How To Beat Procrastination for Good
A step-by-step guide to analyzing your unproductive behavior, fixing the underlying issues, and building supportive habits
“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” — Abraham Lincoln
Procrastination is one of the most common productivity challenges. Yet few have really managed to keep it in check or eliminate it entirely.
I believe there are two reasons for that:
- There is too much focus on individual strategies like turning off notifications and using productivity tools, rather than looking at the problem as a whole and implementing an anti-procrastination system.
- Procrastination has too many different faces, causes, and effects to come up with one strategy that works for everyone.
Thus, I think everybody should thoroughly analyze their individual triggers, effects, and underlying causes and carefully craft their very own anti-procrastination blueprint.
This guide will help you do that step-by-step, so you can end procrastination for good — your own way.
Step 1: Analyse How & When You Procrastinate
The very first step to dealing with procrastination is to get crystal clear about how it shows up in your life. Ask yourself these questions to get to your procrastination roots. I recommend documenting your behavior for a week.
What are you procrastinating on?
Is it writing your thesis? Starting an important project? Working out? Running errands? Cleaning your apartment? Taking the first step to start a company? If you are procrastinating work, get clear on exactly what type of work you are procrastinating. Furthermore, make a list of things you have no problem getting done fast so you can better detect any patterns.
How are you procrastinating?
Do you watch Netflix or binge on YouTube? Start to clean? Waste time on social media? Go down the internet rabbit hole? Hang out with friends? Binge on food? Sleep? Or are you an “advanced” procrastinator with more subtle types of procrastination that are disguised as productive, like watching yet another online course, over-researching, and over-planning?
When and where are you procrastinating?
Which days of the week do you procrastinate most? Which times of the day? Are you more likely to procrastinate at home, in the office, or in a coffee shop? Who else is there when you (don’t) procrastinate?
What is triggering your procrastination?
Did you have too much coffee? Not enough sleep? Were you hungry or too full? Did you over-plan your day or not plan your day at all? Set clear goals? Spend time with specific people? Did specific activities?
Why are you procrastinating?
This one requires a lot of self-knowledge and introspection and thus might take you a little longer to really understand. However, here are some common underlying causes that might help you understand the truth about your procrastination behavior:
- Setting expectations and goals too high which leads to overwhelm because the task feels too big to tackle.
- Having the need to do everything perfectly and thus setting an impossible to achieve quality standard which keeps you from getting started in the first place.
- Lacking a clear direction and strong reason for why you want to do your task.
- Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of judgment, or fear of the unknown, which keep you in your comfort zone.
- Not taking good care of your body (bad diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep), which leads to decreased energy, focus, and motivation.
- Bad time management and self-organization, which leads to inefficiencies in your day, underestimating how long things take, and not holding yourself accountable.
Step 2: Fix the Underlying Issue
After you have analyzed yourself, you should be able to identify patterns in your procrastination behavior. The next step is to fix the biggest underlying problem (aka the reason why you are procrastinating). If you have multiple big reasons, start with fixing the biggest one first and then deal with the others one by one.
Here are some strategies you can try to fix potential underlying issues. But be aware: only you can know the real reason why you are procrastinating and find the best strategy to deal with it.
Setting expectations and goals too high:
Break down your goal into doable milestones and make a proper action and time plan. Be careful with your time estimations as things will always take longer than you initially think. Focus on one step at a time without obsessing too much about your overwhelming goal as a whole.
The key to keeping perfectionism from severely impacting your productivity is to develop an awareness of when you are going overboard. Before starting a project, define how doing it right 100% and 80% will look like. Then, when you are sensing you’re getting into perfectionism mode, ask yourself “is obsessing about this important in the grand scheme of things? Is this contributing to making progress on the 80% or is it about the last 20%?”. Then, take a deep breath, remind yourself that “done is better than perfect,” and move on. If your perfectionism is keeping you from getting started in the first place, tell yourself “I start with where I am and what I have.” Trust that you have prepared enough and are ready to execute.
Lack of purpose:
Two options: 1) Don’t do it and focus on the things that are actually more important in your life or 2) Find a strong enough reason why you want to do it (for example: because it makes your mum happy or it builds relationships that you can later build on).
Fear (of failure, success, judgment, or the unknown):
There are different strategies for different fears, but what usually works very well are the following fear-busting strategies:
- Get clear about what exactly you are afraid of: Imagine the worst case scenario, realize that it is not that bad and make a contingency plan for what to do if it actually happens.
- Practice mindfulness through meditation, yoga, and journaling to calm down pointless worrying and overthinking.
- Make it a habit to go out of your comfort zone: The more steps you take towards the things you are afraid of, the more your fear will turn into confidence and catapult you forward.
- Develop a deep trust in god/the universe. Trust that you are on the right path, that you are being guided every step of the way, and that everything that is happening is for your ultimate good.
Bad time management and self-organization.
Structure your day by scheduling everything into your calendar — even your commute, grocery shopping, cooking, and free time. This forces you to estimate the time that things will take as well as set actual priorities in your day. To push yourself, impose artificial deadlines and gamify the process by giving yourself rewards or punishing yourself for not meeting your goals. If that doesn’t work, get an accountability partner. Even better: give him control over the punishment (like donating a significant amount of money to a cause you absolutely don’t support or coloring your hair blue).
Step 3: Deal with Your Triggers & Temptations
Look back at your self-analysis and try to discover patterns about which location, time of day, people, and activities trigger your procrastination. Then, find effective strategies for dealing with them. The key here is to proactively engineer your working environment and external distractions to best avoid procrastination.
