastination isn’t just some shiny object pulling at your attention and focus. It’s actively going against something you planned to do. And it’s this conscious decision to delay that makes procrastination such a dangerous thing in the workplace.
The instant gratification monkey: Why we choose immediate results over long-term gains
So why do we procrastinate if we know we’re acting against our best interests? I’m sure most of us would like to say it’s because something else got in the way, but that’s not the whole truth.
According to Timothy Pychyl, a professor who studies procrastination at Carleton University in Ottawa, procrastination has less to do with time management and more about our emotions.
We all try to avoid negative feelings in life—boredom, anxiety, or frustration. And we’re more likely to put off work that makes us feel these ways.
So what do we do instead? We latch onto things that encourage positive feelings. We watch funny videos, lose ourselves in the adventure of video games, chat with friends, or do small busywork that gives us a hit of dopamine.
In short, procrastination makes you choose positive emotions now over putting in the hard work on truly meaningful work.
Tim Urban of the Wait But Why blog calls this the instant gratification monkey—an annoying little beast that appears whenever we’re supposed to be concentrating on something hard:
“Why would we continue doing this jog, he thinks, when we could stop, which would feel better… Why would we ever use a computer for work when the internet is sitting right there waiting to be played with?
In the monkey world, he’s got it all figured out—if you eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and don’t do anything difficult, you’re a pretty successful monkey. The problem for the procrastinator is that he happens to live in the human world, making the Instant Gratification Monkey a highly unqualified navigator.”
This all begs a pretty obvious question: Why plan to do work we’re going to put off in the first place?
Well, for one, sometimes we don’t have a choice. You need to do that boring work project to get paid. Or finish that frustrating essay to pass the class. But maybe even more importantly, we’re really bad at knowing how we’ll feel in the future.
Psychologists call this behavior temporal myopia. Quite literally, we have a blind spot when it comes to imagining how we’ll feel in the future. Even worse, we usually assume that we’ll be in a better mood later on. But that’s rarely the case.
How we fall into the procrastination doom loop
With the instant gratification monkey at the helm, we upgrade from reasonable delay to true procrastination. The former can be useful at times (i.e. I’ll schedule that meeting for when I’ve finished this report) while the latter is self-defeating (i.e. I should respond to that email right now, but I just don’t feel like it.)
But because we’re humans, we feel guilty for not doing what we said we would. Before we know it, we’re spiraling into what’s known as the procrastination doom loop:
- 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.
The doom loop has you in its grips. But you don’t have to be stuck.
2. How to overcome procrastination today
If we can’t rely on long-term goals and logic to keep us motivated, what can we do to overcome procrastination?
For Carlton professor Timothy Pychyl, it comes down to shifting your mindset about procrastination from a logical time management problem to an emotion management one:
“You have to learn that you don’t feel good all the time, and you’ve got to get on with it.”
But that’s easier said than done. The instant gratification monkey rarely lets us just “get on” with doing things it doesn’t want to do. Instead, we need to coax it out of the cockpit and let our rational mind overcome procrastination.
Step 1: Forgive yourself to break out of the cycle of procrastination
It may be surprising, but studies have found that procrastinators who feel bad about their habit are more likely to procrastinate in the future. More than just getting behind on our tasks, the spiral of shame and guilt is what pushes us into the procrastination doom loop.
To get out, we first need to slow the cycle down. That means forgiving yourself for procrastinating in the past.
One way to do this is to think about your time spent procrastinating like the sunk cost fallacy. In the science of decision making, the sunk cost fallacy is when we give too much value to things that have happened in the past.
For example, continuing to work at a job you hate or that isn’t progressing your career, just because you’ve been there for 5 years. That time is gone. So why should it have such an influence on your future decisions?
The same goes for your procrastination. Why let the fact that you procrastinated in the past influence your future behaviors?
It may sound like some pseudo-philosophical truism, but we really can’t change the past. Yet for some reason, we allow it to control our future.
Remember, procrastination is an emotional problem. And self-compassion and forgiveness help get us out of the habit of putting things off.
Step 2: Break your goals and tasks down into smaller chunks
With a bit of a clearer head, the next question is: What causes you to procrastinate?
As we mentioned before, procrastination is caused by tasks that bring up feelings of boredom, anxiety, or stress. Pretty much anything negative that our instant gratification monkey wants to avoid at all costs.
