How to Stop Procrastinating: 8 Expert Tactics to Keep You on Track

Do you continuously push things off? Here's how to get to the bottom of the issue.

by Adam Bulger
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Procrastination isn’t what you think it is. It’s about more than just not doing something. And there’s a lot more going on than simple laziness. If procrastination was just about being lazy, that carefree task avoidance period would be restful and refreshing. Instead, procrastination is draining because you’ve been doing two things at once: worrying about the thing you’re not doing and feeling guilty about the thing you did instead. Despite all that multi-tasking, you’ve accomplished nothing. You end up mad at yourself and still needing to work.

Sound familiar? At the heart, procrastination means dividing your energies. “As soon as you say, ‘I have to but I don’t want to,’ you are driving with the brakes on,” says Neil Fiore, psychologist and author of The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.

But you can take your foot off the brake. Learning how to do so takes a bit of effort and self-awareness but it unlocks something amazing: Guilt-free leisure time. Here are tips from Fiore and other experts on how to stop procrastinating once and for all.

1. Treat Procrastination as a Fear

Procrastination, Fiore says, stems from varied forms of fear. “There’s the fear of being controlled,” he says. “There’s the fear of making a mistake. There’s the fear of being shamed. There’s the fear of being judged and then there’s just fear about the task.” Overcoming procrastination starts with recognizing it as such and responding to it like other stressful situations. “You can do a breathing exercise,” Fiore says. “You can count to 10, but you need five to 10 seconds to get through your resistance and your fear and your habitual escape behavior and choose to be in front of the task.”

2. Remove or Reduce Distractions

Modern life makes it easy to procrastinate. If you have doubts, count how many tabs are open on your browser at this moment. Americans spend an average of 145 minutes a day on social media per day, which increases our anxiety and erodes future performance. So make it as hard to procrastinate as you can. You’re fighting a battle and need to defend yourself.

If you can work offline, turn off the internet. Put your phone on airplane mode. If you can’t, sign out of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Netflix or use productivity browser extensions to block yourself off from those sites entirely if signing out doesn’t do the trick. Making digital and real life distractions effort-intensive can either make them not seem worth the trouble.

3. Stop Yelling at Yourself, Stupid

Self-recrimination is the natural byproduct of procrastination. You know you have to do something and grow increasingly angry with yourself for not being able to just do it. But that anger rarely provides the motivation you need to actually start. Instead, you feel like you’re being yelled at, which sags your confidence and brews resentment. “There’s a tendency to talk to ourselves in a judgmental way that can be admonishing or even belittling,” Fiore says. “But it doesn’t help or work.” A good tactic: Ask yourself if you’d speak to a friend the way you’re speaking to yourself? Chances are, the answer is no.

4. Give Yourself Pep Talks

You don’t need a red-faced, angry high school football coach when you’re procrastinating. Be the encouraging, compassionate voice of leadership you need to get you over the finish line. Dwelling on negatives and shortcomings will only prolong your procrastination. Instead, Fiore advises being the voice of encouragement you need to hear. Borrow a psych-up technique used by champion athletes like Andre Aggassi and LeBron James and address yourself in the third person. Praise your accomplishments and positive qualities. Remember that you’re [insert your name here] and you’ve got this.

5. If You Can’t Handle a Marathon, Try Some Sprints

When Georgetown professor and productivity expert Cal Newport started working on the college study guide How to Become a Straight-A Student, he noticed something surprising about high-performing students. They weren’t grinding out 19-hour days at the library. Instead, they treated their energy and willpower as finite resources that needed to be invested wisely. Newport recommends working in 50-minute bursts broken up by 10-minute breaks. But if that time intimidates you, don’t worry. You don’t need to commit to such a long stretch. The Pomodoro Technique recommends timed 25-minute work sessions that are tracked by a simple kitchen timer. If sitting down to work all day is too daunting and sends you running for Instagram, 25-minutes might seem much more doable.

6. Use Moments of Peak Energy to Your Advantage

Newport noticed that high functioning people time their hardest work to their highest energy levels, which allowed them to do better work faster. As much as you feel you need to warm up to difficult tasks, by folding a load of laundry before doing your income tax return, the truth is that it never gets easier and you never get more ready. You’re at the peak effectiveness when you start working and get worse from that point on. It’s not an easy concept to put in practice, but its essential truth will become more evident every time you try it. And when you really metabolize it and make it part of your routine, you get more done, faster, freeing up untroubled leisure time.

7. Change Your Rationale

Nobody likes being yelled at or told what to do. For procrastinators, knowing they have to do something isn’t persuasive. The trick, Fiore says, is to reframe the situation as something you have control over. Instead of saying you have to do something, say you’re choosing to do it. That might mean that you’re choosing to do it because the consequences of not doing it frighten you. But you’re still making a choice, which gives you the self-assurance you need for the task you’re tempted to delay.

8. Do Something You Like to Endure Something You Don’t

In his book The Procrastination Equation, psychologist and researcher Piers Steel argues that impulsiveness is at the heart of procrastination. Procrastinators, Steel says, can’t overcome the temptation of immediate pleasurable distractions to accomplish tasks they find less pleasurable. One end run around this impulsivity trap is akin to Mary Poppin’s medicine-helping spoonful of sugar. Let’s say you love listening to podcasts but hate spending time on your budget. The answer might be to do both at the same time and diminish the pain of the task you dislike with the pleasure of the thing you enjoy.