(Reading Time: 17 Minutes + Exercises)
Have you ever sat down to complete an important task and then suddenly discovered you’re emptying your junk folder or captivated by that Your Tube video about Tutankhamun’s tomb? Maybe you suddenly realized that you need a new suitcase and there is a deal at an online store you admire, your cat needs feeding, or you just need to know what the capital of Bhutan is? (It’s Thimphu before you head off down that rabbit hole. C’mon – stay with me.)
Before you know it, it’s 3 pm and, well, it’s too late to get any real work done. That crucial task with the looming deadline sits untouched on your desk. Gah. You’re angry at yourself. Why does this always happen?!
Well, for many people, this is a common occurrence. Procrastination is a powerful and perplexing feature of their lives. You know you have things to do, but you can’t bring yourself to get them done. There are other, more exciting things to do instead.
What is Procrastination?
In this earlier article, we saw that procrastination is the habit of putting off tasks that you should be working on by focusing instead on less urgent or unimportant tasks that are more enjoyable and easier to complete. Although it seems simple on the surface, it’s far removed from the harmless habit many people assume it to be.
Procrastination can negatively affect your mental health, financial existence, career success, and even physical health. It can also affect your relationships with other people, both personal and professional.
Psychologists no longer attribute procrastination to poor time management. Jump back to this article to understand the causes of procrastination. Procrastination is now seen as a complicated concoction of ineffective emotion regulation. It’s about emotion management, where the present self regularly sets up the future self because they falsely believe they will feel better and more able to get things done ‘tomorrow.’
So, what can you do about it? Thankfully, quite a lot.
In this article, we take a deep dive into how to stop procrastination from ruining your life. What follows is a sequence of tasks that you can work through to understand and then address your procrastination. It’d be beneficial to have a journal on hand to record your learning.
We are going to tackle your procrastination using a series of steps:
Step 1: Build Your Awareness: Get a Handle on How Bad Your Procrastination Really Is
Let’s start positive. Procrastinators aren’t lazy people. They have good intentions; it’s just that there is a gap between intention and action. No matter what, chronic procrastinators cannot seem to bring themselves to get things done.
It doesn’t always have to be this way. It is possible to change your behavior and learn how to bridge the gap between intention and action.
The way to do this is to start by being honest about your procrastination habits. Habitual behaviors are those that we often repeat because they are easy, comfortable, or rewarding. Habitual behaviors are common in procrastinators because they sit at the heart of what it means to procrastinate: to avoid completing challenging, unpleasant, or tedious tasks by focussing instead on those that are easy, comfortable, or pleasant.
You need to be honest about your habitual behaviors to build your awareness.
Task 1: Identify Your Key Behaviours
Procrastination shows up in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes you won’t even realize it’s there. For example:
- Constant checking of emails, social media, and reading the news
- Excessive preparation and research before you start a task
- Tackling small, non-urgent tasks that can easily wait
- Skipping wildly from one task to another, feeling overwhelmed by how much you need to do but never even starting the most important jobs
The list is endless.
You need to face your procrastination head-on. List all of your common procrastination habits. Be honest. There will be some small behaviors that might not appear initially significant but, when added together, are a huge time suck.
You could even try to log the incidences of your procrastination over a week. Use a table like the one below to record how often you procrastinate. List your known procrastinating behaviors in the column on the left-hand side. Add other behaviors as they come to your attention throughout the week.
You can choose to record the time you spent on each behavior in minutes or record every incidence when it happened using a tally chart.
Recording the truth, seeing the proof of the problem, and being honest about what your world looks like is an integral part of the change process.
Task 2: What is the Impact of your Procrastination?
Ask yourself these questions:
- What is the impact? Does it affect your ability to lead a balanced and healthy life?
- Does it lead to other issues such as feelings of guilt, shame, or failure?
- Are you often late? Are you always busy?
Be honest when you consider these questions. Note the answers down in your journal. You may be surprised to find that the extent of your procrastination is more far-reaching than you initially thought.
The important thing here is not to get caught up in this. Don’t beat yourself up. Be self-compassionate. After all, you’re here reading this article now because you desire change.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the real impact of your procrastination, our self-coaching workbook, How to Stop Procrastinating, contains a detailed questionnaire that will identify in detail the different aspects and extent of your procrastination.
Task 3: What’s the Goal? What’s in it for you?
Ask yourself, “What would I like to be different?”
To make a difference to your procrastination, there has to be an intrinsic goal – something that you want to achieve. You need to answer this question with a “What’s in this for me?” mindset.