Unfortunately, the way most people schedule their time is a trigger for these emotions. Huge goals, tasks spread across days and weeks, and overstuffed to-do lists only cause anxiety and stress.
As we wrote in our Guide to Effective Goal Setting, smaller goals are easier to start and stick with. Every time your brain crosses something off a list you get a hit of dopamine. The more regular you can keep this going, the more likely you are to keep up with your goals and not procrastinate.
Whenever you notice a task bringing up negative emotions or anxiety take a second and ask yourself:
“What is the smallest step I can take to move forward with this?”
Go as small as possible. I often procrastinate on writing a post or an essay and so I start with the simplest goals:
- Open a new Google doc
- Name that Google doc
- Copy/paste research from Trello into the doc
- Write and format the outline
- Write intro in bullet points
Not only do these small steps give me a clear path forward, but, as Consultant and author John Brubaker says, these “baby steps” help build our self-efficacy—our confidence in our own abilities.
Our confidence increases or decreases based on our ability to make progress. And so checking off each tiny part of your goal makes you feel more confident in your own abilities, and thus more happy and motivated.
There’s just one caveat. You need to make sure your small goals are moving forward on the actual work you were procrastinating. Planning projects out feels good. It’s easy. But planning is often just procrastination in disguise. At a certain point, you need to just start doing the work. Which brings us to…
Step 3: Use the “5-minute” rule to cross the procrastination threshold
If you’re ever forced yourself to do something you’ve been procrastinating on, you’ve probably experienced the pain and suffering disappear shortly after you start working. In the words of writer and theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky:
“On a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.”
Crossing that procrastination threshold isn’t easy, however. You need to use all your mental fortitude to get through the pain, beat back the instant gratification monkey, and just start.
According to Instagram founder Kevin Systrom, beating procrastination comes down to making a bargain with your monkey brain:
“If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”
Five minutes is easy. Five minutes isn’t “write a novel” time. But it’s enough time to get you past the procrastination threshold. Additionally, as habit coach James Clear writes:
“The faster you complete a productive task, the more quickly your day develops an attitude of productivity and effectiveness.”
Again, small steps bring big results.
Step 4: Track your progress to stay motivated and push through
Getting started is only part of the battle against procrastination.
It’s easy to slip back into procrastination even once you’ve started working. Especially if you have no way of seeing progress, getting feedback, and continuing to keep your motivation and your mood positive.
Your brain loves progress. Yet few of us have meaningful ways of tracking our results. The tasks most knowledge workers do aren’t as clear cut as painting a side of a house or stamping out license plates. And that leaves us vulnerable to slipping back into the procrastination doom loop.
As author Jocelyn K. Glei notes:
“Most of us make advances small and large every single day, but we fail to notice them because we lack a method for acknowledging our progress. This is a huge loss.”
There are a few ways you can solve this problem:
- Visualize your small goals: A visual reminder of the work you’ve done can help you stay motivated throughout the day. When Glei was in the process of launching her podcast, she broke out each individual task into the smallest possible piece and then mapped them out on a 4-foot-wide roll of paper she could clearly see.
- Start at zero every single day: If you’re working on a large, complex problem it’s easy to get caught in the messy middle. We’re motivated at the beginning when things are new and close to the end, but not during the slog in the middle. At that point, try changing your approach from continuing the project to hitting a specific daily quota. For example, say “write 1000 words” instead of “finish chapter 2.”
- Use a tool like RescueTime to track your progress and time spent on apps and websites: RescueTime automatically tracks the time you spend on websites and apps so you can see where your day is being spent. For example, I have a RescueTime goal set of writing for 3 hours every day. Throughout the day, I can check in to see how I’m progressing on that goal and get an alert when I hit it.
What all of these strategies give you are visual reminders of how you’re doing. So when your brain starts to feel overwhelmed and wants to procrastinate, you can remind it of how far you’ve come and how good you’ll feel when you finish it all.
Step 5: Set time to reflect to protect from the present bias
Seeing progress not only helps you beat daily procrastination but also keeps you motivated in the long run.
As author Teresa Amabile writes in her HBR essay The Power of Small Wins, progress creates a positive feedback loop:
“The more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service.”
