M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
How to Stop Procrastinating: Introduction
You wish you knew how to stop procrastinating. You want to be more like your heroes; the kind of person that gets stuff done; that always moves forward, progressing.
And yet there you are, checking the fridge for the fourth time in an hour, lost in a Wikipedia black hole, making another coffee or clicking through the Facebook photos of someone you haven’t spoken to since high school.
The truth? That’s a HUGE problem – because unless you can beat procrastination there’s no way in hell you’ll have that kind of success (or even much success at all).
Of course, nobody likes to procrastinate. It fills us with anxiety, frustration and guilt. It follows us everywhere, gnawing at us, building and building till the stress becomes suffocating; till panic arrives and all that we value gets sidelined.
So what causes it? And how can we beat procrastination for good?
Great questions. Because procrastination is a problem that can be solved.
All it takes are some tips and some tools to get started.
The Four Causes of Procrastination
The best way to learn HOW to top procrastinating is to first understand WHY you procrastinate in the first place.
There are two main emotions and four root causes of procrastination.
The first familiar sensation is feeling overwhelmed. It’s that tight, sick knot in your chest. That feeling of knowing you must act but unable to even acknowledge, let alone tackle the task that’s at hand.
The two root causes of feeling overwhelmed are:
- Lack of clarity – inaction through not knowing how to start; and
- Lack of courage – paralysis through fear of how things might end.
The second familiar sensation is feeling uninspired. You know what to do to make progress. The problem? You just can’t make yourself do it.
The two root causes of feeling uninspired are:
- Lack of motivation– not having a good reason “Why?”; and
- Lack of energy – a lack of strength to get what must be done, done.
The good news? With those four root causes defined, there’s a whole heap of tricks we can use to address them.
Cause 1: Lack of Clarity
Lack of clarity kills productivity before it even begins.
Here are three ways to tackle it:
1. Clear Your Head
Our working memory is limited. That means we quickly run out of resources to process life’s open tabs.
The solution? Get everything out of your head. Doing so will profoundly unstick you. And all it takes is three simple steps:
- Grab a pen and paper;
- Set a timer for 15 minutes; and
- Write non-stop – write anything that comes to your mind.
Write the big things and small things. Write the bad ideas and the good ones. Write about the tasks you’re procrastinating on. Write about the sensations, emotions and thoughts that are weighing you down.
Don’t filter. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or legibility. Don’t stop until the timer runs out. Take longer if you need it.
Your thoughts may start as a trickle, but they’ll soon be a torrent and then eventually burn back to a trickle.
Congratulations! You’ve reached simplicity on the other side of complexity – and, with luck, found a new sense of space and of clarity.
Record any ideas or actions you want to take with you on a new piece of paper. Now destroy your original writing. Now act.
Further reading: The Art of Journal Meditation (Article), “Getting Things Done”, David Allen (Crunch)
2. Break Things Down
Every task is made up of:
- An outcome – What does success look like?;
- Milestones – Mini-outcomes that break the task down; and
- Next actions – The very next thing you can do to move forward.
If you’re struggling to eat a frog in one bite, a great procrastination killer is to take manageable mouthfuls.
First, be sure you’re clear on the desired outcome. What do you actually want from this project? What would make it complete?
Next, break the outcome into milestones. It’s easier to tackle seven back-to-back milestones with a 50% chance of success than a 1% leap in the dark. It’s simpler to grapple with outcomes 3 months or less in the future than to try and work 2 years ahead.
Finally, ask yourself: “What’s the very next thing I can do to move forward?” Imagine asking someone else to take over. If it’s not simple enough to do without clarifying, it’s not the next action.
Break it down until the next action is mindless and easy. Now do it.
Further reading: “Eat That Frog!”, Brian Tracy (Crunch)
3. Start First, Think Later
“Do not wait”, said Napoleon Hill, “the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand. Work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go.”
And he’s right. The best way to get started is often just to get started.
Why? Because getting started lets us gather data. And a few weeks of data isn’t just useful for clarity, goal setting and planning, it’s essential.
How? If your first session involves others, book it now. If it’s solo, just get started. Need more structure? Use the Pomodoro technique to focus on process while your outcomes are hazy. Rack up the first few sessions, then come back to planning.
Do what you can, with what you have, from where you are – the rest will take care of itself.
Further reading: 10 Steps To Learn Any Skill (And Why They Will Change Your Life) (Article)
Cause 2: Lack of Courage
A lack of courage is the biggest single cause of procrastination. It’s almost always linked to fear of failure. Sound familiar? Here are eleven ways to be braver:
4. Monitor Anxiety
Keeping an eye on anxiety is the best way to diffuse it before it escalates. To do so:
- Set a recurring timer on your phone to go off once per hour.
