How to Stop Procrastinating

Woman leaning back in her chair at her desk
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Procrastination is an easy habit to fall into, particularly if you have symptoms of depression. The symptoms that people with depression face such as fatigue and hopelessness make it so easy to say, "I'll just put this off until tomorrow when I feel better."

Then deadlines begin to creep up and panic sets in. As the panic mounts, so does the depression. And as depression increases, so does the need to avoid reality.

Depression and Procrastination

Procrastination can bring temporary relief. It is a way—no matter how maladaptive—of coping with the emotions and physical symptoms that accompany depression. People with depression may experience procrastination in different ways.

  • Difficulty organizing thoughts and actions and keeping on track with plans (people with ADD/ADHD may fall into this category)
  • Feeling overwhelmed, which can lead to an inability to try to complete tasks
  • A desire to punish someone by putting things off because you feel hostile toward them
  • Rebellion against routine and schedule
  • Fear of disapproval

Types of Procrastinators

Procrastination styles can overlap and collect around one of four themes. Once you recognize your style of procrastination, you can take steps to stop it.


These people feel there are rigid standards about how thing ought to be done and they fear they will fail. They second-guess themselves and delay taking action.


This person avoids activities or tasks that will cause distress, discomfort, or anxiety. Of course, the act of dodging an activity doesn't make it go away, so tensions mount because of this avoidance.


The person feels guilt over undone tasks. Rather than correct the lack of action, they procrastinate so that they do not have to face the guilty feelings.


This person has procrastinated so many times, it becomes an ingrained response. They no longer think about why they do it; they feel it's just a part of themselves. It becomes an automatic response to say, "This is too hard or "I'm too tired," or to laugh it off as a character flaw.

Strategies for Beating Procrastination

Fighting the habits and mindsets that lead to procrastination is challenging. One or a combination of these motivation methods may help.

Create a To-Do List

One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to get organized. Make lists, take a class in organization, or purchase an organizer. Do whatever works for you. One word of advice: keep it simple. If your organization system is too complicated, it will become just another task to avoid.

  • Get a calendar: Make sure it has room to write notes in it.
  • Make a to-do list: Make a list of what needs to get done. You don't need to put it in a particular order yet. This will give you a handle on what you need to accomplish.
  • Prioritize: One way of doing this is by setting deadlines. Arrange your tasks in order of when they are due. You may also choose to rank them by how important it is to get them done. For example, paying your bills on time may be more important than cleaning out your closets, so take care of them first.
  • Break up big tasks: Look at what's at the top of your priority list and determine how long it will take to accomplish it. If it's a quick task, give it a deadline of today. If it will take longer, divide it into smaller tasks to be spread out over several days. Write them in your calendar with specific due dates.
  • Create a schedule: Keep filling your calendar until you have a time set aside to do each item on your list while still meeting your deadlines. Be careful not to overbook yourself, and allow time for delays.

This system allows you to feel confident that you can accomplish all you need to in the time you have. Now you can relax and work on one item at a time without feeling you have to do it all at once.

Just Do It

Next time you catch yourself saying, "I can do this later," get into a Nike mindset. Just do it! Push on through the feelings and do it now. The feeling you get when you finish will be so much better than any relief you get from putting it off.

Schedule Reward Time

As you go work through your tasks, you may find your mind drifting off to all the activities you'd rather be doing. You will find it much easier to concentrate on your work if you know that you have scheduled time for reward activities.

Tell yourself: "I will work hard today accomplishing my goals because tomorrow is Saturday and I have scheduled a time to go fishing." Knowing that you have finished your tasks will also make it easier to relax and enjoy your leisure time.

Delaying your reward until a certain amount of time has elapsed, during which you will have crossed things off your to-do list, can be very effective.

Cope With Anxiety

Does the thought of performing a certain task fill you with anxiety? First, try this:

  • Inhale deeply while counting five heartbeats (you may check this easily by feeling your pulse).
  • Exhale as you count five heartbeats.

You should notice after each breath that your heart rate is actually slowing and you are feeling less tense. Now, do something, no matter how small. Just make a start. The very act of accomplishing something will ease your anxiety.

Change Your Expectations

Perfectionism and feeling that things should be a certain way can be stumbling blocks to beating procrastination. Next time you catch yourself using language like "should" or "must," evaluate whether these are restrictions you are imposing on yourself, or reflections of the reality of the situation.

  • Perfectionistic thinking: "I must get an A on this paper or I'll be a total failure. There's just so much work to do. I'll wait until tomorrow when I am feeling better and can do a better job."
  • Reality: Not doing your work now will lead to a sloppy, rushed paper completed just before your deadline. You will feel too anxious and depressed to work well.
  • Coping strategy: Look at why you are procrastinating. Does the thought of failing make you feel anxious? Take deep breaths, replace your negative thoughts of failure with thoughts of your previous academic successes, and select a smaller task (such as preparing a bibliography) to begin chipping away at.

Build Momentum

If you have several small items to do which are directly related to the project at hand, do these first. Even though you have large tasks left, it feels as if you have less to do. It gives you a feeling that you have accomplished something. Just remember, they must be tasks that are relevant to accomplishing a bigger goal.

When you have accomplished a task, mark it out on your list with a pen. It gives you visual confirmation that you are getting somewhere. Again, this gives you a psychological boost.

Allow Extra Time

Remember, if something can go wrong, it will. Allow yourself more than adequate time to finish each task.

If you do not need all the time you've allowed, you will be able to progress ahead of schedule. This will be a psychological boost. At the very least, you won't be left rushing to finish.

Don't panic if you get behind schedule. If you've allowed yourself extra time each day, you will simply shift everything forward until you catch up. The key is to leave yourself room to be flexible.

Ask for Help

What if you really don't have time to finish everything? Get creative. Request extensions on deadlines, get help from friends and relatives, delegate tasks to others, drop non-essential items from your schedule, or hire outside help. You won't find many situations that can't be solved somehow once you let your expectations change about how things should be.

By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.