Procrastination may be symptomatic of a psychological disorder. Procrastination has been linked to a number of negative associations, such as depression, irrational behavior, low self-esteem, anxiety and neurological disorders such as ADHD. Others have found relationships with guilt and stress.
In my other recent post “Kicking the Procrastination Habit,” I explained what procrastination is and isn’t, and provided 8 common reasons why we procrastinate. It’s vital to get to know your “opponent” if you want to win the war and get things done. By understanding your personal barriers and adopting more effective strategies for dealing with them, you can improve your overall success rate, whether for finishing work or school projects, completing household chores, starting and sticking with healthy lifestyle changes, or just feeling more focused and present in your daily life.
In response to popular demand, below I’m listing my 9 favorite, time-tested tools for kicking procrastination to the curb.
1.) Reconnect to the goal.
People who want to kick the procrastination habit need to reconnect with the part of them that originally agreed to the goal. If we use the example of weight loss, it’s vital to remember why we decided to lose weight in the first place. The reasons are most motivating when framed positively (e.g., “I want to be healthy and have more energy” or “Because I want to be able to dance at my children’s weddings” versus “Because I hate my body right now”).
Partner with the encouraging “inner ally,” rather than empowering the “inner critic.” Remembering why we agreed to the goal can help us negotiate with the part of us that feels like giving up.
2.) Analyze the chain of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that got us off task.
Using the weight loss example: “When I think of going to the gym, I worry about being the most out-of-shape person there (the thought). This makes me feel anxious and hopeless (the feelings). Then I typically find other ‘legitimate’ activities to distract me, like doing chores. Or I might eat something sweet to calm me down (the behaviors).”
Understanding this chain can help us change our response (the behavior) to unpleasant thoughts and feelings. This shift can look something like this: “When I get anxious about going to the gym, and start to crave sweets, I make a deal with myself to breathe for a few minutes to calm down. Then I agree to go to the gym anyway, even if only for 5 minutes.”
Changing our response to distressing thoughts and feelings ultimately affects the entire chain. Specifically, we see that we can survive, and perhaps even enjoy exercise and the associated payoff. This realization decreases our anxiety and hopelessness. It also provides evidence of success. Which makes us feel good, and is in itself a great motivator.
3.) Break the larger goal into smaller, achievable tasks.
I can’t stress this point enough. The research shows that breaking down a goal into manageable parts makes working toward them less daunting. It also provides multiple opportunities for smaller successes. Each triumph can lead to greater self-efficacy, or the understanding that we can, in fact, do what we need to. Before we know it, we have reached the goal, step by step.
4.) Pick a “Due Date,” and schedule regular appointments for each task.
Related to #3, decide when the goal is “due.” Sometimes this will be decided for you, and at other times you will need to pick a date by which you want to be done. Spread out the individual tasks related to the goal across the time between now and your due date. Schedule regular appointments and put them in your calendar. Treat these appointments as sacred.
5.) Set a timer.
This is one of the simplest but most powerful tools to keep you on track. Setting aside a predetermined amount of time for work – particularly if it’s a bit less than you think you would normally need – can help you stay on task during that time period. Use this when you want to clean out a closet or organize your files, work on a term paper, or write your novel. If you only have an hour to do what normally takes two hours, you are more likely to get it in gear and keep it there – at least until the timer goes off.
6.) Become the master of your (computer) domain.
Somewhat related to #5, if your major issue is that you can’t resist the call of social media or internet surfing when it’s time to work, it may be worth trying one of the programs such as “Cold Turkey” (for Windows) or “Self-Control” (for the Mac) that can help you block distracting website for a set amount of time. (Thank you very much to “V” for suggesting this!). Although initially this limit may feel frustrating, it will help you to remain focused and on task while you’re working and put surfing in its proper place so you can enjoy it – later.
7.) Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness practice, such as attending to our own breath, and noticing our own thoughts as they come and go, without grabbing on to them, is a very effective tool for learning to observe and let go of distressing feelings like anxiety, self-doubt, and fears of success or failure – without buying into them.
8.) Strength train the brain.
Mindfulness is also an excellent tool for engaging and strengthening the frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain. These areas are responsible for analyzing situations, coming up with the best plan for success, and staying focused. Regular mindfulness meditation can help us notice potential distractions and bring our focus back to what we’re working on. In addition, recent research has shown that long-term practice is associated with increased thickness in these brain regions, indicating a very real physiological improvement.
9.) Visualize success.
I tell patients that our self doubts can put us in a perpetual, negative “trance.” Consciously and unconsciously, we come to believe that we can’t or won’t complete things, and then we dutifully comply with this belief. Yuck!
The antidote to the “I can’t” trance is creating vivid, meaningful images of ourselves successfully doing the things we want and need to do. Practice seeing yourself as someone who is as effective and competent as you’d like to be. If that feels difficult, picture those qualities you’d need to achieve your goal (tenacity, self-confidence, being organized etc.). See yourself moving along points on a timeline, step by step, toward the completed goal. With each step forward, envision yourself as being ever more organized, self-confident, and determined. Allow yourself to fully experience the feelings you will have once the goal is completed, such as pride, satisfaction, and relief. Breathe.
Guided imagery and hypnosis are especially powerful tools for making success a mental, and eventually literal, reality. Work with a licensed mental health provider who is certified in hypnotherapy, or try one of the many good self-hypnosis audio products available.