If you’ve ever had an item on your to-do list for weeks — months, even — only to take less than 90 seconds to complete once you finally tackle it, you know what it’s like to procrastinate. It’s easy to confuse procrastination with laziness, but there’s more to it than that. In this Livestrong article, Mindpath Health’s Taish Malone, PhD, LPC, provides tips to help navigate your next bout of procrastination.
Often, procrastination occurs due to negative associations with a task. For instance, maybe you avoid making that dentist appointment because you know it’ll lead to flossing lectures. Other factors can also lead to procrastination, such as boredom, anxiety and perfectionism, per McLean Hospital.
If your penchant for putting things off is causing you to shortchange important aspects of your life (especially basic elements of survival like work, health and nutrition), then it’s time to find effective workarounds to pull yourself out of procrastination mode.
1. Triage your tasks. Consider the merits of purposeful delay, which differs from procrastination. This intentional delay helps further your goals — for instance, you might put off replying to an email right away so that you devote your attention to a more in-depth or timely project. Or you might delay a phone call to a loved one until you’re in a sunny and high energy mood.
You can triage new tasks as they come in by organizing them into four categories:
- Do tasks that need to be done right away
- Defer tasks that can be scheduled for later or need more time to incubate
- Delegate tasks that can be outsourced to someone else
- Delete tasks that aren’t a priority or you don’t have time to take on
This process can help diffuse procrastination before it starts by leaving little time for self-destructive feelings to kick in.
2. Choreograph your to-do list. Curbing procrastination isn’t just about breaking down each task or project into bite-sized chunks on your to-do list, but making sure each “bite” fits within your personal stress threshold.
If you still feel paralyzed at the thought of taking a specific step, break that step down into even smaller pieces until each piece feels manageable.
3. Name the feeling. Putting your feelings into words lessens the hold they have on you by decreasing amygdala activity and increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex, making it easier for you to get back to your regularly scheduled programming, per a 2018 journal review.
4. Act as if your feelings are a fixed state. Once you’ve named the feeling, analyze if it’s logical and helpful to be directed by it.
“Emotions signal us, but should never direct us,” says Taish Malone, PhD, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health. “Begin the task you’re putting off anyway and be proactive in intentionally allowing yourself to be uncomfortable.”
One way to encourage this habit is to act as if the uncomfortable feelings you’re having are fixed: An older study published in the January 2001 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found when students thought they could improve their mood, they procrastinated — but didn’t procrastinate when they were led to believe their mood was fixed.
5. Diffuse your anxiety. When we feel anxious, we’re vulnerable to catastrophic thinking and devising worst-case scenarios in our minds. Racing thoughts and being on edge makes it difficult to focus on the task at hand, perpetuating the procrastination cycle.
Deep breathing and guided meditation can help keep your focus on the rails by activating the body’s parasympathetic nervous system.
6. Act before you think. If a task, or one step of a task, will take you 20 seconds or less, do it right away before your brain has time to peer pressure you into procrastinating.
7. Leave off in the right spot. It may seem counterintuitive, but research suggests leaving the step you’re on a little unfinished at the end of the day can have a positive effect on your motivation to continue working on your project the following day.
According to a small 2018 study, this could be because your brain is seeking closure. Not finishing creates an internal pressure that makes you want to pick up the task again to finish it — and you’ll be more motivated to do so if you know you’re close to finishing.
8. Try temptation bundling. When you’re working on a longer-term project where the rewards aren’t immediate, try temptation bundling. Pair something you want to do with an action you need to do. The instant gratification of your want-to-do may sustain your motivation to trudge through the phases of your need-to-do.
9. Schedule a consultation. If finding effective procrastination fixes on your own isn’t going well, consider working with a neurodiversity-affirming or occupational therapist.