A definitive guide to stop Procrastinating

This article was originally posted on www.isaaclowton.com

There is SO MUCH information on procrastination on the internet. If everyone followed all of it, we’d all be uber productive, super mutant humans who never lost focus on our task. However many of these articles, Blogs, studies and authors only focus on one aspect or a few tips to solve the problem. Often the most readily available information on the subject isn’t very exhaustive or well put together at all.

I want to put together the ultimate guide to procrastination including why we procrastinate, ways to stop doing so and share some of my personal opinions on the subject.

If you find yourself not being able to start important projects, lacking motivation or simply getting distracted from the task at hand, this might be the page for you! (do I sound like a cliché blogger yet?).

So what is procrastination?..

I’ve seen it described as ‘the gap between intention and action’, which I think is pretty spot on. It’s that weird place where you need to do that thing BUT… you need to do that assignment BUT… you need to do the washing BUT

It’s a dangerous state of flicking between one thing and another, never fully committing your energy to what you really need to do.

EVERYONE procrastinates at some point. Often it arises when no one is watching us. When we’re not immediately accountable for our actions, it’s very easy to not do THAT thing until tomorrow. We may even be procrastinating as we’re scared of getting started. Often perfectionists procrastinate because they have blank canvas paralysis, a very real fear of failure which prevents you from ever getting started.

Often it’s a case of boredom, if our task is menial or boring then our mind can wander, hopping to something more stimulating like the latest Game of Thrones Episode or that level you cant do on Angry Birds.

I’m not going to bore you by telling you that procrastination is harmful, you know that, you might be doing it right now. What I am going to offer is some insights into why we procrastinate and some very useful strategies for stopping doing so.

Why do we procrastinate? The science:

The suggested science behind procrastination goes something like this (very much simplified):

When we have a task, two parts our brain are in a constant battle for our attention:

Our pre-frontal cortex (pictured left) is partly responsible for decision making and our ability to process the consequences of our current actions. For example your pre-frontal cortex knowsthat you have an assignment due in two days and knows that if you leave it until the last minute, your work won’t be of the same quality. If we listen to our pre-frontal cortex we will have our assignment done with plenty of time to spare in order to avoid the potential consequences of leaving it too late.

(This can also explain why young people particularly struggle with procrastination as our pre-frontal cortex develops into our 20's.)

However:

Our Limbic System (Left, don’t worry about the details) processes our primitive human needs such as sex, hunger, comfort and emotion.

Sometimes we see the tasks we have to do as potential stresses so our Amygdala shuts down the pre-frontal cortex and our Limbic system takes over, hence we revert to comfortable, stress free activities that require little cognitive function i.e checking Facebook and playing games.

Basically, procrastination could be a primitive method of avoiding stressful situations, which is not very useful when you’ve got a really important deadline to meet.

So that’s the science bit done. There’s also a lot of other explanations for procrastination, which are often linked to your physiology and neurology, but many of them can be linked to personality types.

Pleasure seeking: Many people have a natural tendency to seek pleasure in all that they do. These people may believe that ‘life is too short’ to do anything ‘boring’ or have difficulty seeing the long term benefits of studying or essay writing. These people can be much more prone to procrastination and often revert back more quickly to ‘pleasurable’ activities when they should be applying effort to other tasks.

Fear of failure and the unknown: Some people, as mentioned before, have a genuine fear of failure which can often prevent them from ever getting started. These people might either prepare too much or procrastinate to the point of never beginning. Others are afraid of the unknown so stay in their comfort zone, never putting themselves on the line or exerting their efforts in one particular direction.

Lack of Energy: Sometimes we have a lack of energy that prevents us from doing what we want to do. Even when you’ve started on a task, constantly resisting the temptation to do something else can lead to ‘decision fatigue’, making us more prone to lapse in to procrastination. Some people use a lack of energy as an excuse for procrastination whereas for many, it is a genuine reason why procrastination may occur and something we should be aware of. A lack of energy can be (generally) combatted by your life habits.

So for many of us, procrastination stems from our aversion to stress, our fear of failure or our unwillingness to do anything ‘boring’. It can often look like this:


Although what I have offered probably isn’t a be all and end all as to why people procrastinate, I’m hard pressed to think of another reason why people would.

Strategies for dealing with procrastination:

So what are the strategies for dealing with procrastination? As with all ‘problems’ in your life it starts with being honest to yourself. If you feel like you’ve got a problem, accept it and don’t be hard on yourself about it. Many sources say that worrying and beating yourself up about procrastination only makes it worse. If you cultivate an attitude of forgiveness towards yourself, you’re much more likely to succeed in ridding yourself of procrastination.

For many people, the way I’m speaking about this may be too much. You may think ‘it’s not that serious’ but for some people, procrastination is a real and debilitating thing that prohibits them from doing many of the things they need to do. Of course this isn’t everyone, but most of the strategies I’m going to share will be of use to most people, myself included.

The myth of motivation: In this article, James Clear says that many people believe in the Myth of Motivation. People assume that successful people have boundless motivation and passion to reach their goals, always pushing forward with a fire in their hearts and that is why they succeed. In reality, successful people are usually the ones who have boundless grit and determination to push through the boring times, day in day out.

