How to Stop Procrastinating

Woman leaning back in her chair at her desk
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Never do today what you can put off for tomorrow. Better yet, never put off 'til tomorrow what you can avoid altogether!

I don't know who coined these phrases, but they must have been a depressive. The symptoms that we face, such as fatigue and hopelessness, make it so easy to say to ourselves, "I'll just put this off until tomorrow when I feel better." Before we know it, that deadline is creeping up on us and we're starting to panic. What's the best way to deal with panic? Hide your head in the sand and hope it goes away! Not really, but procrastination an easy habit to fall into and as the panic mounts, so does the depression. The more depressed we get, the more we avoid reality.

Why We Procrastinate

Why do we fall into the procrastination trap time after time? It may bring some temporary relief, but we eventually wake up the following day and find that no brownies have dropped in overnight and done our work for us.

Procrastination becomes a way—no matter how maladaptive—of coping with the emotions and physical symptoms that accompany depression.

Which style of procrastination fits you?

  • Organizing thoughts and actions and keeping on track with plans is difficult. (People with ADD/ADHD may fall into this category.)
  • Tasks seem overwhelming so it's futile to even try.
  • Hostile feelings towards someone cause you to want to punish them by putting things off.
  • Routine and schedule cause you to feel rebellious.
  • You fear disapproval.

These procrastination styles can overlap in one of four themes:

  • Self-Doubt - 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.
  • Discomfort Dodging - This person avoids activities that will cause them distress, discomfort or anxiety. Rather ironically, the act of dodging the activity doesn't make it go away so tensions mount because of this avoidance.
  • Guilt-Driven - The person feels guilt over tasks undone, but rather than correct the original lack of action continues to procrastinate in order to not face up to the guilt feelings.
  • Habitual - The person has procrastinated so many times, it becomes an ingrained response. The person no longer thinks 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", "I'm too tired", or to laugh it off as a character flaw.

Once you recognize your style of procrastination, you can take steps to stop it.

Time Management Tips

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: follow the KISS principle (Keep it Simple, Stupid). If your organization system is too complicated, it will become just another task to avoid. Here's my own system. You are welcome to use it if it works for you.

  • Make a list of what needs to get done. This can be listed in no particular order and will give you a handle on just what you need to accomplish.
  • Prioritize these. One way of doing this is by deadlines. Arrange them 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 to you than cleaning out your closets. Do that first.
  • Get yourself a calendar with room to write notes in.
  • Take 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, put that down to be done the current day. If it will take a longer time, divide it into smaller tasks to be spread out over several days. Write this in your calendar with specific dates for accomplishing each. Include your deadline for completion of this task on your calendar as well.
  • Keep filling your calendar until you have a time set aside to do each item while still meeting your deadlines. Be careful to not overbook yourself and allow plenty of time for delays. This will allow 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.

Bite Off Only What You Can Chew

Ever notice how broken up large shopping malls are? Lots of twists and turns, levels, and side corridors? There's a very good reason for this. If malls were laid out straight we could see just how far we are really walking. If we actually knew how far apart stores are, we would probably leave the mall, get in our cars and drive from store to store. By having our view broken up into small chunks, we feel as if it's a smaller distance. This same psychological trick can be used to help us overcome procrastination. Break large projects up into smaller tasks. For example, doing your taxes can be broken up into: pick up necessary forms, get records organized, fill in forms, double check forms for accuracy and mail. It won't seem nearly so burdensome if you take a small bit at a time.

Just Do It

Next time you catch yourself saying, "I can do this later," think Nike. 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. And 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.

Anxiety Busters

Does the thought of performing a certain task fill you will 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 feelings 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 if these are only restrictions you are imposing on yourself or they backed up by 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 job just before your deadline and will leave you feeling too anxious and depressed to do a proper job.

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.

Mental Tricks to Give You 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 some larger tasks left, psychologically it feels as if you have less to do when the list isn't so long. It gives you a feeling that you have accomplished something. Just remember, it must be a task that is relevant to accomplishing your goal. Raking the leaves may be a quick and easy task, but if what you really need to accomplish is a big term paper, you won't be helping yourself.

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. Sometimes I feel as if I'm getting nothing done, but when I look over what's marked out I see I've actually done quite a bit. I'm just constantly adding new tasks.

The Best Laid Plans

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 to you. At the very least, you won't be left rushed 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.

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 (the world won't end if you can't redecorate before your mother-in-law visits), or hire outside help. You won't find many situations that can't be solved somehow once you let your expectations change about how it should be.

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