How to Stop Procrastinating: Psychology's Tips

How to stop procrastinating - Potential Psychology

That's a big call. Is it even possible?

Not if you're human. We all procrastinate. But by understanding exactly what procrastination is and why we do it, we recover some of the power it has over us.

What is procrastination?

At its basic level procrastination is 'the act or habit of putting off or delaying, especially something requiring immediate attention.' That last bit is the rub; 'something requiring immediate attention.'  

Procrastination is not inaction. It is a decision not to act. It's a choice to do something else.

It is, by definition, counterproductive.  We delay doing something that needs to be done now, despite knowing that we will be worse off for doing so. We'll be stressed, we'll be anxious, we'll fail the exam, we'll miss the deadline, we'll pay the price. We'll suffer. 

But we put it off anyway.

And that's where a lot of 'how to stop procrastinating' advice goes wrong. It assumes procrastination is rational. It assumes that we're just putting off doing something and that we just need the right strategy for getting that thing done; the right list, the right tool, the right mindset.

But procrastination is not rational. It's emotional. 

When we procrastinate we're not putting off doing something. We're putting off feeling something.

When we procrastinate we're avoiding feeling anxious, or inadequate, or disappointed, or resentful or unsure.

We're worried that if we start studying we'll feel overwhelmed by what we don't yet know.

We avoid writing to the bank or preparing the meeting agenda or cooking the dinner because we resent the fact that it's impinging on our time and freedom. 

We delay the conversation because we know it will be upsetting.

We don't start the new project because we want so much for it to be brilliant  - and we're terrified that we won't succeed.

We evade the housework because the very prospect of cleaning the bathroom bores us to tears.

And so we do something else instead. Something that doesn't feel bad.

We procrastinate.

The trick to defeating procrastination is understanding the emotion driving it and to wrangle that first.

Here are some tips:

  1. Ponder the emotion. Figure out what feeling is driving your procrastination. Acknowledge it and you reduce its power.
  2. Engage in some positive self talk; 'I can do this.' 'It will be okay' 'I've done harder.'
  3. Be clear about what the task requires. Break it down into small steps. This helps a lot with overwhelm.
  4. Get started. Anywhere. It doesn't matter. Imperfectly done is better than perfect but never started.
  5. Remind yourself that whatever you're feeling, avoidance is not the answer. If the task needs doing, it needs doing now.
  6. Replace the bad feelings with good. Imagine how great you will feel once the task is done. Focus on that.
  7. Reward yourself. 

Beating procrastination takes practice. It takes some awareness of what you're doing and why and it's important to recognise the feelings that drive it. 

And my final suggestion?

Don't beat yourself up if you procrastinate. Recognise it for what it is. Allow it for a minute or two and then get down to getting s*** done. 

You're human after all.