End Procrastination Now

Some 20 to 25 percent of us are chronic procrastinators. Ten tips to getting on with what's important.

By Rachel Mahan, published on September 2, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I procrastinated on this article. There. I said it in front of God, my editors, and everyone reading this. But I'm not alone. Most of us have been guilty of procrastination at some point. And about 20 to 25 percent of us are chronic procrastinators, says Joseph Ferrari, a psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago. Some people procrastinate because they believe they need a rush, some feel paralyzed by perfectionism, and others simply don't want to do the task. Chronic procrastinators may need behavioral therapy, but for the other 80 percent: Don't put off reading these tips from experts like Ferrari and Timothy Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and a blogger for Psychology Today.

  1. "I work best under pressure" is a familiar refrain, but research suggests that this isn't necessarily true. Ferrari and colleagues have found that chronic procrastinators actually get less done when working under a time constraint compared with "non-procrastinators." And chronic procrastinators make more errors. If anything, people who procrastinate leave little room for error. Shopping early for a dinner party allows enough time to look elsewhere for better produce or matching napkins.
  2. We all know that distractions are often too welcome. "We give in to feel good," says Pychyl. It may feel good right now to check Facebook, but we often discount future gains. In experiments, people choose the more immediate reward when given the choice between now or later. But, it will probably feel better in the long-term to finish that research paper.
  3. Here's one way you can make it more attractive to complete a project before deadline. Celebrate! Normally, people are punished for turning in projects late. And, of course, no one is rewarded for finishing early. "We don't give the early bird the worm any more," says Ferrari. So, next time you finish your taxes before April 15, plan a party with friends—this also can help with tip 7.
  4. Don't underestimate how much you can get done in 15 minutes. Waiting for a doctor's appointment? Bring along envelopes to be addressed. Honestly, you can do many things in 15 minutes. Set a timer and tackle a dreaded task. You could also try to change the way you approach a chore. Think: "I have the opportunity to do this again." Rather than: "Do I have to do this again?!"
  5. "Just do it" should be your slogan. If you get to work on time, your attitude about the job will change. Once you start, it won't seem so bad. In addition, research from Kennon Sheldon at the University of Missouri-Columbia has shown that we feel good when we make progress with our goals. And when we are happier about goals, we achieve more. Indeed, it's a not-so-vicious cycle.
  6. The well-worn advice of making a list may not be helpful for everyone. Ferrari says that we don't procrastinate because we don't know how to make lists. Psychologists don't entirely understand all the reasons we put things off. Still, it might be good to break down a big project into small, bite-size pieces, like book chapters. Be honest about a task that's been looming on your list for weeks. Either do it now, or admit that it will never get done and strike it from your list, suggests Pychyl.
  7. Make your goals public. Telling others what you plan to do will hold you accountable. Make a pact as a favor for a friend and yourself. As many people have found, it's a lot easier to get out the door if you have a jogging buddy. Disappointing yourself is one thing, but disappointing a friend is a whole other matter.
  8. Don't beat yourself up about past procrastination. Some people "awful-ize" and are convinced they are horrible because they've procrastinated, says Ferrari. Yet, people who forgive themselves are less likely to procrastinate on the same task in the future. Forgiving yourself often means you make a promise to change your future behavior, according to research from the University at Buffalo and The State University of New York.
  9. If you find yourself straying from a job, Pychyl recommends getting to know your flags. When you inch the mouse toward the check-mail button, be aware. Instead, stay focused on what really needs to get done. John Perry at Stanford University has written an essay on his strategy, called structured procrastination. He structures his to-do list to exploit his tendency to do anything except a necessary task. At the top of the list is something that seems important and pressing (but—here's the secret—it isn't), so he ends up doing all the other things on his list to avoid that one thing. He knows his flags and even uses them to "acquire... a reputation for getting a lot of things done," he writes.
  10. People may procrastinate doing things they don't enjoy. While we all have to do mundane things, such as dishes and grocery shopping, life is much more enjoyable if we have a meaningful career. It may take some soul-searching. For instance, experts recommend that you sit down and make a list of the times when you felt truly happy. Then, think about how you can make a career out of them; see a career counselor for help if needed. After all, says Pychyl, "this is your life, why don't you want to get on with it?"