Your big project is due this week.
The deadline has been looming on your calendar for days, weeks, maybe even months. But with each passing minute it becomes harder to focus. So you fight the resistance: you check Snapchat for the 11th time, you drink another coffee, you put it off until tomorrow when you’ll “have fewer distractions.”
But we all know that day never comes.
As a recent college graduate currently navigating the professional world, I can confidently say that permanently eliminating distractions is an unrealistic goal. However, with the right mindset and strategies, we can curb our tendency to procrastinate. This post will tell you exactly how to do that.
But if we are to work against procrastination, we first need to understand procrastination.
Procrastination is An Emotional Behavior
The human brain is often as irrational and indecisive as it is powerful. The rational part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) is locked in a constant battle with the more emotional, instinctive side (the amygdala).
As nice as it would be to use logic to convince ourselves why we shouldn’t put off important work, our brains aren’t that simple. We are emotional creatures, and our emotions are often what play the biggest role in our tendency to procrastinate .
This is especially true for those who have a hard time regulating their emotions. Even though we might feel guilty for putting things off, we tend to rationalize our behavior by convincing ourselves that it’s really not a big deal.
For example, a study conducted at Bishop University had students react to stressful events in which procrastination actually caused a problem, including a scenario where someone came back from a sunny vacation with a suspicious mole, but put off going to the doctor for a long time.
In this situation, the chronic procrastinators made statements such as, “At least I went to the doctor before things really got worse,” rather than things like, “If only I had gone to the doctor sooner.”
The no-big-deal responses are called downward counterfactuals: reactions that downplay consequences in an effort to improve one’s mood in the short term. This is in contrast to upward counterfactuals: reactions that embrace consequences so as to learn a lesson for future reference.
Even though most of us (myself included) feel guilty about procrastinating, our craving for emotional pick-me-ups when confronted with difficult or boring tasks prompts us to rationalize counterproductive behavior. This keeps us locked in a never-ending cycle of inaction.
The Biology of Procrastination
When a research team in Germany did fMRI brain scans on 264 adults, they found a link between difficulties in taking action on tasks (procrastination) and a greater amounts of gray matter volume in the amygdala, which is the brain’s “fight or flight” center.
In other words, chronic procrastination can literally change your brain structure. But don’t worry — our brains are extremely adaptable. The right habits can rewire our brains for the better.
In fact, a study done in 2013 showed how just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation can actually shrink the amygdala. And as the study notes:
“As the amygdala shrinks, the prefrontal cortex — associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making — becomes thicker.”
The findings from the fMRI scans reflect the results of another study done at Brooklyn College, which discovered a correlation between procrastination and problems with executive functioning, meaning our self-awareness that allows us to control our behavior.
When the researchers tested students on procrastination and then on nine measures of executive functioning, such as self-monitoring, emotional control, and organization, they found that higher levels of procrastination were significantly related to problems on all nine scales.
So, to sum up these insights, the current body of research points the finger primarily at our inability to self-regulate our emotions and mood as a significant cause of procrastination. Even though we can sense the harm we’re doing, giving into our emotions doesn’t just make procrastination seem okay, it just reinforces a mental pattern.
Forgive and Forget
If you find yourself falling into the procrastination trap, the last thing you should do is shame yourself for it. In fact, a productive first step to better habits is forgiving yourself for the past procrastination you’ve done.
In one study of 119 college students preparing for midterm exams, researchers discovered that students who forgave themselves after procrastinating on their first exam were less likely to put off studying for the second one.
As the researchers note, procrastination is really a “self-inflicted wound that gradually chips away at the most valuable resource in the world: Time.”
You’re Not Alone
Procrastination can make us feel isolated at times, but it’s encouraging to know you’re not the only one on the battlefield. Even the greats were preoccupied with their occasional lack of motivation. Walter Isaacson’s biography on da Vinci makes that clear, stating:
“The most obvious evidence that he was human rather than superhuman is the trail of projects he left unfinished….”Tell me if anything was ever done,” he repeatedly scribbled in notebook after notebook. “Tell me if ever I did a thing. . . . Tell me if anything was ever made.”
Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Priorities
Carl Richards once said that “If you want to carve an elephant from a block of wood, you don’t start the process with fine-grit sandpaper.”
Richards is a financial wiz, but the metaphor has strong implications when it comes to procrastination. Your project is your sculpture, and if you want it to turn out well, you must start with blunt instruments and broad strokes, not obsessing over the details (leave that for the end).