Be specific and set a clear goal, or several goals, from the start. Make these profoundly personal to you. Then, when you feel yourself procrastinating, you can use these as a motivational tool.
‘I want to stop procrastinating’ is too general.
‘I want to get my work done on time so that I can get home in time to cook a healthy meal’ is a much more specific goal and is more likely to motivate you.
Step 2: Understand Why You Procrastinate
Procrastination is centered on ineffective emotion regulation. This means that procrastinators struggle to control and tolerate how they respond emotionally to situations they find difficult, stressful, or unpleasant.
Of course, the issue is compounded by other behaviors and traits, such as perfectionism, a lack of confidence, anxiety, and a flawed concept of time. But at its heart sits the struggle with emotion management and self-control.
Even though they know it will make them feel bad, procrastinators still delay tasks because they struggle to face and deal with their emotions.
It’s not the task that you’re avoiding per se. It’s the way that it makes you feel that’s the issue.
The emotions that trigger task avoidance are wide-ranging and personal and include things like boredom, a fear of failure, resentment, perfectionism and poor organisation
Task 4: What Emotions Are You Avoiding?
What emotions are you triggered by? Which emotions cause you to avoid facing your tasks?
You can either sit quietly and consider these questions or wait until you are in the throes of a bout of procrastination and then make a conscious effort to jot them down. The latter would be very revealing. Brainstorm or sketch note your ideas using a diagram like the one below.
Don’t be fooled. These questions are much harder to answer that you think. It might be difficult to be honest about the emotions that you are avoiding. You really do need to dig deep inside yourself.
For example, I’ve found writing this article really quite difficult and when I reflect on the reasons why, it’s because I want to get it done quickly and I know it’s actually going to take me quite a long time. When I dig down to another level, I realise it’s because I have a fear that it won’t be good enough. <sigh>
This is an important step on your journey to resolving your procrastination habit.
Identifying the emotions that sit at the heart of your task avoidance is the key that opens the door to really beating your procrastination.
Don’t be worried if this step takes a little longer. Ask yourself these questions as many times as you need to. You need to peel back the layers of the onion.
If you are struggling to label the different emotions, use these emotion wheels to help – there are two on this page for you to consider.
Task 5: Emotion Regulation – WHY are you avoiding these emotions?
Psychologists now attribute procrastination to the way our brains and emotions function. As we have just explored, poor emotional regulation is the foundation of procrastination. It is the inability to accept, tolerate and endure emotions and feelings that make us uncomfortable that causes issues for the procrastinator.
Emotional regulation is comprised of a series of skills. These include:
- Being aware of our emotions and accepting them
- The ability to differentiate between differing emotions
- Being able to identify and label our emotions
- Having the ability to cope with and tolerate difficult and unpleasant (also called aversive) emotions and enduring periods dominated by these emotions
- Managing and modifying our emotions so that we can better cope with challenging situations
- Supporting ourselves through difficult or unpleasant emotional experiences.
Revisit the emotions from the step above. Think about each of the emotions you are avoiding and then write down how they make you feel. It might help you to start with the task they are triggered by, then identify the emotion this initiates in you and then specifically why you find this emotion so difficult to tolerate.
Make a copy of this simple table and fill it in. An example has been provided to help you.
Again, use the feelings wheel diagrams to help you label the emotions if necessary.
The Present Self V’s The Future Self
As a coping mechanism, procrastination is all about avoidance and a lack of self-control. The behavior is self-defeating because it only benefits the present-self in the here and now. The reward is immediate; we banish the negative emotions associated with the task – fear, boredom, irritation, resentment. But the job itself remains, lurking and untouched like a dark cloud.
Our selfish present-self leaves our future-self to deal with the task and the different emotions and pressure that come with it: stress, increased time pressure, and self-loathing caused by the earlier unnecessary avoidance.
Research has identified several drivers of procrastination. Unsurprisingly anxiety and a lack of self-confidence feature significantly. Procrastinators often dwell on negative thoughts and become stuck in cycles of negativity. Also, the act of procrastinating, while providing a temporary reprieve and mood boost, quickly leads to feelings of shame and guilt. This then leads us to procrastinate even further, and the cycle repeats.
Perfectionism and procrastination often go hand in hand. For many of us, it’s easier never even to start the task, than to risk doing it badly or below expectation. We may also worry about what other people think.
Fear and Limiting Beliefs
This fear of failure, of not being good enough, is a common emotion for procrastinators. Fear in varying shapes and sizes features very frequently.
