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How to overcome procrastination

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

A man sits at his desk ignoring the computer and playing with a paper airplane

You know when you put off doing your taxes until the last minute? Or when you don’t clean your house until absolutely every surface is covered in clothes, dishes, and dust?

That’s what procrastination looks like. You know you need to get a task done, but you delay it because you think it’s unpleasant.

The problem is, putting things off doesn’t make them any more pleasant. More often than not, postponing tasks only makes them seem worse. You end up feeling stressed, rushed, overwhelmed, and sometimes regretful.

So how do you stop procrastinating? Follow these tips to help break the habit.

Change your internal dialogue

The way you talk to yourself can affect the way you focus on a task. If you constantly tell yourself “I’ll never get this done” or “This is just too much,” then you’re effectively declaring it isn’t worth the effort. You’re giving up before you even try.

To break the cycle, pay attention to when you fall into this pattern of negative self-talk and catch yourself before it spirals. This is the first necessary step before you can shift your internal dialogue from what you think you can’t do to what you think you can do.

Start by getting curious about a task in your to-do list. This will help you think about it from a more neutral perspective. Ask yourself, “How can I do this?” or “What do I need to know to get this done?”

Clarify your “why”

You might get so caught up in berating yourself that you forget what you’re trying to accomplish. The next time you find you’re putting off work, stop and remind yourself why that work is important. What are the benefits of getting it done?

For example, if you’ve been avoiding email all week, ask yourself what the upside would be of finally tackling it. You might make real progress on a project or finally get closure on a frustrating situation.

Once you know your “why,” you can use it as motivation to power through the work. It’s often much easier to get something done when you know it’ll lead to a concrete benefit.

Lean into the discomfort

Taking on a task you don’t want to do can seem impossibly hard. But when you finally get started, even if your mind keeps trying to resist, it will gradually feel easier.

That’s not to say the task will actually become easier. It’ll just feel that way because your brain will start to associate it with a sense of pleasure or reward. This doesn’t necessarily happen every time, but it happens more often than you’d expect.

Psychologists call this phenomenon “habituation,” and it takes place when your brain adapts to hard work so it doesn’t respond as strongly. As a result, you experience less resistance over time, meaning it takes even less effort to continue working on the task.

Break it down

Tasks can seem daunting when you think about them as a whole, but when you break them down into smaller parts, they’ll feel much more manageable. This can help reduce stress and make your work seem like less of an uphill battle.

Let’s say you need to clean the house before your family comes to visit. Instead of trying to tackle the whole thing at once, divide the process into chunks. For example, start with the kitchen on Monday, dust on Tuesday, vacuum on Wednesday, organize the guest room on Thursday, and do laundry on Friday.

Focusing on one smaller task at a time can help prevent you from getting overwhelmed. This means you’re less likely to shut down and quit before you’ve even begun.

Focus on progress, not perfection

You might think that if you can’t do a job perfectly, why bother at all?

The solution is to get better at being realistic. Trying to do everything perfectly adds a lot of pressure that can lead to anxiety and stress. It can also make tasks take much longer than necessary because you go back and forth in an attempt to get every detail just right.

Next time you gear up for a task, ask yourself, “How well done does this need to be in order to have been worth doing?” Remember: Perfection isn’t real. It’s okay to do an adequate job and let a few details slide. As long as you’re moving forward, that’s what counts.

Incorporate small rewards

Rewarding yourself for completing a task can help strengthen the association between working and feeling good, which can make it easier to get started in the first place. Small rewards work best because they’re easy to plan and don’t take as much time to earn. Something as simple as a favorite snack or a short break afterward can be enough.

It may help to think about physical rewards as second in importance to emotional rewards. If you feel yourself getting bogged down by procrastination and resistance, remind yourself what you’re working for and how good it’ll feel to complete the task.

What if you’re still procrastinating?

Sometimes a little support from other people can go a long way. Consider talking with a friend or family member about your procrastination. Maybe some accountability will help, or maybe someone else can take on a portion of the work so you don’t feel as stretched.

If you continue to struggle with procrastination after trying these strategies and getting support from loved ones, there may be something else going on. Talking with a therapist can help you uncover what’s contributing to your procrastination and how to manage it more effectively.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.