It’s easy to succumb to shiny object syndrome where we’re tempted to fantasize about the fun or popular facets of our projects while the most important part, sitting down and doing the work, gets thrown to the wayside.
“You know what trying to sand an elephant out of a block of wood actually is? It’s daunting,” says Richards. “And what daunting means is that you’re probably going to quit before you even start. Maybe you’ll take a few passes, and perhaps you’ll get as far as shaping a leg or a trunk. But eventually you’re going to give up. The process is just too slow.”
Perfectionism is the enemy of productivity and the friend of procrastination. It’s only after making those initial violent chops (starting the project) that sandpaper (fixing the details) can be effective.
So, grab your (proverbial) chainsaw and go wild.
The Procrastination Equation
Dr. Piers Steel, a Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Calgary, is a procrastination expert. No, that doesn’t mean he’s good at procrastinating — it means he has devoted his professional life to helping people combat procrastination.
In Dr. Steel’s book, The Procrastination Equation, he presents an equation that explains your current level of motivation to accomplish something:
(Expectancy * Value)
(Impulsiveness * Delay)
I know you didn’t come here to solve math equations, but this can give you some key insights into why you’re not getting as much done as you’d like. Let’s break down these variables
Expectancy: How confident you are that you can actually get this thing done
Value: How much this task means to you.
Impulsiveness: How easily you give into temptations
Delay: How long you have to wait before you received the expected rewards of completing the task
If you need to stop procrastinating, evaluate your situation based on these four variables and identify your strong and weak points. Rather than flailing hopelessly, you’ll gain a better sense of self-awareness. Maybe you need to curb your impulsiveness. Maybe you should incentivize your tasks so there’s less delay between action and reward.
No matter what the case is, all of the following actionable tips can be applied to create a more favorable outcome for your personal procrastination equation.
Take Control of Your Environment
First things first: if your environment is littered with temptations and distractions, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage from the get-go. For example, working in your dorm might seem convenient, but if video games and food are within sight, you may be tempted to take a lot of “study breaks.”
If distractions fuel your procrastination, the first step you’ll need to take is to find the optimal study space. People’s preferences for study spaces differs greatly. For example, I prefer libraries and other silent places while others need the bustle of coffee shops or student centers to feel comfortable. Regardless, here are a three tips to keep in mind when creating your study space:
- Remove distractions: video games, your phone, unnecessary snacks, and maybe even people (just be nice.)
- Keep it consistent. Your brain loves patterns, and if you return to the same space over and over, your mind can channel its energy into work instead of wondering why you’re moving from place to place.
- Make sure everything you need is within arm’s reach. If you “accidentally” leave your notebooks or calculators in other places, you’re giving yourself an excuse to interrupt your workflow. Pack up and stay put.
I should also mention that taking control of your environment isn’t just limited to physical items: you need to take control of your digital environment too. This can mean putting your phone on airplane mode to eliminate notifications or closing out ESPN, Reddit, Facebook, or whatever else sucks your time.
For more advice on taking control of your digital environment, here’s how to make your phone less distracting.
Eliminate Your Choices
In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz makes the case that reducing a consumer’s number of choices reduces anxiety for shoppers. For example, an ice cream shop with 237 flavors is more overwhelming than a shop with seven.
The same theory applies to students and professionals: the more options we have, the harder it becomes to zero in on a specific task. Instead of knocking out one task at a time, we squander our time wondering, planning, and procrastinating instead of doing.
The solution? Become a robot.
Robots are programmed to operate on a specific set of commands—they don’t think about options, they just do whatever they’re programmed to do. In the same way, we must break down our to-do list into small, manageable chunks and check them off one at time. This way, you can channel your resources more effectively without wondering what needs to be done on an hour-to-hour basis.
Having autonomy and freedom of choice are important parts of a healthy life, but sometimes we need to pull the reins in to be more productive.
Use the Pomodoro Technique
Contrary to popular belief, Pomodoro is more than just a zesty, delectable pasta sauce. The Pomodoro Technique is one of the most effective strategies to combat procrastination and work efficiently.
If you’re not familiar, the Pomodoro Technique is a time management philosophy developed by Francesco Cirillo. It’s based on time intervals that promote bursts of intense productivity, followed by brief rest periods.
