It’s been said that procrastination is the act of ruining your life for no apparent reason.
That sounds about right.
So why do we do it? Why is it so excruciatingly difficult to get ourselves to actually do the things we know we should do?
And that’s not even the worst part.
What’s so dumbfounding is that procrastination doesn’t just apply to the things we don’t want to do — like washing the dishes. Often, we also desperately struggle to do the things that we actually want to do — like reading books, working out, or building a business.
Instead, we’ll spend hours researching deep-sea wildlife, Facebook stalking schoolmates we weren’t even friends with, and watching YouTube videos about Taylor Swift’s mom.
Meanwhile, all of our ambitions and plans are put on pause.
We know that to create the life we want and to find the fulfillment we crave, we absolutely must learn how to stop procrastinating.
In this article, you’ll learn more about what procrastination is, how it works, and 11 strategies to take control of your life and unlock your true potential.
Let’s dive in.
- Are Procrastination and Laziness the Same Thing?
- What Exactly is Procrastination?
- How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Strategies to Unlock Your Potential
- 1. Start Small and Find Momentum
- 2. Recognize the Power of Deadlines
- 3. Get More Externally Imposed Deadlines
- 4. Use the Power of Peer Pressure
- 5. Create Real-Life Negative Consequences
- 6. Forgive Yourself to Avoid Negativity
- 7. Be Realistic and Avoid Perfectionism
- 8. Tie Your Efforts to Long-Term Benefits
- 9. Don’t Just Fantasize About the Rewards, Visualize the Process
- 10. Ruthlessly Cut Distractions
- 11. Use Apps and Tools to Avoid Digital Distractions
- Conclusion: Take Control and Unlock Your Potential
- Want to Learn More?
Are Procrastination and Laziness the Same Thing?
In a word: No.
Although often seen as synonymous, procrastination and laziness are very different things — and the distinction is important to understand.
Neel Burton, M.D., writes on Psychology Today: “Laziness, indolence, or sloth should not be confused with procrastination.
“To procrastinate — from the Latin cras, ‘tomorrow’ — is to postpone one task in favor of another or others which are perceived as being easier or more pleasurable but which are typically less important or urgent.”
In other words, laziness is an inactive process. It’s apathetic and suggests an unwillingness to act at all.
On the other hand, procrastination is an active process, in which people deliberately avoid the very thing they’re trying to do.
Which brings us to our next point:
What Exactly is Procrastination?
To understand how to stop procrastinating, we first need to understand exactly what procrastination is and why we do it.
Or as Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War, “Know thy self, know thy enemy.”
So we know that procrastination isn’t just plain laziness. And in recent years, scientists have begun to understand that procrastination isn’t caused by poor time management either.
Instead, it stems from negative emotions that hijack your mood.
Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, told Psychological Science, “To tell the chronic procrastinator to ‘just do it’ would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, ‘cheer up.’”
Procrastination happens when these negative emotions lead to two things:
- We feel like we’re not in the right mood to complete a task.
- We assume that our mood will change in the future.
It doesn’t matter that deep down we know that athletic people go to the gym and productive people do their work regardless of how they feel that day.
Ferrari also told the American Psychological Association, “Procrastination is not waiting and it is more than delaying. It is a decision to not act.”
And once we decide not to act, we put off doing the task, and then the procrastination loop of doom kicks in:
Avoiding an important task makes us feel guilty, anxious, and even ashamed.
These additional negative feelings sap more of our emotional and cognitive energy, making us even less likely to start the task. So we keep putting it off, and round, and round we go…
We’ve all been there. It’s not fun.
“I think the basic notion of procrastination as self-regulation failure is pretty clear,” says Dr. Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, in Canada. “You know what you ought to do and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it. It’s that gap between intention and action.”
So how can we learn how to stop procrastinating?
How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Strategies to Unlock Your Potential
Now that you understand what procrastination is and why it happens, let’s dig into the strategies and tactics you can use to outwit this tiresome foe.
1. Start Small and Find Momentum
Starting is often the hardest part.
But without mastering the “art of the start,” it’ll be incredibly difficult to learn how to stop procrastinating.
This is a strategy that’s worked well for Instagram founder Kevin Systrom.
He champions a 5-minute cure for procrastination: “If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”
Simple, but highly effective.
Why does this work so well?
Dr. Timothy Pychyl explains, “A real mood boost comes from doing what we intend to do — the things that are important to us.”
This makes us more likely to continue.
What’s more, research shows that once you start something, you’re far more likely to finish it. This is because of a psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect, which states that unfinished tasks are more likely to get stuck in your memory.
So ask yourself, “What’s the first step I need to take in order to complete this task?” Then commit to doing it for just 5 minutes.
2. Recognize the Power of Deadlines
No advice on how to stop procrastinating would be complete without a deep dive into the power of deadlines.
Deadlines create an externally imposed sense of urgency.
This is why a student who has avoided writing their thesis for months will suddenly jump into action and write it from scratch in three days, pulling two all-nighters.
