4 Ways to Stop Procrastinating

4 Ways to Stop Procrastinating

Have you ever felt like putting off a task until tomorrow? Many of us do – and then we get to the task tomorrow. But for some, “tomorrow” doesn’t come until a few days ... or weeks ... or even months later.

On the other hand, have you ever found yourself not procrastinating, but acting impulsively? It isn’t unusual to occasionally seize the day and do something you hadn’t planned for. But acting impulsively on a regular basis can result in a raft of bad decisions, from overspending to overeating to committing to do something you can’t possibly accomplish.

Research suggests that procrastination is heritable and closely linked with a tendency toward impulsivity. In a clinical study, Daniel Gustavson, PhD, and several of his colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder examined 181 identical-twin pairs who share 100% of their genes. The researchers found that if one identical twin showed signs of procrastination and impulsivity, so, too, did their twin. "Everyone procrastinates at least sometimes, but we wanted to explore why some people procrastinate more than others and why procrastinators seem more likely to act without thinking," Gustavson says. “Learning more about the underpinnings of procrastination may help develop interventions to prevent it.”

The link between putting off an important task and making choices with little forethought rings true in my clinical practice as a mental health practitioner. I’ve seen procrastination and impulsivity emerge together in clients presenting with a variety of mental health disorders, including ADD, Bipolar Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Until we understand more about the underlying mechanism of procrastination, here are four suggestions based on my professional and personal experience to help you get unstuck:

1. Understand Your Patterns
Do you tend to put things off when it’s related to a specific task at work, a particular relationship (a spouse, a friend), when you feel intense emotions (such as anger or anxiety) or when you feel insecure? Start being more mindful of situations, conditions and emotions that trigger your procrastination. Observe these tendencies without judging or labeling yourself as “good” or “bad.” Then, when you sense a trigger coming, identify it and use self-talk to help avoid paralysis. For example, if you feel anxious about a project at work, you might tell yourself, “I feel anxious, but I’m going to start this anyway.”

2. Break Tasks into Smaller Chunks
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. When a project or a situation seems overwhelming, you may feel incapable of taking any action. Break the large task into smaller ones and set mini-deadlines. If you still procrastinate, break it down into even smaller steps. Focus on taking just one step, then move on to the next small step. Finishing each one will give you a sense of accomplishment and help motivate you to continue forward.

3. Go for “Good Enough
Perfectionism, or the belief that you need to be flawless at all times, can feed procrastination. Unrealistic expectations of a perfect outcome or belief that there’s a “right” way to go about a certain task can lead to inaction. Fear of failure can further fuel delays. The fact is, nobody’s perfect, so instead of trying to be perfect, switch your goal to “good enough.” Resolve to make your best effort and let it go – that freedom of thought may be just what you need to spring into action.

4. Use Deadlines to Help Focus and Motivate
Instead of using the term procrastination, I prefer the phrase “focused motivation of a deadline.” At times, delaying tasks until the last minute actually helps me to be more efficient with my time. I tend to use whatever time I allot to finish a given task. If I had two months to write this article, it would have taken me two months to write!

A word of caution: this strategy of purposefully delaying something doesn’t always work and may even backfire. The last-minute strategy can prove disastrous in a career setting. Even if the task gets completed, it more than likely is not the highest quality it could have been, and the individual has experienced undue stress and anxiety. So while some people do work well under pressure, it’s usually not worth the risk. Give yourself enough time and be conscious of unexpected delays.

Reining in Impulsivity
Acting impulsively can create its share of problems as well. Making quick decisions with little thought, such as spending large amounts of money on a credit card or jumping into a new relationship immediately after a breakup, are examples of impulsivity working against you. As with procrastination, work to develop self-awareness around those moments when you say or do something impulsively. It may take practice, but by observing yourself – the thoughts and emotions you experience when the urge strikes -- you’ll be better able identify triggers in the future. This, in turn, can help you to stop and think about what you’re doing instead of being driven by your impulses.

By understanding and managing your own patterns of procrastination and impulsivity, you’ll be better able to become more productive and effective in all aspects of your life.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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