If a world champion athlete had procrastinated and not shown up to training once out of every 5 sessions, do you think they’d still be a world champion athlete? Do you think that same athlete has the motivation and passion to get out of bed and train in the rain at 6am? Probably not. They simply have the willpower to show up and push through.

One of the most important things to do in order to succeed at any task is to fall in love with the process. Fall in love with the boring marketing emails, the 6am starts, the repetitive laps of the track. If you cultivate a sense of appreciation for the mundane and boring aspects of your process, you’re far more likely to keep procrastination at bay.

Imagine a bomb with a really long fuse. The bomb exploding is your success, succeeding at whatever task you decide. The fuse is a really long stretch of grit and determination and motivation is the spark. Your fuse might get damp so you may need to re-light the spark a few times until your fuse burns properly. You can stop the fuse going out if you can stop procrastinating and push through the boring times. Eventually, maybe after a few false starts, your bomb of success might explode. (Slightly cringey analogy but it works).

There is never a right time: There will never be optimal conditions for you to do the thing that you are meant to be doing. If you’re putting off doing something because you ‘don’t have time to start now’ or you’ve ‘got plenty of time so you’ll start later’ or you ‘don’t have the right working conditions for optimum productivity’ then these are usually all lies.

Optimum conditions and time frames usually don’t exist for most tasks. Ask yourself what will happen if I put off this task? Do I really not have time to do this now? Is it really true that later will be a better time to do this thing?

Some articles say to ‘find your peak time of day’ in order to maximise efficiency, I say start whatever you need to do now.

One of the most important rules for procrastination is the 2 minute rule: If something takes less than 2/3/4 minutes, DO IT NOW.

Most of this is a lot easier said than done, I bet even the Dalai Lama puts things off sometimes. However it’s a step in the right direction if we’re self regulating our thoughts and challenging the faulty thought patterns we have built up.

Limit distractions: This one seems really obvious but in order to stop procrastinating but its easier said than done. You need to eliminate all distractions that are likely to hinder your progress.

As I described in this article: Social media is one of the biggest time wasters and killers of productivity. In order to eliminate the distractions you can either be self disciplined and set yourself time and content limits; or you can enlist the help of a third party like coldturkey.com which actually blocks you from using social networks for the amount of time that you say.

Social media is designed to keep us hooked and keep us scrolling so make sure you don’t fall into the trap.

Other distractions can also be a trigger for procrastination. It’s fairly individual and you should be able to self assess and see which distractions are avoidable in your life. If you can’t get rid of your kids -for example- then go somewhere else to work. You get the idea.

Prioritise your work: Best selling author and all round legend Tim Ferriss (along with a lot of other people) starts every day by writing a set of goals and prioritising what is most important. Start off by visualising yourself completing each task. Once you go through the day you can tick off the tasks and it will give you a sense of achievement and limit the chances of you swaying off path.

I’d recommend starting with your most dreaded task first, then the rest of the day will feel easy. Also if you are struggling getting started on a task, commit yourself to spending just 5 minutes on it. If after 5 minutes you’re in the swing of it, then carry on.

Break up and incentivise: If you break up your work into manageable chunks then it is proven to reduce the likelihood of a stress response (as described earlier) which means you’re more likely to complete each mini task.

Perhaps you could benefit from putting an incentive on the end of each mini task throughout the day. Some people work better when they have something to look forward to. Once you’ve read 10 pages of a book, you can eat another Jelly baby, something simple like that to break up the monotony of a task.

I could go into much more practical detail about breaking up and putting incentives on your work but there are a lot of resources out there and it is fairly self explanatory.

Set creative punishments: This is a more extreme method of dealing with procrastination but you could say that if you don’t do this particular task by a certain time, you must write a £100 cheque to a charity you really disagree with. Or something along those lines. Make the punishment something really negative and tell one of your friends who will hold you accountable. This will really put you in the mood to work.

Overall, there are hundreds of creative solutions out there and thousands of hours of reading that you or I probably wont do on the subject of procrastination. If you want to read up more on any specific thing that I’ve talked about here, there’s probably an individual article on it somewhere.

The main things to remember are:

  • Motivation can only be intrinsic, don’t rely on other sources for your motivation.
  • Falling in love with the boring stuff is the only way to succeed.
  • There is never a ‘right time’ to do the thing you’re meant to be doing.
  • Limit distractions in order to succeed.
  • Set realistic goals and targets, incentivise and get someone to hold you accountable.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself. Everyone procrastinates and struggles with work from time to time.

So what should you do now? If you’re struggling with procrastination, implement these strategies in your life and see how you get on. You might only need one or two of these things, you might need more than what I’ve spoke about, procrastination really is an individual and ever changing thing in our lives.

​Also consider than procrastination can be positive. If you find yourself reverting to the same task instead of doing other things (for example making music instead of doing your marketing work) then maybe this should tell you that you’re meant to be making music instead of marketing. Procrastination may be able to make your purpose clear or it may simply tell you that what you’re doing now isn’t really what you’re meant to be doing.

Comment below if you found this article helpful or if you have any perspectives that I’ve missed out. I’ll definitely be implementing these strategies after all the hours I’ve put in to researching them.