Have you ever found yourself delaying a task until the last minute? If so, you’re not alone. In a 2019 survey, 88% of participants in the workforce said they procrastinate for at least one hour a day.
Procrastination has to do with our failure to self-regulate, and the more we do it, the more it becomes a habit. As I wrote in Chapter 3 of my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, “Every time you procrastinate, you reinforce the likelihood that you’ll procrastinate again in the future—so it’s important to nip it in the bud!” Breaking the habit of procrastination isn’t easy; it often goes against what your brain feels is right. However, there are seven simple practices that have helped me stop procrastinating, and they can help you as well! Keep reading to learn more about the science behind procrastination and how to get started stopping today!
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Oftentimes, procrastination is labeled as “laziness,” but in reality, it is much more than that. By learning why our brains work the way they do, we can understand what causes procrastination, and then take steps to limit the source.
The Science Behind Procrastination
Imagine this: you’re at work or school, and you have a task in front of you. The problem is, you don’t know how to do it. Maybe it’s a homework assignment you don’t know how to solve, a research article you don’t understand, or a meeting you can’t plan. Whatever it is, that feeling of “not knowing how to do it” is unsettling, and it makes us uncomfortable.
Photo Credit: Life Science Databases(LSDB), CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp
Whenever we feel uncomfortable, there is a part of the brain called the amygdala that perceives that discomfort as a threat to our safety. The amygdala is in charge of processing emotions, and when it feels we are in danger, it tells our survival instincts to kick in. Our survival instincts will then work to regulate and repair our emotions until we feel comfortable again.
Here, two more parts of the brain come into play: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system includes the amygdala and helps regulate how we feel pleasure. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is involved in our ability to make decisions. Going back to our example, when you are faced with an uncomfortable situation, the limbic system says to walk away from it and to do something more fun, while the prefrontal cortex tries to decide whether or not it really is a threat to our safety and wills us to keep working.
Photo Credit: Neuro4Kidz via Medium
As you might have already guessed, procrastination occurs when the limbic system wins out over the prefrontal cortex. This can happen very frequently because the limbic system is automatic (meaning we automatically do things that keep us safe), and the prefrontal cortex is not. We need to kick the prefrontal cortex into action ourselves, and that can be tough because it goes against our instinct to run away from danger. This is especially true when we are children and the prefrontal cortex is weaker.
This process of balancing our self-regulation and emotion repair has been demonstrated in many experiments. Overwhelmingly, these studies have shown that humans are inclined to avoid discomfort, and as a result, we avoid working tasks that cause such a feeling. However, there is a big difference between the discomfort we feel from not knowing how to do a homework problem and the fear we feel when our safety is threatened. We need to learn how to differentiate between the two, and to do that, we need to figure out what triggers procrastination.
Like I said above, procrastination occurs when we feel uncomfortable. But what causes that discomfort? There are many sources, including:
1. The fear of not being perfect
2. The fear of negative feedback
3. The fear of failure
4. The frustration of not being able to bring great ideas to life
5. Being overwhelmed by the task’s requirements
6. Being too busy
Some of these causes may resonate more soundly with you than others. I myself have struggled frequently with the fear of not being perfect. When we give into these things, we are prioritizing our current mood over the actions that will benefit our future. The more we prioritize in this way, the more procrastination becomes a habit. In order to break out of this harmful cycle, we need to reflect on these causes of procrastination and take steps to eliminate them.
It can be easy to procrastinate. Putting off stressful tasks for relaxing ones doesn’t seem harmful (in fact, it seems like just the opposite!). However, procrastination sets us back on our journey towards our dreams and has damaging effects on both our mental and physical health, giving further reason why we should break out of this habit.
Effect on Our Dreams
Procrastination holds us back from our dreams. When you procrastinate, you’re putting off work that will help you accomplish your goals, and you’re making your journey longer and more difficult to follow. Along the way, you’re likely to get tired out and lose motivation because you’re not accomplishing what you’d like to.
In contrast, when you stop procrastinating, you’ll become better organized and be able to get your work done in a timely manner. No matter how big or small the task at hand is, completing it is a step towards your dream. Moreso, the sooner you get it done, the more time you will have to pursue other dreams and things you’ve always wanted to try!