- When the timer goes off, ask “How anxious am I feeling right now?”
- To help, make a note of where and how tense you feel in your body.
- Give yourself an anxiety score of 1 – 10, where 1 is chilled and 10 is apocalypse.
- If you’re a 5 or above, call a timeout.
Take yourself for a walk, listen to a song you love or reflect on a few things you’re grateful for. One excellent option is to…
One of the best ways to conquer fear is with breathing. Try this one-minute exercise now:
- Breathe in for 4 seconds – focus on your chest expanding
- Hold it for 2 seconds.
- Breathe out for 6 – focus on your body relaxing.
- Repeat 5 times.
Feeling more confident? This simple breathing routine shifts your body from “fight-or-flight” to “pause-and-plan”.
It’s a powerful way to find a place from which things can get done.
Further reading: “Optimal Living 101”, Brian Johnson (Crunch)
6. Forgive Yourself
So you’ve just binge-watched a whole season of Friends, or lost a few hours to Angry Birds. Blissful, mindless escape.
But now, the real world swims back into focus.
And the stuff that you still need to do? It’s still there. Except now it’s more pressing than ever.
You feel guilty, anxious and stressed. And that sick knot in your stomach isn’t helping.
Well, guess what? Now is exactly the time to be kind to yourself. Kicking yourself while you’re down achieves nothing.
To do so, use the Platinum Rule – learn to treat yourself as you would treat others. Here’s a quick three-step thought exercise to get started:
- First, picture a close friend or family member that you love and want nothing but the best for.
- Now, imagine this person has come to you for advice. They’ve done exactly as you’ve done and feel just how you’re feeling.
- Think: How would you treat this person? What advice would you give?
My bet is you might say, “Hey, don’t worry about it! We’re all human, and being human is complicated. You’re awesome and your stuff will be fine. Tell me, what’s the most important thing you need to get done? How can I help you get started?”
So next time you make a mistake: be your own best friend. Take a moment to acknowledge you’re only human. Give yourself some good advice and be kind.
7. Realise, You Are Not Alone
One great way to protect yourself against fear is to remind yourself that everyone else struggles too.
My personal weaknesses? iPhone games and street-magic videos on YouTube. I don’t know why they’re like crack, but they are. I’ve wasted countless hours on them when I know I should have been focussing on something else.
Leonardo da Vinci was such a chronic procrastinator that it took threats of bankruptcy to get him to finish most of his works. Carol Joyce Oates described producing the first draft of her writing as like, “pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”
Want some more? Google “I feel like an idiot” – 25,700,000 results in 0.34 seconds. Wonderful.
Not convinced? Read Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” (Crunch) for a powerful dose of perspective (and some wonderful advice to go with it).
A little reminder that we all struggle – that you’re not alone – is all it can take to remind you how lucky you are and to jolt you right out of your rut.
8. Remember, Your Only Contest Is With Yourself
Comparing constantly to others is the quickest way to dispirit yourself and sabotage progress.
Your best shot at becoming the best person you can be is to not get distracted. Instead, focus all of your energy and attention on the task that’s directly in front of you.
One great habit to put this in action is to make time at the end of each day to think about how you can be better tomorrow. To do so:
- Grab a pen and paper at the end of each day
- Set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Ask yourself:
- What went well today?
- What lessons did you learn?
- What opportunities do you have to improve?
If you’re even 0.1% more effective each day for 365 days and you’ll be 45% better than you were at the start of the year. Do it for 5 years and you’ll be 6 times the person you were when you started. Do it for 20 and you’ll achieve more than you ever could have imagined.
Further reading: “The Compound Effect”, Darren Hardy (Amazon)
9. Challenge Your Beliefs
“I can’t do this.”, “Everyone will think I’m an idiot.”, “There’s no way I’m ready yet!” Limiting beliefs are a major driver of fear-based procrastination.
The solution? Challenge them. To do so, grab a pen and paper. Now, whenever you catch a thought that says you’re anything less than a super-hero, answer the following four questions:
- Is this belief true? You might just discover you don’t actually believe it. If you think the answer is yes, that’s also OK.
- Can I know that it’s true? Perhaps more importantly, what evidence is there to indicate that it’s false?
- How do I react when I think that thought? What sensations and emotions do you feel? Try to observe without judging.
- Who would I be without that thought? If you could wave a magic wand and eliminate it, what could you achieve?
