Research-based tips on how to deal with procrastination.

Procrastination results from stress but increases it at the same time. To make things even more complicated, procrastination is a method to reduce stress. However, it is also a gamble: delaying an important task and doing it last-minute (especially doing it well) may boost our self-esteem. Yet, delaying tasks also increases the number of jobs to do and causes more stress and a sense of shame or guilt.

How to fight procrastination, then?

Start from self-awareness.

If you feel like procrastination is a problem, start by realising where it comes from, what caused it to happen first and why you want to change this behaviour. Very often, procrastination isn’t a sign of laziness but fear. It is worth knowing what the thing you’re afraid of is. It could be a failure, but it also could be a success. Maybe you want to motivate yourself by time pressure, or you don’t like the task you need to do and don’t want to do it because it feels unpleasant. This awareness is critical. After you deal with this part and make up your mind about the reason for procrastination and that you want to beat it because the fear you feel isn’t reasonable and you want to do the task, we prepared six small, research-based tips to help you accomplish your goals. To help you apply these tips in your life, we created a worksheet that you can use to work out the solution to your specific procrastination problems.

1. Does six sound like a lot? Stay with it. These steps are tiny. When we think about a big task, our brains stress more than when we do minute, everyday tasks because they don’t seem scary. Therefore, tiny steps are a great technique to decrease the level of stress and also to start doing anything. For example, if you need to write your dissertation, it is worth dividing it into tiny pieces. Your first step could be writing a title page or gathering your sources. Small steps are an excellent method to overcome fear and start. Continuing the task will be easier as we transition into a work mode. By doing that, we turn on other psychological mechanisms such as the sunk cost fallacy, which is the general tendency for people to continue an endeavour or continue consuming or pursuing an option if they’ve invested time or money or some resource in it.

2. Reward yourself. By rewarding yourself after accomplishing a task, you create a positive association with this task. However, it is worth being mindful about rewarding oneself with things that are not contradictory to your aims and don’t cause addictions. You probably don’t want to have a cocktail every time to read an article, but you could go for a walk or call a friend.

A person sitting at a table with a laptop open.

3. Try doing your task differently. When we take a tedious task and find a way to do it differently than usual, it forces us to be more creative and focused. Sometimes it can be as simple as changing your workspace.

4. Challenging yourself could also help. Set short-term goals, like writing a certain number of words in 15 minutes or setting self-imposed deadlines. In this way, you compete with yourself. You can start working in designated time slots to do it more effectively. There are many ways to do it. You’ve probably heard about the Pomodoro technique. Using this method, you break your workday into 25-minute chunks separated by five-minute breaks. To make it easier, you can use an online Pomodoro timer, for example, this one. You may have also heard about the biological cycles called ultradian rhythms that involve alternating periods of high- and low-frequency brain activity. One ultradian cycle consists of approximately 90 minutes of high-frequency activity during which it’s much easier to focus and about 20 minutes of low-frequency activity when it is normal to have difficulties concentrating. Possibly, you might want to adopt this system. Whatever you find most appealing, make sure you try it. It’s a small change that doesn’t require much effort but can make a big difference.

5. Focus on doing one thing at a time. If you are committed to writing your dissertation in a given time slot, turn off your phone, close you email inbox, don’t snack, don’t chat with your flatmates. All these extra tasks make your brain feel like there are many more tasks to do and cause you to feel overwhelmed.

6. Lastly, promise someone you will do the task. Preferably more than one person. After you do it, you may feel more obligated to achieve your goals. After all, you don’t want to disappoint others and avoid feeling shame because someone will know you didn’t do what you committed to. On the contrary, achieving your goal would increase your self-esteem more if others knew about your success and thought about you as a reliable person.

That being said, the awareness of the reason for procrastination is the key to success. All these techniques might not work if we won’t deal with the source of our fears. Unless we do that, we will have to fight with this feeling rather than resolve the problem constantly.

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