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How to overcome procrastination

Reviewed by Brooks Baer

A to-do list notepad and pen.

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 do it, 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 something only makes things worse. You end up feeling stressed, rushed, overwhelmed, and sometimes even regretful.

So how do you stop procrastinating? Here are some tips that can help you break the habit:

Change Your Internal Dialogue

The way you talk to yourself can affect your ability to focus on a task. If you’re constantly telling yourself things like, “I’ll never get this done,” or “This is just too much,” then you’re essentially declaring that whatever it is isn’t worth your efforts and giving up before even trying.

Notice when you’re falling into this pattern of negative self-talk and catch yourself before it spirals out of control in a way that affects your decision-making. By simply noticing when this happens, you can begin the process of shifting your internal dialogue away from what you think you can’t do, and towards what you think you can.

For example, when you notice yourself saying, “This is just too hard,” you can easily shift your thinking to a more neutral perspective by getting curious about the task at hand. Ask yourself, “How can I do this?” or, “What do I need to know in order to get this done?”

Clarify Your “Why”

Sometimes we get so caught up in negative self-talk that we forget what we’re trying to accomplish. The next time you find yourself putting off work, stop and ask yourself why it’s important you do it. What are the benefits of getting it done?

For example, if you’ve been avoiding answering emails all week, ask yourself what the upside is of finally tackling it. It could be that you finally make real progress on an important project, or you finally get closure on an unhappy customer situation.

Once you know your “why,” you can use it to help motivate you to get through the work itself. It’s often much easier to get something done when you know it will lead to some real benefit.

Lean Into the Discomfort

Working on a task that you don’t want to do can be hard. Really, really hard.

But when you manage to get started despite feeling resistance every step of the way, it actually gets easier over time. That’s because your brain has the ability to start associating working on that thing with pleasure—not always, but more often than you’d probably expect.

Psychologists call this phenomenon “habituation,” which takes place when your brain gets used to something and stops responding to it as strongly. As a result, you experience less and less resistance over time, meaning it takes even less effort to continue working on that task.

Break It Down

Tasks can seem daunting when you think about doing them in their entirety, but when you break them down into smaller parts, they seem 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 whole house before your family comes over. Instead of trying to clean it all at once, break down your tasks into smaller chunks. Start with the laundry and kitchen on Monday, dust on Tuesday, vacuum on Wednesday… you get the idea.

Focusing on one small task at a time can help prevent you from getting overwhelmed in such a way that it makes you want to shut down and quit before you’ve even begun.

Focus on Progress, Not Perfection

It can be difficult for some people to be okay with the fact that they’re not perfect. Many people think that if they can’t do it perfectly, why bother at all?

The solution lies in getting really good at being realistic. Trying to do everything perfectly puts a lot of pressure on you, which can lead to anxiety and stress. Plus, it makes everything take way longer than necessary because you’re going back and forth trying to get every little thing just right.

So next time you feel yourself gearing up to do a task, ask yourself: “How close do I need to be to perfect in order for this to have been worth doing?” Instead of aiming for perfection, aim for progress.

It’s okay to not get every little thing exactly right. As long as you’re moving forward, that’s what counts.

Incorporate Small Rewards

Rewarding yourself after completing a task can help strengthen the association between working and feeling good, which can help make it easier to get past resistance and just start. You don’t need it to be anything fancy—something simple as getting a snack, taking a short break, or checking your favorite website for a few minutes can be enough.

It’s important to note that the bigger the reward, the less effective it will be as a motivator. If you’re treating yourself to a very powerful reward (like a seven-day vacation to the Caribbean), it’s likely to make you feel so good just by anticipating it—so much so that the task won’t seem worth the effort. Likewise, if your reward is so big that it takes a long time to earn, it can also become demotivating because you’ll have to wait too long before feeling the excitement of pleasure.

It can be helpful to think of “real” rewards—the ones in which you have direct control over when and how often they occur—as secondary in importance to your “invisible” rewards—the feelings and emotions that make you want to get things done in the first place. Then, when you feel yourself getting bogged down by procrastination and resistance, remind yourself of what you’re working for and what it’ll feel like once you complete the task.

What If You’re Still Procrastinating?

These tips can certainly help procrastinators become more productive individuals, but sometimes, a little extra help or support from other people can go a long way.

Consider talking to someone about it—like a parent, friend, teacher, neighbor, or someone else you trust. Maybe you just need some accountability, or maybe you need to ask someone to take a portion of the workload so you don’t feel so bogged down.

If your procrastination continues to persist despite implementing these strategies and getting support from people you know, it could be an indication of a bigger issue—like anxiety or depression. A therapist can help you uncover what’s really contributing to your procrastination, and work with you to develop a plan to help manage it.

Procrastination is very common, but it shouldn’t keep you from being able to move forward in your life. Make sure you get to the root of the problem so you know what to do when the urge to procrastinate strikes again.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com 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.

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