How to Stop Procrastinating

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Procrastination has been an integral part of my life’s successes — and failures — for some time now. From putting off graduate school applications, wedding seating charts, and gym visits, I’ve been practicing the art of procrastination pretty heavily these days. And if we’re being really honest here, I’ve actually checked Facebook 12 times since starting this paragraph. But hey, I know I’m not the only one out there — more than 25 percent of Americans admit they procrastinate. But even though procrastination is usually frowned upon, there are people who actually see some benefits to putting things off. For those who want to get back on the timely-productivity track, how do we quit procrastinating?

Procrasti-not Anymore! — The Need-to-Know

The word “procrastination” comes from the Latin word procrastinat, meaning “deferred till the morning.” In the year 44 B.C., the ancient Roman leader Cicero spoke about the evils of procrastination in a political speech against Mark Antony. But procrastination didn’t truly acquire the negative connotation it has today until the Industrial Revolution of the 1750s, when wasting time meant making less money.

Today, with the growing use of the Internet and social media, procrastinating is getting easier (and more exciting!) [1]. In fact, online procrastination has been connected to the concept of Problematic Internet Use [2].

Researchers suggest procrastinators have a harder time self-regulating than non-procrastinators. Putting things off is also linked to characteristics including impulsivity, poor time management skills, and lack of work discipline [1]. And ladies may be better at the whole GTD thing: Guys make up 54 percent of self-admitted procrastinators.

It turns out there’s more than one way to be a procrastinator, and some of them aren’t half bad. For example, the term structured procrastination refers to individuals who decide to do a task that’s a little lower on their priority list instead of something slightly more important that they don’t really want to do. Instead of studying for that mid-term or writing those thank-you notes, the dentist appointment is made and the dishwasher gets emptied. There are also active procrastinators, who actually like the pressure of a close deadline and find satisfaction in being able to produce quality work under that time constraint. And some people, says Greatist Expert and psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer, avoid an activity because they’re afraid of failing or don’t know how to start. (On the other hand, Langer says, we’re always procrastinating because whenever we’re doing one thing we could be doing another.)

But procrastinators often pay a price for putting things off. Academic procrastination has been shown to result in higher levels of stress and anxiety [4]. Self-reported procrastinators may also be less healthy than their more punctual peers, with some researchers suggesting procrastinators will put off seeking medical treatment [1].

Luckily, we’ve got a plan for getting sh!t done, and getting it done now.

Just Do It — Your Action Plan

We’ve compiled a list of handy-dandy tips to get you out of that procrastination rut (aka Instagram and Pinterest) and back to being the productive individual hiding somewhere deep inside.

  1. Be prepared. When it’s time to sit down and actually get something done, make sure everything you need is there to complete the task. This means pens, good lighting, books, and comfy sweatpants. If Sour Patch Watermelons are really necessary to get the job done, those should be included, too (in moderation).
  2. Restart the day at 2 pm. Ended up watching all four hours of the Today show instead of just the first? Don’t let the whole day be a wash if you fail to be productive in the morning. Re-assess what’s top priority in the afternoon and get it done with a fresh start.
  3. Ask for Help. It’s okay to ask for help (from a friend, professor, doctor, or Mom), clarification, or some inspirational mantra — whatever it takes to get one step closer to completing that task. For something difficult, like starting a new diet, Greatist Expert and psychologist Dr. Paul J. Zak suggests enlisting social support.
  4. Set rules (and then follow them). Discipline is important, even if that means just checking email only once an hour, or turning off the music to re-focus attention on a long article. Don’t over-schedule or take on too much either – these can all lead to procrastination.
  5. Reward yourself. According to Zak, little rewards along the way can make it easier to accomplish a big goal. Each time one part of a task is completed, give yourself a five-minute Facebook break or a healthy treat.
  6. Write out each step. Langer says one of the best ways to actually finish a task is to break it up into smaller activities, like writing a sentence instead of writing a paper. So pretend there’s someone else around to delegate this task to — write down each step of how to accomplish it. Then follow those instructions and finish it yourself!

When procrastination seems to be taking over, try to remember a few key things. Nobody, or at least no one I know, is perfect and rolls through a hefty to-do list with ease. There are so many ways to easily find distraction from the task at hand; step away from the Internet and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked on Youtube (harder than it sounds). And don’t feel bad about a lack of motivation to complete a task — at least just try to spend that time doing something productive.

Special thanks to Dr. Ellen Langer, Dr. Paul J. Zak, and Jessica Magidson for their help with this article.

Do you procrastinate a lot? What are your best tips for getting stuff done? Let us know in the comments below or get in touch with Katie at @KatieKoerner.

Works Cited

  1. The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Steel P., Human Resources and Organizational Dynamics, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada., Psychological Bulletin. 2007 Jan;133(1):65-94.
  2. Problematic Internet use among information technology workers in South Africa. Thatcher A., Wretschko G., Fisher J., Department of Psychology, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Cyberpsychology and Behavior. 2008 Dec;11(6):785-7.
  3. The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Steel P., Human Resources and Organizational Dynamics, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada., Psychological Bulletin. 2007 Jan;133(1):65-94.
  4. Academic Procrastination, Emotional Intelligence, Academic Self-Efficacy, and GPA: A Comparison Between Students With and Without Learning Disabilities. Hen M., Goroshit M., Journal of Learning Disabilities. 2012 Mar 21.
  5. The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Steel P., Human Resources and Organizational Dynamics, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada., Psychological Bulletin. 2007 Jan;133(1):65-94.

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