Whether your procrastination comes from a mental health condition or just exists all on its own, it is caused by a combination of psychological factors, including how your brain works and how you think, feel, and behave, as well as how well you estimate time and whether you’re able to focus on the future.
But procrastination is primarily caused by the way you manage your feelings. Are you someone who’s prone to boredom and needs excitement? Are you trying to avoid feeling inadequate or uncertain? Do you feel overwhelmed when you think about tasks?
The feelings that come up when you think about doing a task, and the relief you experience when you put it off, are major clues about why you procrastinate.
As a procrastination quote says, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
Table of Contents
The Truth About Conquering Procrastination
Time for a truth bomb: The strategies in this article aren’t a quick fix. Not because they aren’t good, but because there’s no such thing as an actual quick fix. Yes, some self-help books promise you instant change, but I’d rather be honest than mislead you.
Our brains are capable of changing—new pathways are built all the time, and sometimes new neurons grow—but these changes don’t happen overnight. Our brains really want to make sure a new habit is useful before they abandon old ones; otherwise, it’d be a total waste of energy.
If you’ve ever heard it takes 21 days, 30 days, or some other arbitrary number of days to change a habit, let me set you straight—that’s not really what the science says.
According to current research, it takes somewhere between 18 and 254 days to make a new habit, with about 66 days being the average (Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, and Wardle, 2010). And that’s not 66 days of winging it; that’s 66 days of strong, consistent, daily effort.
So, if you’re serious about overcoming procrastination, prepare yourself to try new strategies and conquer setbacks (and probably struggle, feel frustrated, and question why you even started) for at least a couple months, and possibly longer.
None of this is to say that you can’t change. It’s totally possible to overcome procrastination. But it’s best to know at the start that this will be a real commitment.
Telling Someone (or Yourself) to “Just Do It” Doesn’t Help
I know you’ve tried the “just do it” strategy. You know, when you promise yourself that you’re going to start going to the gym every morning but never seem to make it in before work—so you decide that you’ll just have to force yourself to go. But, somehow, that doesn’t work, either.
The issue is that the “just do it” approach doesn’t address the root causes of procrastination; in fact, it completely ignores everything about the emotional sources of the problem.
It doesn’t give you any strategies for dealing with the emotions that come up when you think about going to the gym: the shame about being out of shape, the uncertainty about what to do once you’re at the gym, the overwhelmed feeling when you think about how much work is needed to reach your fitness goals.
Once those feelings bubble up, you’re at a loss for how to manage them, and so you just do what you’ve always done: roll over and go back to sleep. Instead of ignoring those issues and telling yourself to “just do it,” you need some actual evidence-based strategies to solve the issues that make you want to avoid those tasks.
It’s Not Just About Time Management
Another misguided strategy is focusing exclusively on time management. Many people believe procrastination comes from poor organizational and time-management skills—like if we just had a better schedule and were more organized with our time, then we wouldn’t procrastinate so much.
But here’s how we know it’s not that simple. William had some fairly straightforward but important goals he wanted to accomplish in therapy, one of which was to submit paperwork to reduce his student loan payments. Imagine (or maybe you don’t have to imagine) having a student loan the size of your mortgage. That’s the situation William was in.
Every session, we’d meticulously schedule each step and troubleshoot any problems that could potentially ruin the plan. And yet, he didn’t follow the plan. The problem clearly wasn’t organization or time management—we addressed those issues. It became clear that, just like with getting to the gym, the problem was feelings.
Something as major as a massive student loan payment carries a lot of intense feelings with it, and it made William feel helpless, intimidated, trapped, bitter, and burdened. Each time William set out to follow the plan we had so methodically crafted, these feelings cropped up again. He then had a choice: Keep following the plan and feel those awful feelings, or feel better by telling himself he’ll just follow up with the loan company tomorrow.
Guess which one he chose? Poor time management can certainly affect procrastination, and improving those skills can be helpful. But ultimately, overcoming procrastination requires addressing the deeper emotional causes.