- Fear of failure
- Fear of getting it wrong
- Fear of being judged
- Fear that we don’t know enough
- Fear that we will be too successful
- Fear of not being as good as everyone else.
The sad truth is that the fears we hold and trust as factually correct are not real or accurate. They are simply a manifestation of our limiting beliefs. That is, they are false beliefs that we hold about ourselves. They restrict and inhibit us and generally make us feel miserable.
We underestimate the price of these limiting beliefs and the impact they have on our lives. The internal battle we continuously fight with them is emotionally exhausting. It’s also a waste of energy because these fears are seldom based on reality.
For the procrastinator, fear is the most effective form of self-sabotage. When we focus on the imaginary scenario instead of the present reality, we cause ourselves to procrastinate and run away to avoid those emotions that we are so fearful of.
Fear is simply a sequence of manufactured thoughts. We allow them to become real. The problem is that these thoughts have been replayed countless times over many years, and so we accept them as reality. We never think to challenge or question these fears; we simply accept them. We unwittingly allow these fears and beliefs, these false truths, to inform our behavior and underpin how we feel about ourselves.
Task 6: Emotion Regulation – What limiting beliefs do you hold about yourself?
- Grab some sticky notes or some slips of paper
- Job down the different beliefs that you hold about yourself and the labels that you wear. For example:
- I often get things wrong
- I am not as smart as other people
- I am a good parent.
- These will cover all aspects of your life. Some of these will be negative (limiting) beliefs. Others will be positive (empowering) beliefs.
- Once you have completed your set of beliefs go through them one by one and examine them. It might help to do this with a partner – a good friend and someone you trust.
- For each one ask:
- Is it true?
- Is it helpful?
- Was it ever true?
- Where does it come from and how reliable is any ‘witness’ that was there?
- With each belief do one of 3 things:
- Keep it
- Destroy it and throw it away
- Re-write it so that it is more accurate and helpful
- You might even choose to write some new beliefs with help from your partner.
Sit back and review your beliefs. Keep them safe for when you feel yourself start to procrastinate.
The most important aspect of this is to acknowledge that the issue that sits at the heart of our fear is not true. What you are afraid of is never as bad as you what imagine.
Step 3: Modifying Your Emotions
To effectively address the problem, chronic procrastinators need to explore strategies that strengthen their self-control and build their emotion regulation skills.
As we go about our daily lives, we are continuously exposed to a range of different stimuli. Emotion regulation is the practice of responding to these
experiences, or triggers, in a socially acceptable way while allowing for natural, spontaneous reactions. Emotion regulation is successfully managing one’s emotional state.
As high-functioning adults, we take much of the complex processes involved in emotion regulation for granted. It occurs somewhere in the dark recesses of our brain, almost like an autopilot.
However, these skills play a vital role in our lives. Even knowing that the processes of emotion regulation exist can dramatically impact how we respond to situations. While we might never fully control how we feel, we can undoubtedly excise more control about how we respond – the issue at the heart of our procrastination.
A concept central to emotion regulation is accepting that we all suffer from unpleasant, stressful, and negative emotions and that this is part of a balanced life. Emotion regulation is understanding this and coping with these emotions in a stable way when they occur, not losing control.
Task 7: Learn to STOPP
STOPP is an approach based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with elements of mindfulness. It’s a framework you can apply when you feel yourself losing control, or things are getting on top of you. It’s quick and easy to access and can be used in a range of situations. It will benefit other aspects of your life.
Learning to pause between an intense emotional reaction and your resulting actions is a critical life skill can use the STOPP strategy to manage your behaviour. You can choose your response.
The outline below is an adapted version of Vivyan’s STOPP (2015), using the work of Professor Steve Peters (2012) and Nancy Kline (1999).
Step 4: Selecting a Range of Specific Strategies to Meet Your Personal Needs
Procrastination is a tough nut to crack. The habits that you find so frustrating likely originated in your childhood. Accept that it will take time to eradicate them completely but that you can begin to reshape them immediately. The change process itself is based on several factors: awareness, understanding, scaffolding, and taking action.
Now that you have a greater understanding of your procrastination it’s time to select some tangible strategies that you can use to address this behaviour.
Not all of these will work for you. Some of them may seem outlandish. Others are straightforward. Take your time, read them, consider them and then commit to those that resonate with you. There is no magic wand. Try. Rinse. Repeat.
