You have a deadline looming on the horizon: as dark and sinister as an imminent storm. And yet … Instead of working on the task, you find endless reasons to defer it. You didn’t see a need to endlessly scroll through your social media, clear out your laptop’s internal storage, or check out the latest discount games available on Steam until now – 5 hours before your task is due.
This is procrastination. Because research shows 95% of us procrastinate to some degree, you’re likely no stranger to the scenario described above, nor the phenomenon itself. As common as procrastination is, though, there’s no denying the detrimental impact it has on your life. It’s undeniably a bad habit that prevents you from unlocking your true potential.
This begs the question: are there any procrastination-fighting techniques you can adopt to avoid the stress and anxiety that stem from completing tasks at the very last second? Thankfully, yes.
What is procrastination? Why do you do it?
Some psychologists define procrastination as a ‘form of self-regulation failure characterized by the irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences.’ In plain English: procrastination is simply the act of delaying or putting off tasks until the last minute – or worse, past their deadline. Given the adverse consequences procrastination brings about, one can’t help but wonder … Why do we still do it?
Contrary to popular belief, procrastination does not boil down to laziness. Nor a lack of self-control.
Instead, it’s just an example of something called ‘present bias,’ our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones. On a neural level, we think of our ‘future selves’ more like strangers than as parts of ourselves. Meaning that when you procrastinate, parts of your brain believe that the tasks you’re putting off (and their accompanying adverse consequences) are somebody else’s problem.
In other words: your ‘Present Self’ and ‘Future Self’ are at odds. The ‘Future Self’ wants to complete the slides for that presentation on Tuesday, but the ‘Present Self’ wants to scroll through social media, download a new game, and–well, basically anything but tackle the task-at-hand.
How to stop procrastinating and get things done
Does the inconsistency between your ‘Present Self’ and ‘Future Self’ mean that you’re doomed to a life of procrastination? Of course not. There are many strategies you can employ to empower your ‘Present Self,’ such that you stop procrastinating and start checking items off on your to-do list. Here are a few of them.
#1 – Visualize your future self
As mentioned earlier, when you procrastinate, you’re, in a sense, offloading your obligations onto your ‘Future Self’, whom you feel is technically not the ‘real you’ – and thus, you’re not responsible for the consequences. Even though you are. So, how do you counteract this? The solution, according to a 2016 study published in Applied Psychology, is straightforward. All you need to do is visualize your ‘Future Self.’
For example, if you’ve been meaning to sign up for a gym membership but never seem to get around to it, take a step back. Conjure a mental image of what your ‘Future Self’ (maybe in 10 to 15 years) will look like if you don’t ever get to the gym. Are you battling obesity and chronic diseases? Are you panting and sweating uncontrollably after a flight of stairs? Forcing your ‘Present Self’ to take on the perspective of your ‘Future Self’ can help promote congruence between the two – which can help jumpstart the process of taking action. And once you’ve decided to take action, it’s time to bring in the next strategy, which will help you complete the task.
#2 – Break your task down into little parts
When a task seems grandiose, overbearing, and lofty, procrastination often follows. You may even feel hopeless when you start to think about the sheer amount of work you need to do.
At this point, it’ll be useful to break your overarching task into little parts – and then focus on one part at a time. Let’s say you need to get a presentable, fleshed-out proposal deck ready for a high-ticket client in a month. It is a big project and can be overwhelming. However, what you could do is to break it down into phases such as:
- Deciding the scope
- Creating the outline
- Deciding on a suitable template
- Drafting the content
- Writing decks #1 – #10
- Writing decks #11 – #20
- Writing decks #21 – #30
- Approval from stakeholders
Suddenly, getting the proposal deck ready seems very manageable. Better yet, research shows that once the first step is made towards a task, following through becomes easier. It’s somewhat like Newton’s First Law: an object in motion stays in motion.
You can also keep yourself motivated further by setting up ‘small wins’ and celebrating each milestone you cross. Doing so triggers your brain’s release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter known to impact motivation positively. These small wins will both reward you and nudge you toward the finish line.
#3 – Try the Pomodoro Technique
If the thought of working for hours on end intimidates you and causes you to procrastinate (regardless of whether you’re aware of it or not), then the Pomodoro Technique is a must-try. This popular time-management method asks you to alternate pomodoros – focused work sessions – with frequent short breaks to stave off mental fatigue and promote sustained concentration. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly useful if you’re particularly susceptible to succumbing to distractions, like scrolling through your social media feed or petting your dog, while you’re working on a project.
And besides, knowing that you only need to work for 25 minutes makes it a whole lot easier to just start on the task – instead of putting it off indefinitely till you ‘feel like it.’ Interested in incorporating this technique to get more things done? Here’s how:
- Choose a task you want to complete.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Work on the task for 25 minutes (i.e. when the timer rings).
- Take a short 5-minute break; this marks the completion of 1 pomodoro.
- Repeat steps 1 to 4.
- After every 4 pomodoros, take a more extended break that lasts at least 20 minutes.
Another promising aspect of the Pomodoro Technique is its potential to help you enter the “flow” state of mind. This is where you are totally absorbed by and intensely focused on something – beyond the point of distraction. After a while, you may even be able to extend your pomodoro sessions (e.g. working for 40 minutes, instead of 25 minutes) and take fewer breaks. The result? You’ll complete your work in record-breaking time.
Practice self-compassion even when you struggle
Bottom line? To stop procrastinating, connect to your future self, break your tasks down into smaller parts, and try the Pomodoro Technique to get those tasks done. And if you still find yourself occasionally procrastinating, don’t beat yourself up over it. Doing so can lead to escalating levels of self-deprecation and decreased self-efficacy – a self-perpetuating downward spiral that results in you not getting anything done.
Instead, try to forgive yourself and move on; research indicates that individuals who are able to be more self-forgiving about failures experience less procrastination later.
Now, it’s your turn to apply all the techniques above to overcome procrastination. It gets easier over time and with practice.