How to Use the Right Tools to Beat Procrastination

Part 1: Apps for improving emotional awareness

George Halachev
May 5, 2017 · 10 min read

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Table of Contents
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Emotional Awareness Tools That Help With:
Negative Emotions
Rationalizations
Forms of Procrastination
What Is Real Work?

This is part of a series of articles about beating procrastination. The series kicks off with Tim Pychyl’s “Psychological Science Is Solving the Procrastination Puzzle,” in which he explains the academic theories for beating procrastination. I highly recommend reading Tim’s article first since I’ll be referring to the concepts he introduces.

Tim talks about three key strategies: awareness, willpower, and planning. In this article, I focus on emotional awareness and apps that can help you improve it. In the second part, I’ll give you tools for the other two strategies: improving willpower and planning.

As Tim explains, procrastination is an emotional problem. We procrastinate because we avoid the negative emotions that arise from a hard task. Unless we learn to recognize and face these emotions, the procrastination problem isn’t going anywhere.

Awareness is the first skill for a reason. If we’re not aware of the problem, we can’t do anything about it. So, to start dealing with negative emotions, we have to learn to recognize them first.

Negative Emotions

To have more emotional awareness, it helps to accurately name the emotions as they arise. For example, instead of saying “I don’t feel like doing it,” we can more accurately say “I’m feeling fear.” Or instead of “I feel like watching TV,” we can say “I’m feeling bored.”

Emotions that often trigger procrastination include:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Overwhelm
  • Indecision
  • Incompetence
  • Boredom

As you consciously experience these emotions, you will notice that they trigger a procrastination impulse. It’s an urge to do something more pleasant and avoid the negative emotion by delaying the task.

Awareness of these emotions is the first step. Unless we can recognize the impulse in the moment, we can’t exercise any control.

Tool: Self-Awareness Log

Price: Free| Platforms: iOS, Android

Self-Awareness Log is an app that helps you more deeply understand your emotions and how they directly affect your body, thoughts, and actions.

This app is not another emotions diary, but a tool to diagnose how certain events or tasks affect you emotionally. It forces you to more deeply analyze your emotions. The app walks you through a six-step process for each entry.

  1. The first step is about picking the emotion that best matches your current state. This forces you to perform a deeper introspection and become more aware of the feeling.
  2. Emotions are greatly affected by the people around us. In Section 2, you note who you were with when you experienced the emotion. This helps you analyze which social situations trigger negative emotions the most.
  3. Section 3 (Specifics) is perfect for noting which tasks trigger the emotion you are logging.
  4. Section 4 is about your physical state. Every strong emotion has a physical effect on the body. Staying aware of the what your body is going through is another way to raise your awareness. For example, did you experience sweating? Increased heartbeat? Tension?
  5. Your thoughts are the focus of Section 5. Strong emotions tend to alter our thoughts and make them more irrational. For example, did you think of any excuses or rationalizations while you were feeling afraid?
  6. Section 6 is for reflections. This is a good place to write down the lessons learned during the emotional introspection.

After you log your emotions for a while in the app, you can find great insights by reviewing the log by category.

You’ll easily notice patterns like “I feel more frustrated when I’m alone.”

Or “Every time I’m scared, I use the same excuses.”

Rationalizations

Procrastination impulses usually trigger rationalizations, usually in the form of something we say to ourselves to justify why we’re not starting the task now.

Here are some of the most common rationalizations:

  • It will be easier tomorrow.
  • I still have plenty of time.
  • It’s easy. I can do it in just a few hours.
  • I work better under pressure.
  • I don’t have everything I need yet.

If we are thinking critically, we don’t really believe these are true. It’s just something our mind comes up with to temporarily make us feel better.

The key to overcoming rationalizations is to become aware of them—to catch ourselves every time we use a rationalization as an excuse for not starting now.

Tool: Arise

Price: $2.99| Platform: iOS

“The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
—Charles Baudelaire

Arise is an app that helps you recognize your rationalizations. It playfully uses the term “procrastination demons.”

Meet the demons (in order of appearance in the illustration above): wishful thinker, intimidator, stigmatizer, elusive, gigantic, resourceless, someday maybe, dead boring, and last-minute junkie.

You will notice that each demon is a representation of either a negative emotion or a rationalization.

The app takes you through a process to identify your block and offers great advice on how to solve it. It also lets you identify the positive and negative outcomes for completing or failing the task. Here’s an example with a scary task:

Arise is a paid app, and it’s only available on iOS. If you don’t own an iOS device or can’t afford it, you can learn about the demons and go through the process manually at Precrastinator.com.

Forms of Procrastination

Another way to raise our awareness is to be mindful of procrastination activities. Even if we work on recognizing emotions and rationalizations, we will still get distracted and procrastinate. Here are some activities that are often used to procrastinate:

  • Entertainment: YouTube, social media, texting, games
  • Busy Work: Email, phone calls, planning, organizing
  • Body Needs: Eating, sleeping, drinking water

The entertainment category is easy. It’s clear that we’re not doing anything productive. We’re having playtime when we should be working.