Evidence-Based Strategies Help
Sometimes, people balk at psychology, saying it’s a “common sense” science because some of the findings support what’s obvious: Students who study more earn higher grades, using drugs damages your brain, and petting animals feels good. But often, the findings are surprising, or even the opposite of what you’d think: Screaming into a pillow when you’re mad actually worsens anger, our memories include many errors, and opposites don’t actually attract in relationships.
That’s why consulting the research is so important when you’re overcoming any sort of psychological issue, including procrastination. Going with intuitive strategies can be helpful in some cases, but if you’re looking for long-term, sustainable change, it’s critical to choose approaches proven to address the psychological causes of the issue.
Sometimes, these evidence-based strategies are intuitive and fit our common sense, and other times, they’re the exact opposite of what you’d think to do. Good thing we have science to offer us guidance.
Focus on the Root Cause
To fix most problems, you have to start at the root. If your eyes are watering, for instance, it’s helpful to know if that’s being caused by seasonal allergies, an infection, or getting a bit of hot pepper in your eye.
Then you know whether you should address the problem by taking an antihistamine, seeing a doctor, or remembering not to touch your eyes while you cook chili. The same is true with procrastination.
When we address what’s actually causing the procrastination, we’re more likely to figure out an approach to treating it that will actually work. When we skip this step and just start trying to tackle procrastination all willy-nilly, it’s like trying to treat pink eye with an antihistamine—it’s just not very helpful.
By the way, determining the “root cause” of your procrastination doesn’t mean going all the way back to the childhood moment that started you on this pathway. It just means isolating the thoughts, the behaviors, and especially the feelings that are keeping your procrastination alive.
Once you know whether your procrastination is driven by problems with self-control or motivation, intolerance of feeling uncomfortable, unrealistic ideas about time, or any of the other causes we’ve addressed, you can determine the type of approach you need to overcome it.
Best Ways To Overcome Procrastination
Though you’ll need to utilize specific strategies to tackle your own procrastination, establishing a strong foundation of basics first can make these individual strategies more effective. It’s kind of like how having a foundation of agility, fitness, and strength makes it easier to learn to play any sport, from soccer to basketball.
So, regardless of what’s causing your procrastination or which parts of completing a task are a struggle for you, the following considerations are applicable to everyone.
1. Practice Self-Compassion
As you try to overcome procrastination, you’re destined to make mistakes. There will be times when you slide back into old habits, there will be strategies you just can’t figure out how to implement, and there will be days when it just feels too overwhelming to keep working at it.
Some people believe that, in these situations, criticizing themselves will prevent mistakes or provide motivation to get things done. If you are one of those people, ask yourself this: Has criticizing yourself in the past actually helped you get more done? Or did success come only after you developed and committed to a plan?
If you’re a manager at work, you probably use kind, compassionate language when you’re trying to motivate your employees. The same is true with children: When your child makes a mistake, I’ll bet you try to kindly encourage her to change her behavior, rather than berate her for messing up.
There’s a reason we use kind, compassionate language to motivate others—it’s simply more effective than criticism. Take the same approach with your own self-talk. When you criticize yourself for not having started, not having finished, or not working quickly enough, imagine what you would say to a friend, a child, or even your dog if they were having the same issue.
Remember, we can’t change what’s already happened. So rather than focusing on what you already didn’t do, try to focus instead on what you can do from here.
2. Work on Self-Awareness
Once you’ve changed the way you talk to yourself, it’s important to start building self-awareness. Most of our behaviors are so automatic and habitual that we aren’t even aware of them. We don’t notice when we scratch our noses, and sometimes, we’ve driven halfway to work before we realize we have no memory of the last five miles.
Lack of awareness isn’t necessarily a problem when it comes to itchy noses or morning commutes, but it is when you’re trying to change your behavior. If you’re not aware something’s happening, you can’t change it.
Self-awareness is crucial because procrastination happens so quickly, it doesn’t even feel like you made a choice to put something off; it’s like it just magically happened.
But it’s not magic. In just a fraction of a second, you went through the entire process of thinking about doing something, feeling uncomfortable about doing it, and deciding to do something else so you could get rid of that discomfort.