The trick here is to set up bouncers and lawyers in your mind. Bouncers, to keep out thoughts you know don’t belong. Lawyers, to challenge the ones that gain entry.
Cross-examine the beliefs that are holding you back. You’ll find surprisingly few stand the test.
10. Be OK Starting Somewhere
Everyone who is good at something was once bad at it.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Tiger Woods was once bad at golf. Beethoven was once bad at piano. Einstein was once bad at Physics. This rule applies to everyone. Even you.
When was the last time you laughed in the face of somebody trying hard to learn your language? Hopefully never. Instead, their vulnerability probably softened you. You almost certainly spoke louder, more clearly and repeated yourself patiently to help them.
So don’t be afraid to start somewhere. “The first draft of anything”, said Hemingway, “is shit.” And the only way to the second draft is through the first.
Further reading: “Bounce”, Matthew Syed (Crunch)
11. Be an Optimalist
Perfection is the enemy or progress. And one of the best ways to overcome it is simply by shifting perspective.
Do visualise “wild success”, but don’t think of it as some “distant shore” you must land on, says Tal Ben-Shahar. Instead, think of your visualisation as a “guiding star”, an end that can be steered towards but not reached.
Releasing unrealistic expectations will help you move from “Perfectionism” to “Optimalism”. And when you miss that guiding star? Well, “even if you fail at your ambitious thing, it’s very hard to fail completely,” explains Larry Page, co-founder of Google. “That’s the thing that people don’t get.”
So remember, cut yourself some slack and alter your perspective. What’s important isn’t perfect, it’s practice.
Further reading: “The Pursuit of Perfect”, Tal Ben-Shahar (Amazon)
12. Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best
Let’s say you really do fail completely. What’s the very worst that can happen? Think it through:
- First, grab a pen and paper.
- Now, make a list every possible thing that could go wrong – don’t hold back.
- Finally, think of at least one way to soften or avoid each outcome on your list.
Feeling better? Following these steps is like taking the roof off a haunted house. It’s amazing how ghosts disappear in the light.
Still anxious? Consider this: the physical sensations of fear and excitement are the same – the difference is psychological. It lies in our expectations.
To shift from negative to positive, ask yourself: what’s the best possible outcome you could experience?
Now, spend at least as much time thinking about this answer as your worst-case scenario.
You’ll be amazed at the difference this makes.
Further reading: “The 4-Hour Work Week”, Tim Ferriss (Crunch)
13. Snap Back to Reality
In addition to the planning for the worst, and hoping for the best – it’s important to be ready for reality.
Why? Because the shock of unexpected reversals can knock you sideways. Which means you’ll need to battle once more for momentum.
How can you avoid it? With mental contrasting – the process of listing and preparing for challenges ahead. To do it:
- First, grab a pen and paper.
- Next, imagine yourself in the future. You’re looking back on the task at hand but things didn’t work out as hoped. You’re trying to understand why.
- Now, list all of the possible false-assumptions, challenges and setbacks that might have caused your efforts to fail.
- Finally, try to think of at least one way to soften or avoid each obstacle on your list.
No matter how smart you are, some obstacles are inevitable.
Difficult conversations may need to happen. Sacrifices may be called for. Sometimes a task demands blood, sweat and tears.
The power of mental contrasting is in shedding the shock from the sting. A realistic view of the challenges ahead will help you broaden your stance, grit your teeth and push through. Even if the obstacles you meet aren’t the ones you expected.
14. Embrace Failure
“Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But how? There are many good ways to face failure. For a nice rundown, check out step 8 (Find Courage) in Brian Johnson’s Optimal Living 101 (Crunch).
My favourite? Fail at something every single day. Try making it from your front door to your car in one jump. Smile at the grumpiest stranger on the street. Go to your first ever pilates class. Apologise for something you messed up.
Your choice can be utterly profound or incredibly silly, just do whatever it takes to remind yourself that failure isn’t a big deal.
This is especially true if you’re used to being “one of the best”. Many high-performers out there are so used to being experts that the idea of failing, even in a totally unrelated field, can be paralysing.
This is a tragic and suffocating way to live.
Make a habit of enjoying small failures and remember, no books are written in one draft, no films are made in one take and “only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” – T.S. Eliot
Further reading: “Mindset”, Carol Dweck (Amazon)
Cause 3: Lack of Motivation
If you’re feeling clear and confident but just can’t make yourself care – you might need a spoonful of motivation. Here are three quick tricks to help:
15. Ask “Why? Why? Why?”
Motivation requires motive and the best form of motive is a good solid “Why”.
