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4 Mantras to Getting Started in 2022

How we can overcome procrastination to lead more fulfilling lives.

Key points

  • Studies have shown that around 20 percent of people in the United States are chronic procrastinators.
  • Treating underlying mental health issues such as ADHD, depression, and anxiety can help reduce procrastination, among other benefits.
  • It's possible to improve one's own tendency to procrastinate by reframing beliefs such as needing to have more energy first.

“I just can’t get myself to do it!”

Sound familiar? This is a problem I hear time and time again from my therapy clients who desperately want to do something or know they should, but just... can't... do.

Will Hwang/author
Source: Will Hwang/author

Regardless of whether we are actively engaged in therapy or not, we can all probably relate to having the experience of intending to "get around" to checking off items on to-do lists we made on our phones in a flash of optimism but promptly forget about, realizing we've "been meaning to" go to that amazing place our friends recommended...for the last five years (but will definitely get to next weekend). Or, we find ourselves saying that we "always wanted to" try hobby X or pursue dream Y and end up in the state of "always wanting to" instead of "I did this. I've done that."

Studies have shown that around 20 percent of people in the United States are chronic procrastinators—they habitually delay, postpone, and put off doing things in a way that they need or want to do.1

It can be even more challenging to initiate tasks if you struggle with a mental health disorder. Take ADHD for instance: It has been shown that people with higher levels of ADHD symptoms have more difficulties with procrastination than people with lower levels of ADHD symptoms.2 This may be due to unique challenges individuals with ADHD face related to motivation, reward, and self-management (managing one's emotions, organizing thoughts, and conceptualizing time around tasks), often mediated by dysfunction in how dopamine is working in the brain.3

Studies have also found a correlation between procrastination and depression and anxiety. Rumination, or the act of repetitively thinking negative thoughts, seems to play a primary role in leading depressed and anxious people to procrastinate more.4

Treating underlying mental health issues such as ADHD, depression, and anxiety with the help of a trained medical or mental health professional is one strategy for combatting procrastination. Nevertheless, there are things you can try on your own to help yourself out.

Here are some common reasons people give for procrastinating:

  • I don’t know why I can't get started. I just can't.
  • It’s too overwhelming.
  • I don’t have the energy.
  • I keep getting distracted.
  • I don’t know what I should do.
  • I’m afraid if I try that I will fail.
  • I only have X amount of time so I can’t really start this now.

Here are four mantras to help you overcome these unhelpful beliefs:

1. Success breeds success.

Science has shown that the experience of success can increase the likelihood of more successes happening in the future. In 2014, researchers tested the effect an initial success had on subsequent successes by randomly assigning "successes" to recipients in the forms of funding for ventures, accolades for volunteer work, positive reviews for products, and signatures for petitions.5 Recipients receiving this initial positive feedback were found to be more successful in the future compared to those in the control condition who did not get an endowment. By simple virtue of experiencing small "wins," people can gain cumulative advantages over time.

How can you cultivate a virtuous cycle of success for yourself? Start by picking a small task you are confident you can complete. Ideally, this is a task that feels easy and effortless to overcome the obstacle of feeling like something will require too much effort. Remind yourself that you are more likely to benefit from the snowball effect of positive momentum after succeeding in completing the original task. Complete the task and intentionally acknowledge its completion to help your brain register the successful outcome.

2. Having no limits is limiting.

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz describes the tendency to believe the more choices, the better, but in reality, how an excessive amount of options can result in indecision, inaction, and an inability to choose at all.6

The seminal research study on the paradox of choice is the famous "Jam Study" from 2000. Researchers presented consumers in a supermarket with jam samples and looked at how the number of jam options affected how likely consumers were to actually purchase a jam.

Consumers who had six jams to choose from as opposed to 24 jams were 10 times more likely to follow through with actually buying a jam. It appeared that having too many options ended up dissuading individuals from picking anything at all.

If you are struggling to make a decision, it could be because you have too many options. For example, if you are struggling with the process of applying to jobs, you might try setting a concrete goal of applying to 6 jobs. It can take some trial and error to learn what number of options works best for you, but any limit is better than no limits in helping us overcome the obstacle of being overwhelmed with choices.

3. Act the way you want to feel.

We often get too fixated on the belief that we need to feel better one way or another before we can do something. In reality, we usually end up feeling better after we take action.

Behavioral activation is a psychological treatment based on this principle of acting our way into feeling better and has been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression by helping people schedule activities and increase their level of activity.7

The myth that we need to feel better before we act is inherent in the common excuse given for shirking exercise—not having enough energy. In fact, exercise has not only been shown to increase short-term energy levels through hormonal changes but also improves the body's ability to create and use energy supplies in the long term.8

Identify how you would like to feel and then create a plan to engage in the activities that would likely bring forth these feelings.

4. Now is a good time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us time can both be short and long. The combination of increased time spent in the same place at home and decreased time with social activities that used to help us mark the passage of time has led to a pervasive sense that time is dragging on and no day is different from the next.

At the same time, it can cause regret to consider exactly how much time has passed since the start of the pandemic. Let us not avoid this feeling of loss, but instead, allow this feeling to serve as a reminder that time is not limitless.

This fact does not need to demoralize us but rather can inspire us if we so choose. The knowledge that our time is finite can spur us to action, not in spite of, but because of the awareness of our limits. It can help us avoid the rationalization that we will do it, whatever it is, later, tomorrow, next week, or next year.

When would be a good time to start? The answer just might


1. American Psychological Association. (2010, April 5). Psychology of procrastination: Why people put off important tasks until the last minute [Press release].

2. Oguchi, M., Takahashi, T., Nitta, Y., & Kumano, H. (2021). The Moderating Effect of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms on the Relationship Between Procrastination and Internalizing Symptoms in the General Adult Population. Frontiers in Psychology, 4711.

3. Blum, K., Chen, A. L., Braverman, E. R., Comings, D. E., Chen, T. J., Arcuri, V., Blum, S. H., Downs, B. W., Waite, R. L., Notaro, A., Lubar, J., Williams, L., Prihoda, T. J., Palomo, T., & Oscar-Berman, M. (2008). Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and reward deficiency syndrome. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 4(5), 893–918.

4. Constantin, K., English, M.M. & Mazmanian, D. Anxiety, Depression, and Procrastination Among Students: Rumination Plays a Larger Mediating Role than Worry. J Rat-Emo Cognitive-Behav Ther 36, 15–27 (2018).

5. A. van de Rijt, S. M. Kang, M. Restivo, A. Patil. Field experiments of success-breeds-success dynamics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1316836111

6. Schwartz, B. (2004, January). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.

7. Ekers, D., Webster, L., Van Straten, A., Cuijpers, P., Richards, D., & Gilbody, S. (2014). Behavioural activation for depression; an update of meta-analysis of effectiveness and sub group analysis. PloS one, 9(6), e100100.

8. Golen, T. & Ricciotti, H. (2021, July 1). Does exercise really boost energy levels? Harvard Health Publishing.…

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