Take a minute to do nothing
Procrastination doesn’t always mean camping out in front of the TV. Psychologists have found procrastinators may actively look for non-committal tasks to distract themselves as a form of regulating negative emotions, such as fear of failure. They may turn to an activity that appears to be “busy”—say, vacuuming or responding to low-priority emails—rather than tackling a major work report. To stop procrastinating, first stop multitasking. Sign out of your email. Close the Facebook and Instagram apps on your phone. Step away from the vacuum. The distractions can wait.
Determine the negative effects of waiting
Everybody procrastinates occasionally, but 20 percent of people are chronic procrastinators, according to the American Psychological Association. It’s a higher number than that of people who are diagnosed with clinical depression or phobias, and a bad habit that can affect your health. Classic research published in Psychological Science found that students who procrastinated had lower levels of stress than other students at the beginning of the study, but toward the end, the costs outweighed the benefits. Procrastinators earned lower grades and experienced more stress and illness.
Write down why you don’t want to start
Imagine yourself starting the task, and take note of any unpleasant feelings you experience. It might be vulnerability, fear, or shame. Procrastination can stem from a fear of inadequacy or failure. In one Journal of Research in Personality study, researchers told a group of students they would be given a math puzzle at the end of a session. Some students were told the task was meant to test their cognitive abilities, while others were told it was designed to be fun and meaningless. Participants could choose to prepare for the task or play a video game. Chronic procrastinators only skipped practicing for the test when told it was a measure of their abilities. When it was described as a meaningless game, they acted similarly to non-procrastinators. Chronic procrastinators would rather have others assume they lack effort rather than ability, researchers say.
Give yourself a deadline for planning
Strategize how to best tackle a task, but don’t let this process drag on. “Gathering resources and information is productive and useful, but some people seem to be unable to make decisions, and those are the serious procrastinators,” said Joseph Ferrari, PhD, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, in an American Psychology Association article. “They let others decide for them, so there is not blame for failure attributed to them. When one continues to gather beyond the point of adequate resources, then they are being indecisive and the waiting is counterproductive.” Give yourself, say, a 15-minute time limit to decide where you’re going to work on your task, how you’ll do it, and what resources you’ll need. After that, get started.
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Start with 2-minute pieces
When a task arises, ask yourself: Can I do it in two minutes? If not, schedule it for another time during the day. If it can be done in two minutes, do it now. The two-minute rule has its roots in the classic productivity book Getting Things Done by David Allen. “It’s not just the efficiency of getting rid of the two-minute things, it’s also not having to park it, look at it again, and re-think it again,” Allen told SUCCESS magazine. Perhaps it’s taking out the trash, or moving dirty dishes from the sink to the dishwasher. It’s not cleaning the entire kitchen, but it’s a good start—and once you start, you may find it easier to finish.
Tell somebody your goals
Procrastinators may need the urgency of a looming deadline to get motivated, but that motivation doesn’t always materialize when they are their own authority. (In a 2014 National Bureau of Economic Research study, participants who self imposed a deadline performed worse on a word jumble test than participants who were given evenly spaced deadlines for each jumble or a final deadline). Make yourself accountable by sharing your goals with someone else: Tell a friend about how you’ll knock out a work project this afternoon or write a social media post about how you’re (finally) going to paint your bedroom this weekend. Knowing others are expecting results from you may give you the push you need.
Start over in the afternoon
A lot can change between morning and afternoon. A new assignment may fall on your desk. Or your 5-year-old might turn the kitchen into a disaster zone. At, say, 2 p.m. every day, sit down with your to-do list and reevaluate your tasks. Have your priorities changed? Remind yourself what’s critical to complete today. If you wait until 5 p.m. to review your to-do list, you may go into panic mode or give up trying to finish everything all together.
Off track? Consider your values
Stopping a procrastination habit requires self-control. A Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study found that the best way to boost self-regulation is to get in touch with your core values. Ask yourself: Why are you really doing this task? Why is it important for your long-term goals? Perhaps you want to finish chores so you can spend more time with your family during the weekend. Or perhaps you need to dedicate time to a work project to expand your skill set in the career you’re passionate about. Affirm who you are and what you’re committing to. At the end of the day, your goals reflect you and your values.
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Imagine the brilliant outcomes
It may not seem like it now, but eventually this task will be completed. What will that look like? Visualize how you’ll celebrate when you press “send” on emailing that report or throw away the last box from unpacking your house. What emotions will you feel? Where will you celebrate? How will your friends and family celebrate with you? Also, don’t forget to reward yourself along the way. It can be as simple as watching your favorite YouTube cat video after 30 minutes of work (but just one until you’re done!).