If you’re thinking about finishing this article later, we urge you to reconsider.
The habit of putting off tasks — often until it’s too late — is called procrastination.
While not inherently bad, procrastination often makes us deny our own judgment and neglect our future selves. We know we’d be better off working toward our goals and making tomorrow easier but avoid tasks anyway.
Putting off tasks can also negatively affect our well-being. The stress of not addressing obligations and letting items pile up can cause anxiety, and procrastination is just that — putting off today’s work for tomorrow.
We gain momentary relief when we do this but the cost is making our future lives busier and more stressful.
Why do we procrastinate?
Procrastination is caused by the same things it creates: stress and anxiety. We avoid tasks because they overwhelm us in the moment. This feels good momentarily — we get to do something we want instead and don’t need to address any obligations.
Here are a few more reasons for procrastination:
Confidence issues: Feeling imposter syndrome — like you’re not qualified for your job or are less valuable than coworkers — might make you avoid tasks you feel incapable of. Low self-esteem contributes to imposter syndrome and other confidence issues like self-criticism.
Check whether you’ve set unrealistic expectations for yourself or simply need assurance from a close friend.
Perfectionism: While perfectionism can fuel productivity, it can also derail a project altogether. Sometimes, it’s better to submit good work on time than great work late.
Fear of failing: You might avoid doing certain tasks because you’re afraid you’ll fail. This could be fueled by confidence issues or perfectionism. A toxic work environment can also cause a fear of failure. Consider whether your workplace promotes positive feedback and work-life balance or whether you’re dealing with toxic productivity and unhelpful criticism.
Lack of motivation: If you’re uninspired by a project, you’re less likely to complete it. Many factors cause low motivation, such as a dull, repetitive work environment or burnout. Re-evaluate your goals to find motivators that work for you and make lifestyle changes where necessary.
Mental health conditions: Procrastination and psychological well-being are intrinsically linked. Those who suffer from ADHD, anxiety, and depression are more likely to avoid overwhelming tasks. Consider speaking with a mental health professional if you think your procrastination is caused by a more significant health issue.
Dealing with procrastination
It’s challenging to understand why we put off tasks and how to motivate ourselves to change stubborn habits. But facing difficult obligations head-on is the first step to beating your chronic procrastination. Start by addressing procrastination itself.
Here are a few tactics for overcoming procrastination:
Understand procrastination’s emotional roots: Telling yourself you’re lazy and unmotivated won’t give you the confidence necessary to take on scary tasks. Remember: procrastination doesn’t say something about you — it says something about your emotions.
You fear failure or feel overwhelmed and stressed. Acknowledging these feelings and moving forward is easier than attempting to change some intrinsic personality trait.
Spot your patterns: You can only solve a problem you understand. Jot down tasks you tend to avoid and avoidance tactics you prefer. Use this information to address behavior patterns and limit distractions.
For example, you might neglect household-chore-related tasks most, distracting yourself with TV. Address this by setting specific hours each day for items like food prep and cleaning and putting a blanket over the TV as a reminder not to turn it on.
Limit distractions: Distractions are the easiest way to procrastinate. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re distracting ourselves to avoid work until we see our screentime metrics.
Keep track of distraction behavior such as phone and browser use, TV, and less important obligations. Sweeping the floor is useful, but not if you’re doing it to avoid sending a time-sensitive work email.
Reframe anxiety: Anxiety and excitement are similar sensations in the body. They both can cause increased heart rate, sweaty palms, or racing thoughts. The next time you feel stressed and anxious about completing an important task, reframe these feelings as excitement for working toward an interesting project or achieving your goals.
Forgive yourself: Procrastination is often a vicious mental cycle. You postpone items and miss a deadline, then make yourself feel so bad about it that you feel incapable of ever accomplishing your goals.
The best way to get back on track is to practice self-compassion: forgive yourself when you neglect work so you have the necessary self-esteem to face the next task. Rest if you need it, and come back fresher tomorrow.