Effect on Our Health
Procrastination has also been shown to negatively impact physical and mental health. Studies have found that procrastination is linked to feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, and shame, and increases stress levels. These things, in turn, directly impact our immune system and make us more vulnerable for illness, as we don’t take the time to take care of ourselves.
All of these negative effects show how important it is to stop procrastinating. Procrastination is an unhealthy habit, and in order to counter it, we need to develop more beneficial habits. By doing so, we’ll be able to maintain our physical and mental healths and make leaps and bounds towards our dreams.
7 Ways to Stop Procrastinating Today
Over the years, I have tried so many things to help me stop procrastinating. It was a process of trial and error, but by persevering, I’ve found a handful of habits that help me the most. Here are seven simple things that have helped me stop procrastinating, and might just help you as well!
1. Limit Distractions
We are constantly surrounded by distractions, like phones and televisions. However, when you focus on the tasks at hand, you’ll get your work done faster, and there will be less time for you to procrastinate. Moreso, you’ll be less tired if you get your work done quicker because you’re not spreading your energy out over long periods of time.
To limit distractions, I often hide my phone in another room or use an app called Forest. In Forest, whenever you start a task, you plant a tree. As you work, your tree grows, but if you leave the app halfway, your tree will die. See if you can grow a whole forest!
Promise yourself a reward and turn delayed gratification into instant gratification! With an immediate reward, you’ll be more encouraged to work through tasks. This can be especially helpful if you struggle to see the payoff of your work in the long run.
As you work on a task, promise yourself a reward at various checkpoints. Finish a chapter in a book? Get a snack. Completed writing a paper? Check your phone for a few minutes. These small rewards make working through the task more enticing and motivate you to finish.
3. Hold Yourself Accountable
Like I talked about above, procrastination stems from our failure to self-regulate. This makes it extra important to hold yourself accountable. You need to pay attention to your mindset while you work and figure out what you need to help you get your work done.
One way to do this is by asking someone to check in on you. This could be anything from being with you physically to make sure you keep on task, or sending you a text message after some time has passed. Another way to hold yourself accountable is through online tools like the Procrastinator app. Procrastinator allows you to reflect on your mindset and offers advice to help you overcome whatever feelings are getting in your way.
4. Get the Least Pleasant Tasks Done First
We are more likely to procrastinate on the things we don’t like doing, so get your least pleasant tasks done first! That way, you’ll get them over and done with, and you won’t feel the need to procrastinate through your other tasks. It would be even better to get those tasks done in the morning. This is because we have more energy in the morning, and when we have more energy, we’re less likely to procrastinate.
5. Set a Schedule
When you plan for something, you are less likely to put it off. You can set a schedule in a notebook, on your phone, or even a scrap piece of paper – whatever helps you the most! Be sure to check off or draw a line through everything you finish. The feeling of accomplishing things on a schedule and completing all your tasks is really rewarding. That is progress towards your goal!
Large tasks can be overwhelming, so break them down into smaller ones. You’re more likely to accomplish smaller tasks, and you’ll still progress towards your goals. Think of it like reading a book: you read one chapter a day, and eventually, you’ll have finished the entire book. The feeling of finishing a smaller task will motivate you to keep going, and eventually, that work will build toward your larger goal.
7. Don’t Set Unrealistic Expectations
Lastly, don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. Everyone procrastinates! It is something our brains are wired to do to avoid discomfort. If you are striving for perfection, you will never be satisfied with what you do, and therefore, you’ll only continue to procrastinate. So be easy on yourself and practice breaking out of your comfort zone.
Breaking out of old procrastination habits isn’t always easy. As science has shown, there are many points in your life in which you may feel inclined to push off your work. While doing so in the moment may feel good, there are many long-term consequences as well that can ultimately deter you from your dream.
With that in mind, try out these seven different habits and see what works best for you! For even more tips on how to overcome procrastination, check out my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars. In it, I offer my advice as well as guides and activities that will help you develop beneficial habits and propel you towards your dreams.