This is the awesome power of deadlines in action.
Career coach Kitty Boitnott told Forbes, “The best way to overcome a natural tendency to procrastinate is to create a hard deadline for yourself and then put it on the calendar. Having a scheduled deadline that you commit to will make it easier to get tasks completed.”
Or in the words of author Diana Scharf-Hunt, “Goals are dreams with deadlines.”
3. Get More Externally Imposed Deadlines
Okay, so mastering deadlines is essential when learning how to stop procrastinating. But it’s important to recognize that our own deadlines are less effective that externally imposed deadlines.
Let me explain.
In one experiment, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch hired 60 students to proofread three passages. The students were rewarded for the errors they found and penalized a dollar for each day they were late.
The first group was given a weekly deadline for each passage, the second group was given a single deadline for all three passages, and the third group chose their own deadlines.
The second group, who had a single deadline for all passages, performed the worst. The first group, who had been given multiple external deadlines, performed the best.
Simply put, if we create the rule, we can always change it. And we do… time and time again.
So do what you can to increase the amount of externally imposed deadlines. This can be as simple as asking for regular deadlines from your boss, coworkers, or teammates.
4. Use the Power of Peer Pressure
Peer pressure is another powerful tool that we can employ when learning how to stop procrastinating.
It’s our fear of negative consequences that give deadlines such power to provoke us into action. And if other people won’t give us deadlines with consequences, we need to find ways to create them ourselves.
David Laibson, a professor of economics at Harvard University, told The Huffington Post, “It’s up to us to create those structures that basically bind us, that tie us to the mast so that we don’t have the luxury to postpone what we know we should do.”
A great way to do this is to get an accountability partner. This is someone who holds another person to their commitments, by touching in regularly and providing support.
There’s a reason so many recovering addicts have someone else who holds them to account: it works.
Telling another person about your commitment to a task can increase the appeal of taking action. Research shows that we care deeply about whether we’re respected by others — even by strangers.
If possible, try to choose someone you admire.
The real-life consequences of appearing lazy or foolish to people we respect can be the extra push we need to stop procrastinating.
Executive career coach John M. O’Connor told Forbes, “Ask for help and let that person know you will do the same for them. Accountability implies commitment and that if you fail, you not only let yourself down but also your partner.”
5. Create Real-Life Negative Consequences
If you’re still struggling to figure out how to stop procrastinating, it might be time to up-the-ante.
stickK is a creative way to pre-commit to a goal, set a deadline, add a “referee,” and impose real-life consequences.
What’s more, those consequences can be extremely compelling.
For example, you can allocate money to be given to an “anti-charity” — a charity or political party that you wholly disagree with.
If you complete the task, you get to keep your money. If you don’t complete the task, you lose your money and support a cause you disapprove of.
What’s more, stickK claims that adding a financial incentive makes you three times more likely to complete your goals.
You can also set the app to notify your friends if you don’t complete the task by the deadline, which can open you up to endless mockery and derision.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
6. Forgive Yourself to Avoid Negativity
When trying to figure out how to stop procrastinating, it might seem like it’s best to be strict with yourself. However, this is all well and good until you actually procrastinate.
Research shows that self-blame is entirely counterproductive.
In a study titled, “I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination,” it was found that university freshmen who forgave themselves for procrastinating before the first exam procrastinated less on the next one.
The authors of the study wrote, “Forgiveness allows the individual to move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts to hinder studying.”
In other words, the more you’re able to forgive yourself for procrastinating, the more likely you are to stop procrastinating and take action in the future.
This is obvious when you think about it.
If you let yourself feel bad about procrastinating all morning, you’ll feel, well, bad — making it less likely to overcome procrastination in the afternoon.
This is the procrastination loop of doom at work again.
Whole-Life Leadership told Forbes, “If you have the tendency to label yourself a procrastinator, make your first effort one to drop the name calling. For whatever your past experience has been, refocus on doing 5% more toward your goal and give yourself permission to be human at the same time.”
Bottom line: Forget past mistakes and focus on what you can do now.
7. Be Realistic and Avoid Perfectionism
Unrealistic expectations and perfectionism can overwhelm us and set us up for failure.
According to philosopher and author Alain de Botton, the only way to overcome procrastination is to abandon perfectionism.
He writes, “We begin to work only when the fear of doing nothing at all exceeds the fear of not doing it very well … And that can take time.”
Okay, but how do we abandon perfectionism?
Remember the maxim, “Done is better than perfect.”
It’s better to do the task competently than to not do it at all because you’re anxious that it won’t be perfect.
Plus, there’s always another opportunity to improve or try again.
And as the award-winning novelist Jodi Picoult said, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Researchers Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry write in their book, Performing Under Pressure, “The fact is we each get multiple chances over and over again in life. Keep this in mind, and you will find your life less pressured.”
Notice when you start to feel anxious about not doing the task well enough.
