6 Ways to tackle procrastination

by Dr. Melissa Shepard, MD

by Dr. Melissa Shepard, MD

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We all procrastinate.

Like most of us, I struggle with procrastination sometimes. But over the past two decades, I’ve gotten a much better hold on my procrastination. I’ve gone from failing assignments in high school (Easy ones. You know, the kind where the teacher looks at you incredulously like, “Seriously, you couldn’t just turn something in?!”) to finishing research papers as a physician weeks ahead of deadlines. And I must say, life is much easier when you have a handle on your procrastination. Like any human, I still have times when I put things off. But thankfully, my bouts of procrastination are much less common and much shorter-lived nowadays. Here are a few of the tips that have been most helpful for me in conquering my procrastination.

Illustration of woman smiling looking at her phone while her calendar and laptop go up in flames
1. Dig deep to understand why you are procrastinating.

Many people jump to beating themselves up when they procrastinate (see number 6). Maybe you can bully yourself into doing your work sometimes, but a much more effective strategy is simply asking yourself why you’re putting the task off.

Some common causes of procrastination are feeling overwhelmed, avoiding boredom or other difficult emotions, fear of failure, and having an undiagnosed mental health condition. These are issues that are not likely to get better (and may even worsen) when you try to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But in compassionately identifying these barriers, you have more power to change them. For an in-depth look at causes of procrastination (and how to address them), see this blog post.

 
2. Remind yourself to start small.

Action often precedes motivation. It’s totally normal not to feel motivated all the time. Even if there is something that you desperately want to accomplish, you may not always feel the motivation to work towards it. And that’s okay. Feeling motivated is not a prerequisite to making progress. All that is required is taking a step (no matter how small) in the right direction.

So you may not feel like sitting down to work on that project. But can you stand plopping yourself down at your desk? You don’t have to make yourself any promises about actually doing any work. Just sit there for a second. As you sit there, if you realize you can stand doing a bit of work, then do a bit. You’ll often find that as you start working, you build motivation to continue.

 
3. Know that you don’t always need to feel great to get things done.

You probably don’t love taking out the trash, but you do it anyway. If you have a goal and want to work towards that goal, you don’t necessarily need to feel good every step along the way. Most goals worth accomplishing will sometimes be challenging, but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve those goals.

When I’m feeling bored or anxious or frustrated with what I have to do, I envision folding those feelings up and placing them in a little backpack to take them with me while I go and do what I need to do. Take your difficult feelings with you, and remind yourself that you are big enough to hold space for those feelings while working towards what is important to you.

 
4. Make your environment task-friendly.

I know you’re scrolling social media and responding to notifications while you’re supposed to be working (because sometimes I do it too). Put your damn phone away. Far away. Lock it in your car or something. Or download an app that prevents you from pulling up any time-wasting apps (I use Forest).

And don’t force yourself to sit in a jail cell feeling miserable while you work. Put on some background music, light a candle, sit outside, get comfy if you can. I realize I just made it sound like a romantic date, and it probably won’t ever be that fun. But try and make it a little less painful, and you’ll be less likely to avoid it.

 
5. Let go of expectations.

You don’t have to commit to accomplishing anything in particular. Just decide that you will sit down and work for a certain (manageable) amount of time. Decide that you will focus on the task during that time: no expectations, and whatever happens, happens. It’s okay to write a crappy first draft- just put something down on paper. It’s easier to go back and edit than to start from scratch.

I like to use the Pomodoro method of alternating working and taking breaks because it feels manageable (there are also apps and online timers for this). You can set a timer for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break before returning to another 25 minutes of work. After four of these cycles, you’ve earned a 10-minute break.

 
6. Stop being an asshole to yourself when you’re trying to get things done.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not usually excited to spend time with people who insult or criticize me. So it makes sense that if I insult and belittle myself constantly while I’m trying to work on a project, I’m probably not going to be super excited to do it. Self-criticism may motivate you in the short term, but you are setting yourself up for even more procrastination in the future. Try encouraging yourself, celebrating the little wins, and having some compassion for the difficult work you are doing and the negative emotions you are feeling.

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