- Almost everyone procrastinates, research has found, for reasons ranging from genetics to emotional avoidance.
- Self-study, or closely examining why one procrastinates, may be the most important step to overcoming it.
- Self-compassion, including self-forgiveness and perception shifting, can also help people take action.
Most people procrastinate from time to time, and 94 percent of us admit that putting off until tomorrow what we should do today harms our happiness (Steel, 2007). Procrastination leads to stress, guilt, anxiety, and even health problems (Sirois, 2016). And yet, we pile dirty dishes in the sink, avoid tough conversations, skip workouts, leave doctors appointments unscheduled, and even delay taking action on goals that are near and dear to our hearts—even if we've promised to make them our New Year's resolutions.
Why do we procrastinate? The research points to causes from genetics to task aversion (especially once those dirty dishes get really icky) to emotional avoidance (especially when the actions we need to take are linked with feelings of fear or judgment). Every procrastination situation is different and the causes are likely layered. What’s more, they tend to compound one another: The longer we procrastinate, the worse we feel about it—and the more we procrastinate.
So, what’s the fix? Here are three research-backed procrastination-busting strategies:
To find the right procrastination fix for each person and each unique situation, the most meaningful first step is self-study. Instead of beating yourself up about how long you’ve put something off, get curious about your brain’s insistence on procrastinating.
To initiate your own self-study, ask yourself:
- What feelings is this task bringing up in me?
- How do I expect to feel in the beginning, middle, and end of the task?
- What makes this task meaningful (to me or to others)?
- Am I clear about what specific actions I have to take to get the task done?
- Are there any consequences of doing the task that I’m avoiding (like my own disappointment or other people’s judgment)?
In most cases, just getting some honest answers from yourself and naming the feelings you’re experiencing (a practice called "affective labeling") will deactivate your brain’s procrastination urge. In other cases, the answers will help you address the underlying blockers to your progress.
The next research-backed strategy to stop procrastinating is a counterintuitive one. Even though it would seem that those lashings of guilt and shame we give ourselves when we procrastinate should spur us to action, it turns out that they only push us into a vicious cycle of procrastination. The worse our association is with a task, the more our brains want to avoid it. The fix? Forgive yourself.
Surprising as it sounds, self-compassion is the most sustainable procrastination solution. For example, in one study, researchers Wohl, Pychyl, and Bennett found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating when studying for their first exam procrastinated less for their next exam (2010). Letting ourselves off the hook in this way lets us put down all that weighty baggage and start anew.
To activate your own self-compassion:
- Acknowledge that putting off things that make us feel bad is normal and reasonable.
- Recognize that you are not alone in avoiding action from time to time.
- Take a deep breath and forgive your past self for any bad decisions.
- See the present version of yourself as a newer, wiser, stronger person who is ready to take action.
3. Dopamine hacking
While strategies #1 and #2 might be sufficient for many situations, sometimes that task looming over you is still too daunting to just dig in. Tasks that are unpleasant, complex, or difficult deplete our dopamine—the neurotransmitter responsible for motivation.
Most of us wait for the dopamine to kick in before we start, but the secret to living a procrastination-free life is to make it happen the other way around. Trigger your own dopamine release, and you’ll have the fuel you need to get started.
Here are some brain-friendly tactics to get your dopamine flowing:
- Chunk it. Break up the task into at least four parts. For example, are you avoiding giving someone feedback? Your four chunks might be: (1) write out your feedback, (2) schedule the conversation, (3) deliver the feedback, and (4) schedule a follow-up conversation. For best results, make your first step as tiny as possible.
- Time it. Set a timer for 5 minutes and commit to making as much progress as you can just in that time alone. Or as an alternative, use the Pomodoro Technique: focus on the task for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. Sometimes all we really need is the activation energy to get started.
- Milestone it. Most of us work better with at least some degree of pressure, but the trick is to get just the right amount. People who procrastinate tend to do so even more when they have to work under other people’s deadlines but take action much more consistently when they set their own deadlines (Ariely and Wertenbroch, 2002). So, create milestones for yourself for each chunk of the task and put the deadlines on your calendar.
- Reward it. Often the positive benefits of those tasks we’re putting off are more distant than the unpleasant experience of starting the task. This is a conundrum for most of us because our brains are most motivated by short-term rewards. The fix? Make the task as rewarding as possible. For example, if you’re avoiding taking vitamins, switch over to tasty gummy vitamins. If you’re postponing working out, play your favorite music and start with an exercise that feels good. If there’s truly nothing intrinsically enjoyable about the task, give yourself a treat each time you complete one of your milestones. The reward can be anything you find motivating, from a fun activity to a delicious snack. Want that decadent piece of chocolate? You’ll have to finish organizing all of your tax documents first.
Procrastination busting is a skill like any other. The more often we notice that resistance urge and find a way to break through, the easier it will become to resist. So, the next time you face a procrastination situation, welcome it as the perfect opportunity to practice. Pause to acknowledge the feeling, diagnose its cause, forgive yourself for any past delays, and get your dopamine flowing with just one tiny first step. What will your small step be today?
This post summarizes research and ideas from the Procrastination episode of our podcast, Talk Psych to Me.
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Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65
Sirois, M. F. (2016). Chapter 4 - Procrastination, Stress, and Chronic Health Conditions: A Temporal Perspective. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-802862-9.00004-9
Gustavson, D. E. et. al (2014). Genetic Relations Among Procrastination, Impulsivity, and Goal-Management Ability: Implications for the Evolutionary Origin of Procrastination. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614526260
Sirois, F. and Pychyl, T. (2013) Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12011
Jared B. Torre, Matthew D. Lieberman (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073917742706
Michael J.A. Wohl, Timothy A. Pychyl, and Shannon H. Bennett (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. https://law.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/Pretend-Paper.pdf
Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00441