Building self-awareness is challenging, so be patient with yourself and practice self-compassion. The best way to develop greater self-awareness is to choose an activity you do throughout the day and try to catch yourself doing it.
Maybe it’s sitting down, standing up, touching doorknobs, or taking a drink of water. Paying attention to those benign behaviors will train your brain to notice other things you’re doing. Then, with some practice, you’ll be able to catch yourself choosing to put off a task or getting sidetracked while you’re working on something.
Memory is a very complicated phenomenon. We each have several different types of memory—like memory for facts about the world (called semantic memory), memory for behaviors (procedural memory), and memory for life events (episodic or autobiographical memory), among others.
The nature of memory also changes as we age. We have almost no memories of life events before age five, but we remember how to do tons of things we learned before age five, like how to walk and talk and how the world works. Certain memories will start to disappear with age, while others stick around forever.
Memory is also complicated because everyone’s memory is different. Individual people vary in terms of how well they convert information into memories, how many memories they can store, and how long the memories stay in storage.
Because memory is so unique and individual, you know better than anyone else if you can rely on your own memory to remember tasks. If forgetfulness is contributing to your procrastination, it’s helpful to use lists, reminders, calendars, and alarms to compensate for lapses in memory.
Many people make lists and then forget to look at them, so take advantage of technology to remind yourself of important information. For example, you can ask your cell phone to remind you to call someone back when you get to work, and your phone’s location tracking will send you an alert the next time you arrive at your office.
3. Have Defined Goals
It’s common to set broad goals like “Lose weight,” “Spend more time with friends,” or “Drink less.” On the surface, these goals seem really beneficial. But it’s hard to reach goals like these, in part because they’re vague. How much weight should you lose? Does water weight count?
What if you put on lean muscle weight? And when goals are so broad, there’s no way to really measure progress. This can lead to a situation where you lose 15 pounds—a great accomplishment!—and then get discouraged because even though you’re losing weight, you don’t know if you’re doing it quickly enough to be consistent with your goals.
In contrast, a defined goal has five specific criteria, summarized by the acronym SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Limited. Having defined goals lets us know we’re on track, and that’s motivating.
When creating a defined goal, be as specific as possible: “Do homework” is vague, while “Write history paper” is more specific. Measurable means your goal has numbers in it—how much time you’ll put into it, how often it will occur, etc. “Write” isn’t measurable, but “Write for 90 minutes” or “Complete three pages” is.
Attainable means it’s only slightly more challenging than what you’re currently doing. If you haven’t studied in four months, it’s unlikely you’ll suddenly be able to breeze through your writing and research.
While setting a goal like “Write paper in a single session” might lead to disappointment, something like “Write in 30-minute increments with 5-minute breaks” is more attainable.
Relevant means that your goal matters to you, so think about why you’re pursuing it. You’ve decided to focus on your history paper because doing well on this will bring up your grade for the semester, raising your GPA. And, finally, the goal needs to be time-limited, which means you’ll set a deadline for yourself. “Write history paper” isn’t time-limited, but “Complete three pages by Wednesday” is.
All together, your SMART goal for writing the paper is “Write three pages of the history paper by Wednesday by working in 30-minute increments with 5-minute breaks so you can bring up your grade and raise your GPA.”
4. Remind Yourself There Is No “Perfect Time”
Thinking there will be a “perfect time” to get a task done contributes to procrastination. But in order to build the strong foundation you need to overcome procrastination, it’s important to truly absorb this truth.
It’s probably true that you’re tired now, but will you actually be less tired tomorrow? And yeah, you don’t feel like doing it right now, but will you suddenly be filled with motivation over the next few hours?
Of course, you have better things to do—but don’t you always? Maybe you don’t have everything you need to complete the task, but can you get started with what you’ve got? And sure, you’ve got plenty of time to get it done, but would putting it off really help?
Waiting for some magical future moment when you suddenly have loads of time, energy, and motivation might leave you waiting forever. At the very least, it will keep you in the cycle of stressing yourself out to get things done at the last minute. So, go ahead and remind yourself there is no perfect time to do things you’ve been putting off.
