After you’ve just had a lovely happy hour with friends, it can be really hard to start back in on that work assignment you didn’t finish at the office. It’s also extremely easy to put off your workout when Netflix has at least three different romantic comedies you haven’t watched yet. What’s another day?
Lawrence Needleman, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that procrastination is that set of behaviors we engage in when we want to stay comfortable and avoid hard work. “We wait to feel motivation instead of following through the activities because the outcome of doing so is consistent with your larger goals and values,” he says. “Or, we generate ‘reasons’ or excuses for not doing the task—that might sound very reasonable, but really are avoidance.”
When you start pushing off a task, like cleaning your closet or meal prepping for the week, Needleman says the first step is to recognize that nudge-from-mind. “Sincerely thank your mind for trying to help you feel more comfortable; say, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’” he says.
Feeling a little uncomfortable is okay; with overcoming procrastination, it’s sort of the goal. It’s time to embrace those feelings of dread and learn to get more done. Consider this your expert-backed, anti-procrastination toolkit.
Block off the time(s). If you’re too vague about when something needs to be done—calling your great aunt “sometime in June,” getting passports “before our fall trip”—you might wait until the 11th hour. If you’re too ambitious, you might miss the window because your schedule is easy to fill. “Take a realistic look at your schedule and block off time to work on the item or project,” says psychologist Cheryl Carmin, PhD. Then, make the plans fixed; don’t allow changes.
Be willing to start the task while dreading it, feeling anxious or tired. Needleman says a lot of people wait to feel inspired, motivated or excited about a project or challenge before diving in. Unfortunately, that feeling may never come. “Be willing to start the task while feeling anxious, unenergetic or dreading it, or while your mind is generating excuses for avoiding or delaying,” he says. “You don’t need to wait until you convince your mind to start the task; that might be an unwinnable battle. Instead, you can ‘choose’ to let go of that struggle and just start.” Often behavior comes before motivation, Needleman promises. “Once you get started, you often will gain momentum and feel more energized.”
Challenge your excuses. Sometimes, it’s a big project where you usually need a lot of time to prepare, like a far-out work deadline or training for a half-marathon; it’s easy to delay tasks you won’t have to deal with tomorrow. Needleman says to focus on why you’re doing what you’re doing, not the task itself. Sometimes, the “why” is the true motivator. “If an excuse for delaying is ‘I work best under pressure,’ consider the costs—like stress, errors—of waiting until the last minute,” says Needleman. “Try an experiment where you start early, and actually see which way works better.” You might be surprised, and discover that your desire to procrastinate has deceived you.
Set a 15-minute contract with yourself. If you are trying to work on a lengthy, time-intensive task, like cleaning a super-messy garage or writing a 10-page end-of-semester assignment, make a contract with yourself to get started— albeit, for a short time. “Use a 15-minute rule,” says Needleman. “‘All I have to do is spend 15 minutes on this, and then I can decide to stop if I want.’” If the first 15 minutes goes okay and you’re starting to pick up steam, re-up for another 15 minutes, he says. Keep going until you’re truly tired, mentally and physically.
Realize when it’s okay to say no. Maybe you committed to edit a friend’s resumé, or you’re trying to find time to see a work acquaintance because she asked you for help. Carmin says assessing your priorities can help. Sometimes, you’re procrastinating because you do not value what you have to do, or the end goal. “Think, ‘Is the task something you actually want to do?’” she says. “Be aware of your commitments and your interest in the task, and understand it’s OK to say, ‘no.’”
Not every task has to benefit you. But saying no to some tasks that aren’t in line with your values can free up more energy and calendar space to work on challenges that are, so you don’t end up delaying your personal projects and goals in the service of others. You deserve to prioritize yourself, not just others.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.