Here are some suggestions:
- Spend as much time as possible in the place where you are most productive. This might be your home, your office, a coffee shop, the library, etc. If you find out you are most productive in the office, why not stay an extra hour to take care of your admin stuff instead of procrastinating doing it at home?
- Work in your best times. Whether you are a night owl or an early riser, find out which times are most productive for you and make sure to keep them free for working on your most important tasks.
- Deal with your destructive behaviors: If watching one YouTube video leads you down a rabbit hole, ban YouTube from your working hours. If social media and messages disturb your workflow, turn off notifications. Do whatever you need to do to avoid your trigger behaviors when you are working.
- Avoid physical procrastination triggers by planning for regular meals, sleeping enough, resting enough, and moving your body.
- Be selective of who you surround yourself with. Avoid spending time with or in the presence of people that make you more likely to procrastinate. Instead, preferably spend time with people that increase your accountability. For some, working in a co-working space does wonders just by seeing that other people are working as well.
Step 4: Build a Set of Supporting Habits
Habits, like getting up early, planning your day, eating healthy food, and working out, can be a catalyst for your productivity and a powerful weapon against procrastination. To complement your anti-procrastination techniques, integrate a set of helpful habits into your day and week.
Here are some suggestions:
- Take care of your body: Sleep eight hours every night. Sweat every day. Eat fresh, healthy, unprocessed, and nourishing food.
- Plan your week on Sundays: Get off to a good start on Monday by outlining your week the weekend before. It will make it easier getting right into the important tasks instead of just reacting to the email influx and spending hours figuring out what to do.
- Create a daily morning ritual: Include some type of meditation to quiet your monkey mind and some type of visualization or affirmative practice to set your mind up for the challenges ahead.
- Do the most important thing first in the morning: This is by far the best procrastination trick I know. Get clear on your most important task for the day and tackle it right away. Even if it is painful.
- Have set times for email and other distractions: Proactively focus on the important things instead of reacting to urgent things. Keeping your email open all day is probably the productivity killer number one!
- Do one thing at a time: Focus. Focus. Focus. Nothing good ever came from multitasking.
- Get out of your head every day for 30–60 minutes: Spend time in nature, do yoga, read fiction, spend time with loved ones or do whatever gets your mind off everyday life.
- Declutter your space every week: Clean up your living space, your phone (photos, messages, apps), and your computer (emails, home screen, trash) at the end of every week. A cluttered space is a cluttered mind!
- Have a daily evening ritual to wind down: Turn off your digital devices, do your personal care rituals, drink some tea, light a candle, write in your journal, read or listen to a podcast, or cuddle your partner. Over time your evening ritual will signal to your brain that it is time to sleep which will make it easier to fall asleep and have a deep restful sleep.
- Learn to rest: Take a break in your workday, take a break on the weekend, and regularly take time off. You will return refreshed and with a new perspective on things.
- Reflect on your week: Take a few minutes at the end of the week to reflect on what was going well in every area of your life, which issues you are facing and what you can improve next week. This also works well as a reset when you have been neglecting a habit for some time. Reflect on why it happened, adjust the habit, and start again next week.
Step 5: Upgrade Your Mindset
You can have the best strategies in the world, but if you don’t have the right mindset, you will keep failing. Thus, becoming aware of how your mindset might be holding you back from being productive and upgrading to a new set of empowering beliefs is an essential step to beating procrastination for good.
Here are some mindset upgrades to consider for dealing with procrastination:
- Better done than perfect.
- Everything I ever wanted is on the other side of fear.
- A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
- Start where you are, use what you have.
- Routine, in an intelligent (wo)man, is a sign of ambition.
- Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.
Step 6: Develop a Powerful Set of Emergency Techniques
Even the best systems sometimes fail. Thus, it is important to have an emergency plan and the right tools to save you in case you fall into the procrastination trap again.
Again, the techniques that work for you will be different from the techniques that work for other people. Thus, it’s best to experiment with various strategies before building your SOS toolkit.
Here are my favorite brain hacks to snap out of procrastination instantly:
- The Five Second Rule: This trick is borrowed from Mel Robbins and is extremely powerful to prevent procrastination in the first place. It works like this: Whenever you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must do so within five seconds otherwise your brain will kill the idea — and you will start to procrastinate. So the next time you want to get started on something, count down in your head: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 — and go!!
- Start Fresh: Procrastination is like being stuck in a mental loop of avoidance. To break through that loop, do something that signals your brain that you are starting fresh: Take a cold shower, restart your computer, go for a quick run, or change location to reset your brain and start with a fresh mind.
- Gamify: While big, important projects in your life give you a strong sense of purpose and are thus intrinsically motivating, small and annoying tasks like cleaning or running errands are often not inherently rewarding. To stop procrastinating on these tasks, find ways to gamify them. For example: Construct an artificial deadline to create self-imposed pressure or activate the dopamine in your brain by choosing an exciting reward for completing your task. If that doesn’t motivate you enough, pick a punishment instead and tell a friend that he can impose the punishment on you if you don’t get it done.
- Start Small: Sometimes the root cause of procrastination is simply overwhelm. When you set your goals so high that they seem too hard to tackle, you might hold yourself back from even getting started. To get out of this procrastination trap, pick the smallest thing that gets you closer to your goal and just do it. Tell yourself that you only need to do this one tiny thing. And before you know it, you will be knee-deep in getting the entire thing done!