Eat the frog: Sometimes, we keep ourselves busy to avoid doing our least favorite tasks. Try eating the frog, or doing your most unpleasant task first each day. Checking what you dread most off your to-do list in the morning means your day can only get better.
7 techniques to limit procrastination
Pair the above tactics with these seven techniques to avoid the negative consequences of procrastination:
1. Create smaller steps
Because large, complex projects are more daunting, a great time management strategy is breaking larger items into small, easily achievable tasks. This tactic also fuels motivation — you’re rewarded more often as you achieve smaller items. This reward encourages you to progress further and get more done.
2. Make a plan
Tasks are more manageable with an action plan. If your day is broken up into small, easily achievable items, you’ll feel less stressed out and more inclined to tackle them one by one. Writing out a daily or weekly schedule will also help you allocate enough time to each task to create realistic expectations for yourself.
3. Embrace “all or something” thinking
Looking at a never-ending mountain of tasks is an immediate stress inducer and can make you avoid working altogether.
Instead of feeling like you have to complete them all or otherwise your effort’s worthless, embrace “all or something” thinking: try to do them all while accepting that just getting something done is also valuable — it’s definitely better than nothing.
For example, ask yourself to spend just 10 minutes cleaning each day. Either you’ll gain momentum and get more done, or you can stop after the timer goes off and feel better knowing you made some progress. A little goes a long way.
4. Try the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique involves setting a rigid and manageable schedule for task work. Here’s the outline:
- Identify the task you need to complete
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Work on the task until the timer goes off
- Take a 5-minute break
- Set the timer for another 25 minutes and get back to work
- Every four pomodoros (or 100 minutes) take a longer break
The philosophy behind this technique is that completing 25 minutes of work isn’t as overwhelming as working non-stop until you complete the task. Taking breaks also improves creativity and clear thinking and helps to avoid burnout.
5. Surround yourself with productive people
You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with — so choose wisely. Surround yourself with productive and motivated individuals to become that way yourself.
For example, if one goal is to run four times per week, make friends with a runner. Even if you don’t run together, they might have inspiring and valuable insights on avoiding injuries or eating appropriately before and after a workout.
Their running wins will motivate you to lace up those sneakers, and their challenges will remind you you’re not struggling alone.
6. Try the 5-second rule
Mel Robbins invented the 5-second rule to propel herself out of bed. Getting up in the morning was a daunting daily task she’d snooze several times to avoid. After watching a rocket launch on TV, she decided to try counting down from five and acting: 5-4-3-2-1-GO.
This technique works because it combats hesitation and creates a bias toward action. Hesitating before acting gives our mind time to make excuses not to do the thing we know we should.
For example, most people rarely feel like working out. If they stop to think, “Should I go for a run?” their brain has plenty of time to create excuses. But if they develop a bias toward action — don’t think, just act — they’re more likely to get out the door for a jog before excuses stop them.
Try the 5-second rule with something as simple as getting up in the morning. Use it successfully for this task and you’re on your way to building a bias toward action and conquering your goals.
7. Have an accountability partner
Most people care more about pleasing others than pleasing themselves, so accountability partners are great motivators. We don’t want to disappoint them so we stick to our goals.
Talk with a trusted friend or family member about your procrastination habits and what you hope to achieve in how much time. Ask them to check in on progress and pinpoint when you’re distracting yourself from obligations.
Be proud of yourself
By reading this article, you’ve already taken the first step toward combatting procrastination — be proud of yourself. This pride might increase your confidence so you feel prepared to tackle that nagging task you’ve been avoiding.
Tackling procrastination is a never-ending process. You’ll always have obligations worth avoiding — the trick is knowing what causes procrastination to reduce triggers and distractions.
Then, cultivate an action bias so hesitation doesn’t hold you back. With time, the satisfaction felt by ticking off to-do lists and completing projects will be enough to motivate you to complete tasks head-on.