Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you have a looming deadline, but you just can’t seem to get started? You know you should be working, but instead, you’re scrolling through social media or binge-watching your favorite show and not writing that 10-page essay due tomorrow morning. Before you know it, the day is almost over and you haven’t written a word. So what do you do? You knock back a couple of energy drinks, get to writing, and just barely complete your paper in time to meet the deadline. We’ve all been there, and it’s not a fun experience.
If you’re tired of telling yourself “I’ll do better next time” only to find yourself in the same situation again and again, here’s how to break the cycle of procrastination.
Identify Why You’re Procrastinating
The first step to overcoming procrastination is to identify why you’re procrastinating in the first place. Contrary to what you might think, people don’t usually procrastinate because they’re inherently lazy or lack discipline. If this were the case, most of us would never get anything done.
Instead, there are countless reasons why someone might be putting off a particular task. The key is to identify the underlying reason for your behavior and adapt your approach accordingly. Most tips for procrastination are too vague or too general. To overcome your particular reason for procrastination, you need to get to the root of the problem and nip it in the bud.
Let’s go through four of the most common reasons for procrastination and discuss strategies to overcome them.
1 | The Task Seems Intimidating or Difficult
The first reason that people procrastinate is that the task seems intimidating or difficult. To combat this, break down the task into smaller, more manageable steps. For example, instead of aiming to write a whole book in a year, set a goal to write one chapter a month or one page a day. Breaking down complex or difficult tasks into smaller sub-tasks often makes it appear much more attainable.
Once you’ve determined the steps necessary to complete a task, the next step is to determine what subtask you should work on first. There are two approaches you can use for this: the snowball method and the “eat the frog” method.
The snowball method involves starting with the easiest tasks and gradually working up to the more challenging ones. By completing the easier tasks first, you build confidence and momentum to help motivate you to tackle the harder tasks.
The “eat the frog” method, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. You start with the most difficult task first and then move on to the easier ones once it’s complete. The phrase “eat the frog” comes from a quote by Mark Twain, who suggested that if you have to eat a frog, you should do it first thing in the morning, and if you have to eat two frogs, you should eat the biggest one first. The idea behind this method is that by tackling the hardest task early on, you’ve gotten the worst part out of the way. As such, everything you do after should be easy by comparison.
Both the snowball method and the “eat the frog” method can be useful and there’s no one right approach. You should experiment with both methods and find what works best for you.
Regardless of the approach you choose, the next step is to “just start.” Although it sounds easy, this is often the most challenging part for people. One way to overcome this is to tell yourself that you only have to work for 5 minutes as a way of reducing the friction and intimidation factor of starting. Sometimes, reducing the activation energy is the key to just getting the ball rolling. After those 5 minutes are up, evaluate if you need a break or if you can continue working. You’ll often find that you can work for much longer as you’ve overcome the hardest part of starting.
It’s also important to focus on completing one task at a time. Even though you may be tempted to switch between tasks, especially when you have a lot of work to do, it’s best to avoid doing this. Multitasking is often seen as a way to accomplish more in less time, but it’s actually a myth. When you multitask, you’re not really working on multiple tasks simultaneously, but rather, rapidly switching between them. Focusing intensely on one task will save you time and lead to better results.
2 | There Isn’t Enough Time to Make Progress on the Task
The next reason that people procrastinate is that they feel there isn’t enough time to make progress or complete a task. If this is your reason for procrastinating, then the first thing to understand is that this is factually untrue. We all make time for what’s important to us. If you haven’t made time for it, it’s probably because you haven’t made it a priority.
Your schedule should be a reflection of your priorities. By regularly scheduling time for important tasks like studying or exercise, they can eventually become habits–which makes avoiding procrastination that much easier.
This is also a great time to apply Parkinson’s Law, which states “work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.” Estimate how long a particular task or subtask will take you to complete and only give yourself that much time to complete it.