The Five-Minute Rule
Even when you don’t want to do something, make a promise to do at least 5 minutes. At the end of the 5 minutes, if you’ve had enough, that’s fine – you have permission to stop.
Researcher at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Julia Moeller, suggests the notion of the five-minute rules is emotionally comfortable. Commitment is not required. You have the right to reconsider your options at the end of the five minutes. This increases ‘the feeling of being in control and making an autonomous decision, rather than feeling forced to do something the person really absolutely does not want to do.’
The real beauty in this approach is that it’s more likely that you’ll end up working on the task for much longer. Your expectations of the job will have been far more dismal than the reality. It’s very much a case of ‘things are rarely as bad as they first appear.’
Also, any task, no matter how inane or dull, can trigger a ‘flow’ state. The flow state, also known as ‘being in the zone,’ was first conceptualized by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. When we are ‘in flow,’ we become lost in a feeling of energized focus. Time flies. Chances are you’ll spend far longer than 5 minutes on the task.
Break Things Up into Smaller Pieces
Procrastinators are intimidated by tasks that appear overwhelming. It’s much easier to break things up and then work through a more manageable sequence of jobs.
However, you’ll need to work hard not to get stuck on the pre-phase of carving the bigger job into smaller pieces. Try to think of it as a recipe and sequence your steps in the order that they need to occur, and then begin to chip away at them. It’s totally up to you to decide if you want to do all of the steps one after the other or at different times. You could even sandwich unpleasant tasks between or before things that you love to spend your time on.
Be Realistic. Plan for Delays
One of the most common behaviors of the procrastinator is their inability to be realistic about how long a task takes to complete. Procrastinators have a tendency not to allocate enough time to a task. When they fail to complete it in the time given, the negative cycle begins, and they become disillusioned.
Instead, set yourself up for success, when planning a task, add in additional time. Even if you don’t need it, you will feel a dramatic sense of accomplishment when you complete things ahead of schedule. This is an incredibly empowering strategy but exercise caution. Don’t be over-generous!
Balance the Sour with the Sweet or the Sour with the Sour
There are some things that we need to do that we don’t want to. This is a fact of life. It applies to all of us. When this arises, try a little self-bribery by pairing the job you don’t want to do with something you enjoy.
Hate to exercise? Get it done, and then schedule some meditation immediately afterward. Need to go to the dentist? Take a day’s holiday, go shopping and collect the kids from school after you have been.
An alternative approach to this is to pair unpleasant tasks together and use your procrastination habit to its advantage by focusing on one job so that you don’t have to do the other. The upshot of this is that you will at least get one horrible task done because you don’t want to do the other one. Once you have completed one of the tasks, pair the second task with something else even more unpleasant and schedule some time.
Unpleasant tasks aren’t punishment. They are just a part of everyday existence. You have nothing to prove. You just need to get them done. There is nothing glamourous about this.
Find a Diversion, Initiate a Flow State
When we enter a flow state, we have already seen that we get lost in time; we are ‘in the zone’ or caught in the moment. An excellent way to trigger a flow state is to create a diversion that shifts your attention or changes your focus. It’s effortless and effective. Most of us do it naturally. Being conscious of it, we can choose to deploy it when we feel the procrastination beast getting the better of us.
- Have you got 500 emails to read? OK, challenge yourself; how many can you delete in 60 seconds? Then another 60 seconds?
- Do you need to weed the flower bed? Can you get it done by the end of three songs playing on the radio?
- Got a report to finish? Can you include five new words that you never knew before?
Implementation intentions affect change in how we do things; they lead to increased performance and/or engagement.
Professor of Psychology at NYU, Peter Gollwitzer, has demonstrated through his research that these interventions can be significant in setting rules to minimize things such as distractions. While they won’t fix your procrastination alone, they are nonetheless an excellent tool as part of a broader strategy.
An implementation intention supports the achievement of the desired goal by creating the conditions for it. For example, if you want to write a journal every morning, get set up the night before. You might decide to write your morning pages as you drink your coffee in the kitchen so prepare in advance. Layout the cup and saucer, get the coffee maker ready, and set up your notebook, pen, and anything else you need. When you get up in the morning, you can set straight to it.
The key to successful implementation interventions is the ‘predecision’ – committing to complete the task in advance. There is some reasonably complex psychology behind this strategy, but the key lies in the speed at which you can get started on the job. You have already made the decision; all that is left to do is get started.
Implementation interventions can also be used in an ‘if…then’ format. Again, this is about committing to an intended action in advance:
- If I open my emails, then I will read and action 10 of them.