A more insidious type of procrastination is busy work. These are tasks that might need to be done but don’t contribute to making real progress. You can easily trick yourself into thinking you’re doing real work. In reality, you’re still delaying the most important tasks. Right when we have to start a hard task, we come up with excuses like:

  • If I do my phone calls now, I won’t be distracted later on.
  • If I create a plan for the day, I’ll be more effective.
  • My office is a mess. I better organize it now.
  • If I clean my inbox, I’ll be less distracted for the rest of the day.

The body is another insidious category. After all, taking care of our bodies is important. But it’s easy to mistake procrastination impulses and physical comfort for good habits. Excuses from the body-needs category:

  • I didn’t have good sleep last night. I better take a nap.
  • I still haven’t had breakfast. I’ll feel better after I eat something.
  • I’ve been on the computer for too long. I better take a break.

We procrastinators know that we’re wasting time, but that’s not specific enough to move us into action. Knowing exactly how much time we waste every week is much more effective. Seeing that data visually can make a big difference.

Tracking that time manually is tedious. Luckily, there are great tools that make the process very easy.

Tool: Toggl

Price: Free | Platforms: iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome, Firefox

Toggl is an app that you can use to track your time manually. It’s similar to a pomodoro timer, where you do focused periods of work while the timer is running. The advantage of Toggl is that you can also categorize the time periods that you’re tracking. When you use the app, the data is nicely organized into daily, weekly, and monthly visual reports.

The first thing you’ll notice on the report is that during an eight-hour workday, you probably have only two to three productive hours. That’s shocking to see at first, but knowing that will motivate you to improve your effective work time and reduce procrastination time. Maybe you can even use some of that procrastination time for new projects or fun activities.

The app is available on several platforms, so you can use it anywhere. The advantage of installing the app on your computer is that it also automatically tracks which apps you’ve been using while the timer is running.

The basic version is free and is more than enough to do your personal tracking. The paid version is mostly for companies that want to track their employees’ time.

This tool offers a lot of flexibility, so it can also become a toy to use for wasting time—it’s especially dangerous for folks who like data. Avoid getting into that tar pit by keeping it simple:

  • Limit the work categories to three to five.
  • Don’t use descriptions for the tracking periods.
  • Track only the effective work time, and assume everything else is leisure or procrastination.
  • Review your progress only once a week. Don’t turn this into another distraction you check constantly.

Tool: RescueTime

Price: Free | Platforms: Mac, Windows, Android, Linux

RescueTime is another tracking app that visualizes how you spend your time, but the tracking is automatic. You install RescueTime on your devices, and it automatically tracks the time you spend in different applications.

It also creates visual reports and automatically sorts your apps into productivity or procrastination time based on predefined categories. For example, Facebook or Twitter are categorized as procrastination. Word or Photoshop are in the productivity category.

RescueTime has even more options than Toggl, so the danger of it becoming a time-wasting toy is even greater. You have the ability to customize all the categories and apps—when it comes to procrastination, though, I find this to be useless. Keep it simple to get the most use of this tool. Use the default categories, and don’t waste time on customization. The main benefit of RescueTime is identifying your biggest procrastination activities.

What Is Real Work?

Another key piece to beginning to beat procrastination is distinguishing between real work and activities that just appear to be work.

To define real work, we need a goal. Then we need to break that goal into measurable steps of progress. Every goal can be broken down into small, actionable steps.

Say we want to build a house. We can measure the progress by each individual brick we lay. We can spend years planning the house or trying to get a good price for the materials but make not one bit of progress. The progress, the real work, is laying bricks. With every brick, we’re one step closer to having a house.

Say we want to write a book. Every book is composed of words and paragraphs. We can spend a lot of time learning how to be a better writer, researching the subject, or reading for inspiration. None of that is real work. None of that will get us closer to completing the book. The real work is putting words on the page.

With each task, ask yourself, “Am I laying the bricks, or just preparing to do so? Am I putting words on the page, or preparing to do it?” Often, preparation is just delaying the real work.

Tool: One Big Thing

Price: Free | Platforms: iOS

Tons of planning and time management tools do nothing more than to keep you in the planning stage. If we want to beat procrastination, we have to focus on the real work.

A great habit is to pick a single priority for every day — one important task of real work. It’s such a simple habit that it doesn’t leave room for excuses. That’s the strategy of the One Big Thing app.

Unlike the other task management apps, this one lets you focus on one big item of real work. Everything else is smaller and comes after you finish the big task.

I recommend picking the next day’s priority during the evening before so it’s ready to go when you wake up.

You can set the app to remind you every morning to start with your big task. You don’t have to do any planning—just start by laying the first brick.

Next Steps

All the tools we’ve explored here are about how to recognize and stay aware of procrastination as it happens. Beginning to tackle the problem is a really important step, but it’s just the first step.

To beat procrastination, we have to take action and start doing some real work. How do you do that once you’re aware of the negative emotions and rationalizations that are blocking you? We’ll explore apps that help you do that in part two of this series: willpower and planning.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Terrie Schweitzer

The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination
The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination
The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination

About this Collection

The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination

Time is precious. Still, it sometimes seems to be the one resource we’re willing to give away for free. Here, psychologists and social scientists reveal the whys and hows behind procrastination. Each story features science-backed steps you can take to get your calendar back under control.

Time is precious. Still, it sometimes seems to be the one resource we’re willing to give away for free. Here, psychologists and social scientists reveal the whys and hows behind procrastination. Each story features science-backed steps you can take to get your calendar back under control.

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