When determining how much time to set aside, it’s important to find a balance between being realistic and, at the same time, slightly ambitious. If you’re too ambitious, you might feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the lack of progress. However, if you’re not ambitious enough, you might not feel pressured to complete the task and end up dragging your feet. When you set a deadline that is reasonable, but still puts some pressure on you, you’ll often be surprised at how much you can get done.
3 | You Don’t Have the Energy
The next reason that people procrastinate is that they lack the energy to work on a task. To overcome this, it’s important to first take a look at your physical well-being. There are three pillars of health: sleep, nutrition, and exercise. When any one of these is out of balance, you’re not able to perform optimally. Although it may seem unrelated, prioritizing your health can have a significant positive impact on your ability to overcome procrastination. When you feel good, you have a greater capacity to get things done.
That being said, even with good health habits, there may be days when you still feel low on energy. In these situations, there are some things you can do to boost your energy levels in the moment.
To start, taking breaks is crucial. I’ve found that taking a short break every 30-60 minutes helps me keep my energy up during long work sessions. Any less than 30 minutes and I’ve found I don’t get much done, but any more than 60 minutes and I feel my energy and attention start to dip. The Pomodoro Technique is a great way to start incorporating breaks into your day and we have several videos on this channel discussing how to use it effectively–links in the description.
Just as important as taking breaks, however, is how you choose to spend your breaks. Instead of scrolling through social media or responding to text messages, use your breaks as an opportunity to get up and away from your study space. Use the restroom, play with a pet, make a healthy snack, or do some mild exercise. Research has shown that short bursts of aerobic exercise have been shown to improve memory and arousal. This is not only a great way to incorporate movement into your busy schedule, but it can also serve as a great “pick-me-up” and let you get back to work feeling recharged.
If you’re still feeling tired even after taking breaks and moving, you can also consider taking a brief nap. I’ve found that 13 minutes is the sweet spot for me. Any less and I don’t feel refreshed. Any longer and I end up falling into deeper levels of sleep and wake up feeling groggy.
Lastly, consider fixing your posture. I’ve found that if I’m in a relaxed posture, such as sitting in a comfortable chair or couch or laying in bed, I’m more likely to fade into a relaxed state with zero intention of getting anything done. Working at a standing desk or even sitting on a stool without a backrest has helped keep me alert and focused on the task at hand.
4 | Something Else is More Interesting
The last reason that people procrastinate is that there are simply more interesting or enjoyable ways to spend their time. Writing an essay or studying for an exam is rarely as exciting as spending time with friends or watching a new show on Netflix. In order to get the hard work done, you need to make the task you’re trying to accomplish more attractive than the other options available to you. You do this by adding friction to distractions and reducing friction for getting work done.
The trick here is to make your environment work with you. You want to create a space that is free from distractions, where the only option available is to work. If you have other, more attractive options available, then you’re much less likely to get work done. In contrast, if your only options are to be productive or do nothing, you’re actually more likely to be productive than to sit there doing nothing.
As humans, we hate boredom. This is perhaps why solitary confinement is considered one of the harshest punishments for prisoners. Surprisingly, one study even found that when placed in a room with nothing but a button that administered a painful shock, many people would rather shock themselves than experience boredom. When faced with the option of work or boredom, we often choose work.
Your environment extends to your digital environment as well. Make sure your computer and smartphone are free from distractions and remove or restrict any apps or websites that tend to distract you.
Lastly, you can motivate yourself by setting specific goals or milestones for your work and then rewarding yourself once you achieve them. For example, you could set a goal to write 5 pages of a 10-page essay and then reward yourself by having lunch or going out with friends in the evening. This not only gives you a sense of accomplishment, but it also allows you to enjoy your leisure time without the guilt of unfinished work.
It’s important to remember that even the most productive people in the world experience the urge to procrastinate. It’s not a matter of always feeling motivated to get things done. Rather, it’s knowing how to get things done even when you don’t want to.
If you enjoyed this article, check out Why You’re Not a Straight-A Student (& How to Become One).