Streaks are incredibly powerful psychological tools. The longer we maintain them, the more pressure we feel to keep up with it.
As part of your daily routine, set aside time to reflect on the work you’ve done, the progress you’ve made, and the next steps you want to take. The more you maintain this momentum, the less power your instant gratification monkey has to get in the way.
3. Use the science of habits to stop procrastinating
Imagine how much easier life would be if you just did what was best for you all the time? (Sounds crazy, right?) Completely banishing procrastination most likely isn’t possible. However, you can build better work habits that make you less vulnerable to procrastination and putting things off.
First, let’s quickly go over how habits are formed (for more, check out our guide on How to build good work habits and finally get rid of your bad ones). Habits are repeated behaviors consisting of three parts:
- A reminder or cue that sets off the action
- The routine or habit itself
- A reward that tells your brain, “Hey! This was great! Let’s do this same thing again next time.”
When it comes to procrastination, we can use the science of habits to help us stay motivated and do what we want instead of putting it off. Here’s how:
Create a procrastination-free workspace
Let’s start with the “reminder” or cue aspect of building a habit of action.
We are the products of our environment. And what you keep around you can prompt you to either procrastinate or to take action. Behavioral scientist BJ Fogg calls this designing for laziness—making good habits easier to do than procrastinating.
The second you feel the friction of procrastination, your brain starts looking for things that will bring you joy. Maybe it’s a game on your phone. Or checking your email. Or watching Netflix. The easier those activities are to do, the more likely you are to procrastinate.
So what do you do? You make them harder to do. Delete the games off your phone. Use a tool like RescueTime to block Netflix during the workday or to alert you when you’ve spent more than 30 minutes on email.
Use the power of accountability
Unfortunately, you can’t just change your procrastination habit by removing some of the temptations that trigger us.
As we said at the start of this guide, procrastination is so dangerous because many of the triggers are internal—boredom, anxiety, frustration. As such, we can’t just take them out of our work environment. Instead, we need to make the behavior of procrastinating itself less appealing.
We already know that focusing on the long-term doesn’t help. So what does? Accountability.
When you’re the only one who sees the negative results of procrastination it’s easy to shake them off. Missed that workout? It’s ok, your body isn’t going to shut down. But if you committed to going for a run with a friend at 7am and don’t show up? The results are much more immediate.
There are lots of ways to work these “accountability partners” into your days. Friends and colleagues are great. While imposed deadlines can certainly be seen as a form of an accountability partner.
If you want to go to the extreme, you can even use a service like RescueTime and IFTTT to text your friends when you go over your daily quota of social media or YouTube time.
Wherever you find accountability, the key is to make your procrastination affect people beyond just you.
Make the reward of not procrastinating more immediate
Finally, let’s talk about rewards. The more immediately appealing you can make it to not procrastinate, the more likely you are to build a habit of action.
So, how do you do that? It’s a little bit more complicated when it comes to how to overcome procrastination.
Philosopher Don Ross suggests that procrastination comes from the ever-raging battle between our “divided” inner selves. One self—let’s call it “past” or “reflective you”—wants to get the work done. While the other—”present you”—wants to do something more enjoyable. When we procrastinate, that’s our more hedonistic self winning out.
The good thing about this idea of multiple selves is that they can be bargained with. If you have a self that wants to watch TV and a self that wants to work, you can bargain with the TV self by offering a TV reward after the work is done.
Think of your procrastinating self as a child. You may need to offer to give them what they want, but only in return for doing what needs to be done first.
Everyone hates the stress of procrastinating. But now that we know procrastination is an emotional management problem, rather than a lack of willpower or a struggle with time management, we can take steps to address what’s causing us to put our work off in the first place.
So, when you catch yourself putting off work try to do a few things:
- Focus on action over emotions
- Bargain with your inner self
- Forgive yourself when you slip
We can’t banish procrastination entirely. But we can definitely make it less appealing.
More about Procrastination on the RescueTime Blog:
Dive into the theory of procrastination and how to use the “motivation equation” to get things done.
Try one of these other 5-minute productivity hacks for when you’re feeling like you want to procrastinate.
Listen to habit coach James Clear explain the 7-8 minutes a day you need to master to overcome procrastination.
Read our full guide on How to build good work habits and finally get rid of your bad ones