Do you often find yourself putting off tasks? You’re not alone. Most of us procrastinate even though it causes stress and can hurt our performance.
So, why do we do it? There are three main factors:
1. Discomfort: We think the task will be unpleasant.
2. Anxiety: We’re worried we’ll do a bad job.
3. Reinforcement: We feel relief when we avoid something we dread, making us more likely to repeat the avoidance in the future.
Once we understand what’s behind our procrastination, we’re in a better position to break out of it. The following techniques come from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and are some of the most effective.
Make it easier to get started.
It’s hard to overstate the value of momentum, as most of us find that getting started is the hardest part of completing a task.
- Plan to spend just a few minutes doing the first part of the task (e.g., finding and opening that email you’ve been meaning to reply to).
- Break down an overwhelming task into smaller chunks that feel easy to do. It’s OK to go really small here! Remember, the point is to break the seal.
- Use short work sessions of 15-25 minutes, and set a timer. When the timer goes off, take a short break before starting another work block.
- Plan a small reward—like a cup of coffee—for completing the first part of your task—and a bigger reward for when you finish it.
Practice thoughts that encourage you to move forward.
Our thoughts often work against us by encouraging procrastination. Try these approaches instead to get your thoughts working for you.
- Recognize the voice of procrastination that gives you permission to avoid taking action —thoughts like, “I’ll have more energy to do it later.” Replace this voice with kind and firm encouragement to get moving.
- Acknowledge that if you don’t feel like doing it now, you probably won’t feel like doing it later.
- Accept that there may be some discomfort and anxiety—which doesn’t mean you have to put off the task.
- Remind yourself why you don’t want to procrastinate, including how it has cost you in the past.
- Remember that you can’t do the task perfectly, and you don’t have to. Aim for imperfectly done.
Be careful not to beat yourself up for procrastinating, which will just make you feel bad and probably won’t help you get on task. Sometimes it’s actually better to do something later, especially if we’re truly exhausted and would perform better when we’re more rested.
There’s even some evidence that we come up with more creative solutions when we procrastinate, as Professor Adam Grant described in his book Originals. Just be sure to make a plan for when you’ll get to your task, which not only makes you more likely to complete it but helps you more fully enjoy your downtime.
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.