Here’s how it works:
- Choose one task to work on and be specific—no multitasking or vague goals like “do homework.” This needs to be tangible like “outline my essay” or “solve problems 1-4.”
- Zone in for 25 minutes. This isn’t 25 minutes of loose focus—we’re talking about eyes-glued-to-the-work type focus. Think of it like being on a treadmill: you can’t let up or else you’ll fall flat on your face.
- Take note of your distractions. Huh? I thought we were supposed to ignore distractions. Not now: whenever you catch yourself thinking about another assignment or what’s on TV tonight, jot it down. This way, your thoughts are trapped on paper instead of constantly floating around your brain.
- Take a five-minute break after your 25-minute sprint. Have a stretch, get a drink of water, or walk around. These brain breaks will recharge your mind keep you from burning out.
- Repeat steps 1-4 until you complete the task.
If you want to dive deeper into the Pomodoro Technique, find out why it works, and learn how to fully optimize it, we dedicated an entire article to it last year: How to Stop Procrastinating and Focus: A Guide to the Pomodoro Technique.
People have probably told you to “hold yourself accountable,” but this strategy takes accountability to a whole new level.
Merriam-Webster defines blackmail as: “extortion or coercion by threats of public exposure or criminal prosecution.” This sounds intense, but blackmailing yourself into getting stuff done is a surefire way to make procrastination a thing of the past.
Here’s how it works:
- Pick a challenge: make it specific and give it a deadline. For example: “work out five days per week for an hour” or “write 500 words every day for a month.”
- Find someone to blackmail you. The blackmailer you choose will hold you accountable throughout the duration of the challenge. Ideally, this person will check in on you daily and won’t tolerate excuses.
- Make the deal. This is the part where you’ll decide the consequences if you fail to accomplish the goal (this should be fun for the blackmailer, but scary for you.) Here’s a template to follow: If I don’t [insert task] by [specific date], I will [some extreme action that you hate with a burning passion.]
The standard contract usually involves betting money—for example: If I don’t complete my essay, I will give John my rent money.
But wait, you say, I can’t afford that!
That’s the point.
The deal should be costly enough that you have to complete the task. There’s no shortage of options here. You can blackmail yourself into donating to a cause you don’t believe in or a political party you disagree with.
The key is to pick a blackmailer that will actually hold you accountable and follow through on the deal if you fail.
Use Apps to Force Yourself to Focus
Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and similar services are great in moderation, but it’s no secret they can disrupt our work. If you can’t resist the allure of those icons and notifications, it might be time to (temporarily) shut them down.
While there isn’t a magical solution to eliminating distractions for good, there are some amazing technologies which work wonders when it comes to fueling productive, uninterrupted work sessions.
Here are 3 applications that will keep you laser-focused during your next work session:
Freedom is an app that allows you to block distracting websites on Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS. In addition to blocking websites, Freedom can block applications like Slack and Skype, which are notorious for bombarding users with notifications.
Once you launch Freedom, you can set a timer for your ideal focus time (see the Pomodoro Method above). You can also schedule set blocks of time for Freedom to block distractions.
Note: While Freedom works across platforms, recent Apple updates have disabled its ability to block apps on iOS devices. It can still block distracting websites, but not the temptation to pull up CandyCrush or swipe through Tinder. To block apps, you now have to use the iOS 12 “Screen Time” feature.
Describing itself as “goal-tracking with teeth,” Beeminder is an app that can make you pay (quite literally) for procrastination. It’s based on the principle that if you can quantify a goal, you can track it.
To use Beeminder, you set a goal with some sort of quantifiable input. For instance, let’s say you want to spend 1 hour studying math each day. Each time you complete a study session, you input that data into Beeminder.
If you miss a day, then Beeminder will make you pledge money (starting at $5). The next time you miss a day, you’ll be charged that amount, and the amount will increase each time you fail to meet your goal
Thomas used Beeminder to stick to a strict blog post publishing schedule for over 3 years, and you can use it in a similar way to make sure you’re meeting your goals.
Beeminder can automatically get data from apps like Habitica, Todoist, and Strava (to name just a few). This means that you could create a recurring task called “Study math for 1 hour” or “Go to the gym,” and Beeminder will automatically check if you’ve completed it. Learn more about Beeminder here.
Created by behavioral economists at Yale University, SticKK encourages behavioral change through loss aversion and accountability instead of shutting out the distractions that fuel procrastination. You can think of it as the tech version of the “blackmail yourself” tactic mentioned above.
