If you've ever had an item on your to-do list for weeks — months, even — only to take less than 90 seconds to complete once you finally tackle it, you know what it's like to procrastinate. It's easy to confuse procrastination with laziness, but there's more to it than that.
Often, procrastination occurs due to negative associations with a task. For instance, maybe you avoid making that dentist appointment because you know it'll lead to flossing lectures. Other factors can also lead to procrastination, such as boredom, anxiety and perfectionism, per McLean Hospital.
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If your penchant for putting things off is causing you to shortchange important aspects of your life (especially basic elements of survival like work, health and nutrition), then it's time to find effective workarounds to pull yourself out of procrastination mode.
These nine expert-backed strategies can help you navigate your next procrastination wave.
1. Triage Your Tasks
First up: Consider the merits of purposeful delay, which differs from procrastination. This intentional delay helps further your goals — for instance, you might put off replying to an email right away so that you devote your attention to a more in-depth or timely project. Or you might delay a phone call to a loved one until you're in a sunny and high energy mood.
"The best first step toward avoiding the downsides of procrastination and encouraging purposeful delay is to use a technique we use in the ER called triage," says Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, board-certified psychiatrist, neuroscientist and founder of Apollo Neurosciences. "This is where we evaluate each patient as quickly as possible to understand who needs care right away and who can wait."
You can triage new tasks as they come in by organizing them into four categories:
- Do — tasks that need to be done right away
- Defer — tasks that can be scheduled for later or need more time to incubate
- Delegate — tasks that can be outsourced to someone else
- Delete — tasks that aren't a priority or you don't have time to take on
This process can help diffuse procrastination before it starts by leaving little time for self-destructive feelings to kick in.
2. Choreograph Your To-Do List
Curbing procrastination isn't just about breaking down each task or project into bite-sized chunks on your to-do list, but making sure each "bite" fits within your personal stress threshold.
"When our systems are overwhelmed, the thought of completing any task, big or small, can feel daunting," says Victoria Smith, LCSW, a California-based licensed clinical social worker. "We can easily just kick the can down the road, so to speak."
If you still feel paralyzed at the thought of taking a specific step, break that step down into even smaller pieces until each piece feels manageable. "This puts you in a position of control, which can build a sense of confidence and momentum," Smith says.
3. Name the Feeling
Putting your feelings into words (say, defining yourself as feeling "bored," "frustrated" or "overwhelmed" by the task you're procrastinating on) lessens the hold they have on you by decreasing amygdala activity and increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex, making it easier for you to get back to your regularly scheduled programming, per a March 2018 review in the journal Emotion Review.
4. Act as if Your Feelings Are a Fixed State
Once you've named the feeling, analyze if it's logical and helpful to be directed by it.
"Emotions signal us, but should never direct us," says Taish Malone, PhD, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health. "Begin the task you're putting off anyway and be proactive in intentionally allowing yourself to be uncomfortable."
One way to encourage this habit is to act as if the uncomfortable feelings you're having are fixed: An older study published in the January 2001 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found when students thought they could improve their mood, they procrastinated — but didn't procrastinate when they were led to believe their mood was fixed.
This could be because you're not only acknowledging your feelings, but accepting them as they are so they no longer dictate your actions (or lack thereof), according to a December 2017 article in the Global Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities.
5. Diffuse Your Anxiety
When we feel anxious, we're vulnerable to catastrophic thinking and devising worst-case scenarios in our minds. Racing thoughts and being on edge makes it difficult to focus on the task at hand, perpetuating the procrastination cycle.
"It's incredibly easy at this crossroads to want to do anything else instead — if anything at all — to feel relief from being emotionally dysregulated and anxious," says Peggy Loo, PhD, New York-based licensed psychologist and director of Manhattan Therapy Collective.
Each time you feel your anxiety intensifying, take a literal breather.
Deep breathing and guided meditation can help keep your focus on the rails by activating the body's parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system — and its first order of business will be telling your amygdala to chill out.
These practices will improve your ability to dive into tasks "from a standpoint of strength and calm, rather than fear and threat, which happens when we're overwhelmed," Dr. Rabin says.
6. Act Before You Think
If a task (or one step of a task) will take you 20 seconds or less, do it right away, Smith suggests, before your brain has time to peer pressure you into procrastinating.
"Otherwise, you might have that task or step looming over you for hours, maybe even days," she says, especially if it's a task that becomes more daunting the longer you put it off (think: taking 20 seconds to rinse a few dirty dishes now versus an hour chipping grime off a sink full next week).
7. Leave Off in the Right Spot
It may seem counterintuitive, but research suggests leaving the step you're on a little unfinished at the end of the day can have a positive effect on your motivation to continue working on your project the following day.
According to a small 2018 study published in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity, this could be because your brain is seeking closure. Not finishing creates an internal pressure that makes you want to pick up the task again to finish it — and you'll be more motivated to do so if you know you're close to finishing (versus starting the day at the beginning of a new step filled with unknowns).
Bonus: The hit of dopamine you'll be rewarded with when you're done might encourage you to jump into the next step with less fuss.
8. Try Temptation Bundling
When you're working on a longer-term project where the rewards aren't immediate, try temptation bundling: Pair something you want to do (watch a baking competition show) with an action you need to do (send out surveys). The instant gratification of your want-to-do may sustain your motivation to trudge through the phases of your need-to-do, per a November 2020 study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
9. Schedule a Consult
If finding effective procrastination fixes on your own isn't going well, consider working with a neurodiversity-affirming or occupational therapist. "This is something I recommend to some of my therapy patients who really struggle with focus and procrastination and benefit from highly tailored interventions," Loo says.
- McLean Hospital: "Why You Put Things Off Until the Last Minute"
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: "Emotional Distress Regulation Takes Precedence Over Impulse Control: If You Feel Bad, Do It!"
- Global Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities: "Applying the Yerkes-Dodson Law to Understanding Positive or Negative Emotions"
- Thinking Skills and Creativity: "The Hemingway effect: How failing to finish a task can have a positive effect on motivation"
- Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: "Teaching temptation bundling to boost exercise: A field experiment"
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