Procrastination, the habit of putting off things off, undermines the self confidence of many smart and otherwise productive people.
It’s no surprise that procrastinating is hard on health: “Habitual procrastinators have higher rates of depression and anxiety and poorer well-being,” The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) writes, after talking with researchers who study the problem.
Are you a perfectionist? Impulsive?
Procrastinators often blame their perfectionist tendencies. But that’s probably wrong: More often, studies link procrastination to impulsiveness, the tendency to act immediately on your urges. Highly impulsive people shut down when they feel anxiety, the scientists say, so foot-dragging actually is an emotional strategy (a twisted one, to be sure) for dealing with stress.
OK. Nice to know. The question is, how to change this crippling habit? Here are 12 ways to bust through this block and get stuff done:
1. Be kind
To start, lighten up on yourself. Procrastination is frustrating, yes. And dumping on yourself makes it worse. Instead of spurring you to action, kicking yourself can set off the protective impulse in you to just dig in and refuse to cooperate.
2. Break jobs into small parts
Many of the best solutions involve psyching yourself out. For example, since big jobs are daunting, divide them into many smaller, more inviting tasks, each of which seems more doable.
It’s easy to scoff that we’re kidding ourselves with such strategies. Big or small, the job remains the same, after all. But it’s a mistake to discount the effectiveness of learning the keys to your own psychology.
Also, have patience. It takes some front-end work, at least the first few times, to decide how to package a big job into smaller parts. And don’t forget: Even the intimidating task of changing a habit can be broken into smaller parts.
3. Reward yourself for a (small) job well done
Rewarding yourself after completing each small job is key to success, procrastination researchers say. Keep a list of small rewards and treats on your desk or in your pocket, such as a cup of coffee or tea, lunch, stretching, a quick power nap, a short walk, a quick phone chat or a (truly) quick check of your social media accounts.
4. Make lists
Here’s another motivational trick: Make lists to track all the tasks you need to do. For many people, simply drawing a line through each completed item and watching a to-do list shrink delivers a pleasant jolt of satisfaction.
5. Decide how to spend just the next 3 minutes
Ask yourself, “What can I do in the next three minutes that will move something forward?” motivational writer Chris Winfield advises. Keep asking that question each time you get off track. Or, here’s a twist: Set a timer and spend just 10 minutes or just two hours doing the thing you cannot do. Often, that’s all it takes to get you going.
6. Use apps to turn off distractions for a while
Social media makes impulse control really difficult. But there’s an app for that. Many of them, actually. Here are three:
Self Control: (Mac) Free. You’re in charge: block your access to sites you choose for however long you wish. Choose carefully, though: Once you click “Start,” you’re blocked, no matter what. You can’t undo the block, even by deleting the app or restarting your computer. You have to wait until the time you allotted has expired.
Focus Booster: (Mac and PC) Free (basic version) or $2.99-$4.99 a month with free 30-day trial. This app helps you focus on a single task for 25 minutes followed by a five-minute break. Make a list of your daily tasks and the app tracks the time as you work on each, sounding an alarm when your time’s up. Focus Booster is based on research supporting a time-management technique called “pomodoro,” which holds that working in 25-minute spurts followed by five-minute breaks is effective for eliminating distractions and boosting productivity.
Anti-Social: (Mac and PC) $15. Block your computer from accessing the social sites that are running your life. Set up blocks as short as 15 minutes or as long as eight hours. You choose the sites to block and for how long. Unlike with SelfControl, rebooting your computer will release the blocks before the allotted time is up.
7. Pluck low-hanging fruit first
Small jobs, as we’ve noted, are more inviting. They promise success. Get your groove going by starting off your day with the easiest or quickest assignments on your list.
8. Carpe the morning
There is usually a certain time of day when your brain lights up and energy and productivity climbs. For many, it’s early morning. Others, though, do best late at night. It would be a mistake to use these precious energy surges on reading the news, sending emails or dealing with stuff you can do standing on your head. Organize your day to apply your brain surges to your scariest or most-difficult jobs.
9. Take a break
Getting dug in can make you spin your wheels. Take regular breaks — brief bouts of exercise are especially refreshing — to reset and recharge, giving your work a creative boost.
10. Build up your stress tolerance
Researchers found that exposing procrastinators to small doses of the thing that scared or stressed them helped build tolerance to these difficult emotions and go forward in small doses, managing their emotions more effectively.
11. Meditate 2 minutes a day
Seriously. Two minutes. You’ll be amazed, if you don’t already know, how meditation clears the mind, making it easier to focus on what you want to get done. This article (scroll to the bottom for instructions) at Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, explains how in simple terms. Two minutes isn’t a real meditation practice, but it’s a way to form a habit you can build on.
12. Get help
If you have tried the approaches above and find they’re not working, it’s probably time to get help. Rather than damage relationships and lose your best years to sub par performance, it pays to try therapy or counseling to find out if procrastinating is a symptom of a larger issue.
What’s your secret weapon against procrastination? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.