Here’s how it works:
- Set a goal. This can be anything from losing 15 pounds to writing an essay.
- SticKK prompts you to make a commitment contract which entails pledging money and choosing a referee to hold you accountable. SticKK mentions that financial stakes increase your chances of success by up to 3x.
- If you fail to meet your goal, SticKK automatically sends the money to a cause you hate.
As of now, SticKK users have a total of 428,000 commitments created with $38 million on the line—that’s a lot of people who are tired of giving into procrastination.
Of course, the above are just a few of the many apps out there that can “force” you to stop procrastinating. To learn about even more, check out the video below:
My Personal Tips for Beating Procrastination
Over the past 23 years, I’ve been fortunate to learn from some extremely smart people. Their advice, while tough to swallow at first, has helped me immensely. I’ve narrowed down my goals, learned to focus, and eliminated the clutter that keeps us from achieving our potential.
Here are four reminders that keep me plugging along, even when I don’t feel like it.
Accept the Part of You That Wants to Be Lazy
Anthony Bourdain called it a guy. Steven Pressfield calls it the Resistance. Regardless of how you label it, awareness that you have a tendency to be lazy is half the battle. It’s impossible to escape that temptation to say, “Screw it, I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Renouncing laziness only intensifies it. But if you accept that you’re tempted to binge-watch your favorite TV show or eat an entire carton of ice cream, this ironically puts you in more control than the people in denial. We all want to slack off to some degree. It’s just a matter of accepting that desire and keeping it in check.
Reevaluate the Work You’re Doing
Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, says that distractions can serve a purpose: “They tell us that our work is not well-defined, our work is menial, or the project as a whole is useless.”
If you continually find yourself putting assignments off to the last minute, it might be time to reevaluate why that’s happening. When I was in college, I noticed a pattern with my procrastinating: I only did it when the work didn’t interest me. However, once I settled on my major and got into a groove, I looked forward to the work.
In short, the procrastination solution might be to stop doing work you hate and find the work you love.
Have a “Why”
Simon Sinek wrote an entire book on the importance of starting with “Why?” There’s a reason for that: purpose facilitates action. It’s incredibly hard to justify pain and discomfort without having an underlying purpose for doing what you do.
Waking up early, working out, and writing every day all sound great in theory, but if there are no real consequences for abandoning those commitments, it makes it a lot easier to fall off the wagon. Make a promise to someone you love. Start a challenge with a friend. Sometimes, willpower alone isn’t enough to ward off that temptation to procrastinate.
Avoid Toxic People and Situations
Jim Rohn said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Or as Goethe said 170 years earlier, “Tell me who you associate with and I will tell you who you are.” The company we keep sets the standard for what we perceive is acceptable. Laziness and indifference can be as infectious as physical diseases .
It’s not just people that influence our behavior—as I mentioned earlier, your environment matters too. Look at your social media feeds, the apps on your phone, and even the food in your pantry. Does your environment encourage you to put things off or do them?
3 Books to Help You Stop Procrastinating
I’ve found that readers enjoy the book recommendations I include in my articles and newsletter, so I figured I should include some of my favorite books books about time management, prioritization, and overall productivity.
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam
This book by time management expert Laura Vanderkam is must-read for prioritization, habit forming, and overall productivity. After interviewing dozens of successful people, she distilled her findings into this practical guide.
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear
Clear’s philosophy of habit-forming is taking the world by storm, and for good reason. The premise of his book is based on the choice elimination strategy we discussed earlier. In particular, the part about breaking down large goals into tiny, manageable chunks. By focusing on these “atomic small” habits, we can decrease our temptation to procrastinate and build sustainable progress.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
Cal Newport is the go-to guy for insights on time management, productivity, and overall success in academic and professional life. In Deep Work, Newport makes the case that the most valuable skill in the future will be the ability to focus intensely without giving into our increasing distractions. The book is part cultural criticism, part rigorous training regimen — it’s sure to change the way you approach your work.
Close Your Browser and Get to Work
Procrastination may have gotten the best of you in the past, but the good news is that you’re in control. At the end of the day, nobody is forcing you to put off your work. Once you realize this, you’re free.
“The right activities are as accessible as all the bad influences,” says the writer Ryan Holiday. “They are as plentiful as anything else. What you decide to do with those assets is up to you. But choose wisely, because it will determine who you are.”
Now stop procrastinating and start doing.
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