If you find yourself thinking things like, “My work sucks,” “I’m not able to do this project justice,” or “It needs to be perfect,” try doubting your doubts.
Science shows that when you do this, you’ll reduce your anxiety.
How do you doubt your doubts?
A powerful way is to simply shake your head when thinking negative thoughts. According to the study, this causes your doubts to cancel each other out.
Remember, if you want to learn how to stop procrastinating, you must find a way to let go of perfectionism.
8. Tie Your Efforts to Long-Term Benefits
Common sense tells us that it’s easier to get ourselves to do something we value.
“You’ve got to dig a little deeper and find some personal meaning in that task,” said psychology professor Fuschia Sirois of Bishop’s University in Canada. “That’s what our data is suggesting.”
A great way to do this is to connect our efforts to the long-term value that we seek.
Let’s look at an example.
Researchers discovered that people are more likely to save for retirement if they’re shown digitally aged photographs of themselves.
Because it makes their future more visceral. This helps to connect the process of saving now, to the long-term benefits of a comfortable and secure retirement.
We can replicate this effect by taking a moment to identify the meaning and imagine the benefits of completing the task at hand.
In other words: Don’t lose sight of the reason why you want to do the task.
However, there’s a subtle but crucial caveat to this technique.
9. Don’t Just Fantasize About the Rewards, Visualize the Process
To learn how to stop procrastinating, it’s important to understand that expectations and fantasies are two very different things.
Let me explain.
One study on motivation and fantasies showed that positive expectations resulted in high effort and successful performance. But positive fantasies resulted in low effort and unsuccessful performance.
So what’s happening here? Well, it turns out it’s all about how we visualize.
In a study from the UCLA, researchers found that participants who engaged in visualizations which included the process of what they needed to do to achieve their goal were more likely to outperform their peers.
In other words, instead of just fantasizing about being able to play the guitar, we also need to visualize the process of practicing every day for half-an-hour.
This works for two reasons.
- Visualizing the process helps to focus our attention on the steps needed to reach our goal.
- It gives us a clear path to achieving our goal, making it feel more attainable, which reduces our anxiety.
Without also visualizing the process, fantasizing alone will only make our goal feel unattainable, and increase our anxiety.
So keep in mind the long-term benefits of the task at hand.
But don’t focus solely on the rewards — make sure you also visualize the steps needed to achieve your goal.
10. Ruthlessly Cut Distractions
Distractions can be stressful and costly.
And when you consider that we can be interrupted by notifications every few minutes, it’s no wonder procrastination is so rife.
This is why it’s so important to cut distractions.
DeCarlo says that she broke the procrastination habit by “putting up a ‘do not disturb’ sign, shutting off my phone, and setting a reasonable time limit.”
So go somewhere quiet where you’re not 7 steps away from the sofa and TV.
Turn your phone off and put it in a drawer in another room — or better still, give it to a friend and tell them not to give it back until you’ve done the task you need to do.
Bottom line: When trying to figure out how to stop procrastinating, do whatever it takes for you to be able to focus.
11. Use Apps and Tools to Avoid Digital Distractions
The internet is perfectly optimized to attract and retain your attention — in other words, it’s a distraction monster.
Thankfully, there are plenty of apps and tools available to block distracting websites and mobile apps.
And they work.
In a study from Cornell, students used software to set self-imposed limits on how much time they’d spend on distracting websites like BuzzFeed and Facebook. Once they reached the time limit, the software blocked the distracting sites altogether.
Students who set their own time limits and were forced to stick to them got more done and earned higher grades that the students who didn’t set limits.
Freedom allows you to block distracting websites and phone apps.
Alternatively, you could try the free Google Chrome app StayFocusd.
Some of these apps mean business too.
Once you start the timer in SelfControl (Mac only), you won’t be able to access your chosen websites for the set time even if you restart your computer or delete the app.
Okay, but what if you need to use distracting websites to complete your task?
In this instance, you could use a tool like Rescue Time. This application tracks the websites you visit and how long you spend on each of them, allowing you to be more mindful of how you procrastinate.
It’s one thing to know you’re wasting time. It’s another thing entirely to know that in one week alone, you wasted exactly 14 hours and 12 minutes on YouTube fail videos…
There are tons of tools available to help you figure out how to stop procrastinating.
Just be careful not to spend an entire morning downloading and configuring these tools instead of doing what you’re supposed to do!
Conclusion: Take Control and Unlock Your Potential
Learning how to stop procrastinating can sometimes feel impossible.
To take control, understand that we can’t always trust ourselves to do the right thing at the right time. Which is why we need to impose systems and habits to overcome our inner resistance.
To do this, begin implementing the strategies above one at a time.
Remember, start easy — just five minutes can make all the difference. And however you do it, always have a deadline and some type of accountability.
Finally, remember to forgive yourself when you procrastinate. What’s done is done, and what matters now is to get back on the horse and move forward.
You’ve got this. Get to it.