- If I write the company report for an hour, then I can watch an episode of my favorite TV show.
- If a notification pings on Facebook, then I won’t read it until I finish work at 5 pm.
Get a Formal Accountability Partner
A little bit of positive peer pressure can be a great thing! The rationale behind self-help groups is based on group accountability, otherwise known as peer pressure!
Find someone that you respect and admire and ask them to check in on you. If you’re doing this for the first time, be wise in choosing your partner and don’t put too much pressure on yourself so that it causes unnecessary anxiety. Instead, choose a trusted friend or loved one. However, be careful not to select someone too close to you, such as your partner, as this can cause conflict. As your confidence with this strategy grows, get bolder. A good line manager would find it a privilege to check in on you and offer their support.
Agree on a schedule for checking in, such as a couple of times a week. Agree on what work you will have completed in advance of these check-ins and commit to doing it.
Begin experimenting with these strategies. Test them out. Tweak them. Make adjustments. Repeat and practice. Scrub those off your list that don’t work. Experiment with those that you wouldn’t usually try. As time wears on, you will eventually stumble across a range of approaches that fit your brief.
You will also find that these strategies coupled with the earlier activity of labelling your emotions and using the STOPP technique can be incredibly effective.
You cannot underestimate the cost of procrastination. Not only do you delay tasks, but you also wait to live life itself. Procrastination not only erodes time; it also eats away at your self-worth and confidence. Many people see procrastination only as a harmless foible, but the impact is felt in all corners of your life for the chronic procrastinator.
Some of you might want to consider working through some of this with a coach or even a counselor – particularly if some of the underlying issues prove particularly hard to navigate. That’s fine. Reach out to someone you trust with appropriate training and qualifications and get this stuff nailed once and for all.
By deciding to do something about your procrastination, you are already on the right path. Hopefully, this article has helped you make some significant progress on this journey. Good luck!
If you enjoyed reading this article, then you will also benefit from our self-coaching workbook ‘How to Stop Procrastinating: Take Back Control of Your Life’.
Working with a coach can be costly. Sadly, many people don’t have the money. Rather like a personal trainer, it’s a service that many people would love to invest in. They just don’t have the available resources. Luckily, most experts would agree that it is absolutely possible to coach yourself with the right guidance.
The Procrastination Workbook was written by an International Coaching Federation (ICF) Accredited Coach. The tools and resources within it were selected to create a rich and profound program of enquiry for those that struggle with procrastination.
The Workbook Contains:
- Complete coaching journey from start to finish
- Over 100 workbook pages of actionable tools and templates that help you learn about your procrastination and the extent to which it impacts on different areas of your life
- Diagnostic questionnaire so that you can learn more about your procrastination habits
- A range of practical exercises so that you can develop your understanding of your procrastination and take action to address it
- Templates that you can fill out so that you don’t get stuck
- Real-world techniques developed by psychologists and based on research that you can actively apply to bring about the change that you want to see in your life
- Over 25 strategies you can use to beat your procrastination habit
- Final stage action plan enabling lasting change
- Can be completed electronically or printed off and completed by hand
- Easy to access and quick to complete. The exercises within it could be completed in a few hours
- Released February 2021 – Price: $18
Allison S., T., Frank H, W., Amanda J, S., & Iris B, M. (2010). Seeing the silver lining: Cognitive reappraisal ability moderates the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms. Emotion, 10(6), 783-795. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020262
Jaffe, E. (2021). Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination. Association for Psychological Science – APS. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/why-wait-the-science-behind-procrastination.
Fessler, L. (2021). The five-minute trick that helps Instagram’s CEO crush procrastination. Quartz at Work. Retrieved 2 February 2021, from https://qz.com/work/999979/the-five-minute-trick-that-helps-instagrams-ceo-crush-procrastination/.
Gross, J. J. (Ed.). (2014). Handbook of Emotion Regulation. Guilford publications.
Kline, N. (1999). Time to Think. Cassell.
Kline, N. (2015). More time to think. Fisher King Publishing.
Krauss Whitbourne, S. (2021). 5 Ways to Get Your Unwanted Emotions Under Control. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201502/5-ways-get-your-unwanted-emotions-under-control.
Peters, S. (2013). The chimp paradox. Stanley Paul.
Pychyl, T. (2010) Implementation Intentions Facilitate Action Control Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/dont-delay/201001/implementation-intentions-facilitate-action-control
Vivyan, C. (2015). STOPP. Get Self Help UK. Retrieved from https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/stopp.htm