5. Reframe the Rewards
When you approach a task you’ve been delaying, it starts to feel especially unpleasant. Getting the laundry folded doesn’t feel like a big deal until it’s been sitting in a pile on the couch for a week.
But instead of focusing on how unpleasant it will feel to do the task, try to focus on how rewarding it will feel to get it done. Doing your taxes is awful, but having your taxes done feels awesome. This type of mindset shift is critical to overcoming procrastination.
Our brains naturally focus on the negative, the dangerous, and the unpleasant. This is a survival feature: It’s safer to spend extra resources thinking about how you’ll escape a burning building than it is to notice the pretty wall art while the fire alarm is blaring.
But most of the time, we’re not procrastinating on things related to survival. (In most cases, your brain won’t even let you procrastinate on those things.) In these ordinary situations, it’s okay to shift your focus from the escape route to the wall art, from how much work it will be to change your sheets to how amazing it will feel to slide into clean sheets.
Be warned: Your brain is totally going to work against you and try to shift your focus back to the negative feelings when you try to do this. It takes extra (and repeated) effort to focus on the reward of pushing through those feelings, but the payoff is worth it.
6. Consider the Positives
You may sometimes procrastinate fun things—like calling friends or setting up happy hours—but most of the things we put off are unpleasant. When you’re trying to complete a task that’s objectively less fun than anything else you could be doing, you’re going to need some good strategies for talking yourself through it.
Make a list of the benefits of doing the task now. Yes, it’s unpleasant/boring/tedious, but you probably also have some really good reasons to stop putting it off.
Consider what those reasons are. How will it improve your situation, yourself, or your life to make progress on the goal? What kind of emotional rewards will you get for doing it? What opportunities might come your way if you move forward?
Don’t just think through the positives—write them out. Our brains process information differently in writing, and writing takes more time than thinking, which gives our brains extra time to really consider and process an idea.
7. Seek Structure
One of the most important things you can do to start overcoming procrastination is set up a general schedule for your day—what time you get up, when you usually eat your meals, how you fit in work/school/studying, and what time you start winding down and going to sleep.
Having a basic routine helps your brain predict when it will get fresh energy, which allows it to feel comfortable spending some fuel on motivating you. It also helps your brain predict when you’ll need extra focus, so it can boost you with some bonus hormones and neurotransmitters when you need them.
Having structure can be especially difficult when you have a variable schedule, but committing to getting up, going to bed, and eating meals at consistent times can make a monumental difference in your ability to get things done.
Many procrastinators really don’t like structure or routine. In fact, some flat-out reject it. There are many reasons for that, but one is because it’s unfamiliar and anything that’s unfamiliar feels uncomfortable.
Know that imposing some structure on your life will probably feel strange or uncomfortable at first. As with any other awkward situation, though, it will feel more comfortable as it becomes more familiar.
8. Make It as Easy as Possible
Your brain conserves energy as part of its strategy to keep you alive. Back in the days when food was scarce, humans had to be really cautious about expending energy because we never knew when we’d be able to replenish it.
That’s why your brain will encourage you to conserve energy whenever possible. The problem is that accomplishing goals, overcoming procrastination, and moving forward in your life is usually pretty difficult and energy-intensive, so your brain puts up a fight.
You can make this tendency work for you by making not procrastinating as easy as possible. Just as it’s easier to choose celery sticks as a snack if you only have healthy food in your house, it’s easier to choose to work when you don’t have access to any procrastination temptations.
Try to figure out what you use to procrastinate, and then see what you can do to eliminate those options. If you procrastinate by playing video games with your friends at night, tell them beforehand you’ve got a project to work on. If you procrastinate by watching TV with your partner, go to the library. Identify as many of the roadblocks to productivity as you can and make them difficult to access.
You know now that overcoming procrastination won’t be easy or quick, but it’s definitely possible and I’m here to help you with it.
Learning to be self-aware, defining your goals, and establishing structure will help you put these specific strategies into action. Remember, there will be setbacks along the way, so practice self-compassion as you encounter them and focus on the positives of taking action.
If you’re anything like me (and everyone I know), your to-do list is essentially infinite, so it’s important to figure out where to start.