Why is the task you’re working on important? How does solving this problem relate to your life? What will it help you understand about the world around you?
“I need to study for this test because the test determines my grade, my grade determines my college, my college determines my job, my job determines my ability to ever pay off my loans and maybe even still have time for friends, hobbies and travel.”
If you can make a problem relevant and engaging to your life – if you can offer a strong why – your procrastination will dissolve by itself.
Further reading: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey (Crunch)
16. Do It for Somebody Else
If you can’t find a reason to make the task valuable for you, try reflecting on why it may be valuable to somebody else.
How will this result make your parents proud? How will this job support your partner’s dreams? Or pay for your children’s opportunities? It can be easy to find the strength to act when it benefits people we love.
Finding it hard to generate the same drive for a stranger?
Consider this: when you flick a switch, it’s not just energy that flows through the wire, it’s the sacrifices of millions, past and present. The same goes for your schooling, healthcare and freedom.
So, next time you can’t find a reason to care, do it for somebody else. Because if one thing is certain, it’s that somebody did it for you.
Further reading: The REAP Model: A Brief Theory of Meaning (Article)
17. Do It While Doing Something You Love
Why do pharmaceutical companies coat medications in sugar? Because it’s a simple and effective way to make bitter pills easy to swallow.
The same principle applies to the mind. To get started:
- Think of something you often procrastinate on.
- Think of something you love doing.
- Make a vow never to do (2) except while or after doing (1).
For example, decide:
- I will only listen to my favourite band while I do chores;
- I will only eat chocolate as a reward for completing 2 hours of deep work;
- I will only listen to audiobooks while I run.
Power through procrastination by combining what you resist with what you love.
It won’t just incentivise progress, it might even make it a pleasure.
Cause 4: Lack of Energy
It doesn’t matter how clear, confident and motivated you feel if you don’t have the energy to start. Here are four final tips to help boost you back into action:
18. Set Yourself up for Success
The same obstacles will look and feel 10x harder without enough food, rest and movement in your life.
The solution? Eat healthily, sleep till you’re rested and exercise at least 5 hours per week.
Feeling suddenly low? Have a snack, take a nap or go walking.
Sometimes beating a bout of procrastination is as simple as topping up the basics.
19. Start Slowly
If your goal is to do deep-work for five hours a day, don’t try for five hours right away. Start with 15 minutes. Then increase it each day in 15-minute increments.
If you’re trying to wake up early, don’t set your alarm instantly for 5 AM. Start 15 minutes earlier and ease yourself into your new routine.
Biting off more than you can chew is a quick way to exhaust and demotivate yourself. So don’t do it.
20. Don’t Burn Out
As any athlete knows, the secret to being the best has more to do with not getting injured than it does with superior training.
Why? Because making transformative gains relies on compounding, and compounding relies on steady and consistent improvements, day-in-day-out.
The same principle applies to everything in life. Whether you’re studying for a test, building life-long friendships or working on your career.
Success, real success, comes from not burning out – so take it easy, and remember, the main goal of every training session is to make it to the end of the next one.
21. Count to 5 and Go!
Finally, when all else fails, “Just do it”, and, when you do, do it fast.
“If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it.”, explains Mel Robbins, author of The 5 Second Rule.
The solution? “Just start counting backwards to yourself: 5-4-3-2-1.
The counting will focus you on the goal or commitment and distract you from the worries, thoughts, and excuses in your mind.
As soon as you reach ‘1’ – push yourself to move.
This is how you push yourself to do the hard stuff – the work that you don’t feel like doing, or you’re scared of doing, or you’re avoiding.”
Further reading: “The 5 Second Rule”, Mel Robbins (Amazon), “The Five Elements of the Five Second Rule”, Mel Robbins (Article)
How to Stop Procrastinating: Next Steps
So there you have it, 21 powerful ways to find clarity, beat anxiety and start getting things done.
Can you remember the last time when doing felt easy? A time when your mind was like water; when everything flowed; when you looked back and thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I just did that!”
That feeling isn’t once or twice in a lifetime. It’s not even once or twice in a year. That feeling is available to you now, every moment of every day, the moment you reach out to take it.
The only thing between you and your best-self is action; definite, purposeful, persistent action – taken relentlessly – today, and tomorrow, and the day after.
But what of procrastination? Well, it turns out that all you’ve been missing till now are the tools; the tricks that put today in the place of tomorrow.
And now you have them, so pick one thing on this list and get to it.
Because even if the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is still now.