13 Tips to Overcome Procrastination

13 Tips to Overcome Procrastination
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I was going to finish writing this article last week, but instead I waited until the last minute before the deadline. Sound familiar? 

Procrastination — a.k.a. delaying a task — happens to everyone, especially when we’re unsure how to start. For some people, however, procrastination completely shapes how they organize their time, leading to negative feelings of stress and overwhelm.

Are you wondering how to beat procrastination? Read on to learn more about understanding procrastination and 13 strategies for overcoming procrastination.  

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Debunking procrastination

The first step to overcoming procrastination is to understand why it happens. Unfortunately, there are many negative misconceptions about procrastination. Our culture, which tends to value grinding and hustling, often views procrastination as a form of laziness and poor time management skills. However, Dr. Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor in Ottawa, says procrastination is actually an emotional regulation problem.

Procrastination is a response to internal and external pressure, perfectionism, and anxiety. Low self-control and self-esteem can also contribute to procrastination. Aversion to a task leads to procrastination, which leads to distress over not getting something done, which in turn leads to more procrastination. It’s a vicious cycle, but the good news is that you don’t have to be stuck forever in the cycle of “I’ll get it done tomorrow.”

Some people say that they procrastinate because their best work is done under the pressure of a looming deadline, but procrastination is not without its downsides. Leaving things until the last minute can lead to anxiety about getting things done in time. All of the time that you don’t spend working you aren’t truly relaxing either. Even if you’re binging Netflix instead of working, there is always guilt and anxiety looming in the back of your mind that prevents you from truly resting. In addition, procrastination leaves very little room for life’s curveballs. Any sort of disruption, like illness or family matters, can lead to a missed deadline. 

13 strategies for overcoming procrastination

Some people are more prone to procrastination, whether it be because of underlying anxiety or ADHD. The good news? The 13 tips below can help anyone, even you, to stop procrastinating.

1. Awareness is key

The first step to overcome procrastination is to try and understand the root cause of the problem in the first place. What are you feeling that is leading you to delay a particular task? Are you overwhelmed by the scope of the task? Are you bored or unmotivated to do it? Do you fear doing something unless you can be 100 percent perfect at it?

There are many types of procrastination caused by different triggers and it isn’t always easy to pinpoint the cause of your procrastination, but it’s worth a bit of self exploration.

2. Focus on your why 

Reminding yourself of the long-term benefits of completing a task can help overcome procrastination. This tip is especially helpful if you find that you’re procrastinating out of boredom or a lack of motivation. A procrastination habit forms when you focus more on short-term “I don’t want to do this” thoughts, rather than “I’ll be super stressed out if I don’t do this now” long-term thoughts. By continually reminding yourself of the bigger picture, you can dedicate more headspace to long-term thoughts. 

3. It’s not a big deal

Another reason you may be procrastinating is that you’re overwhelmed with the scope or gravitas of the task at hand. Procrastination has a sneaky way of catastrophizing even the smallest of things. It can make you think that completing a priority task will be so hard or so annoying that you’ll do anything to not complete that task. 

While it’s not always easy to reverse these kinds of thoughts, it can be helpful to stop and ask yourself, “Is it really that big of a deal?” Try pretending that you’re giving advice to a friend. What would you tell them? By keeping things in perspective, you can retrain your brain to stop catastrophizing. 

4. Choose the right time management techniques

While procrastination is not all about time management techniques, choosing the right ones can help minimize procrastination. Some popular techniques can actually make procrastination worse. Strategies like overscheduling your day or lengthy to-do lists can increase your anxiety level, keeping you in the cycle of procrastination.

Instead, focus on techniques that won’t cause you anxiety and that emphasize reward and satisfaction. For example, if you often procrastinate because you don’t know how to start a project, then breaking it down into smaller tasks may be helpful. If, on the other hand, facing a long list of tasks gives you anxiety, then it may not be as useful.

5. Control your calendar 

While overscheduling can lead to more anxiety in those who procrastinate, it’s still important to use your calendar to set up a productive workflow. A common rationalization that leads to procrastination is the idea that you will have time to complete a task “later,” whether that be tomorrow or next week. The “when I have time” concept leads to the death of projects, because there will always be something else that you schedule “later.” Set specific deadlines based on the time that you have available now, because you may not have time later.

Parkinson’s Law tells us that a task will expand to take up the amount of time we give it. If we give ourselves a week to complete a task that takes a day, then we will continue to procrastinate until the last day at which point we scramble to finish. Try giving yourself a short period of time to complete tasks, so you won’t have a choice but to stop procrastinating

Another procrastination trigger could be feeling that you don’t have enough uninterrupted time to work. It can be tempting to squeeze in an episode of your favorite show in the hour you have between meetings instead of working on a project. Clockwise sets and protects Focus Time on your calendar, giving you an uninterrupted block of time to work without being disrupted by meetings. 

6. Be kind and honest with yourself

Constantly having negative self-talk can contribute to negative emotions and therefore lead to more procrastination. If, despite these strategies, you continue to procrastinate, it does you no good to berate yourself. You’re trying. 

Being realistic about your goals can help you make progress towards better time management. Even if you improve by just five percent, that’s still better than nothing. On the flipside, if you try and commit to a complete 180 degrees, you’ll eventually slip and go right back to where you started, which isn’t progress at all.

Developing the self compassion and emotional regulation you need to overcome procrastination may require working with a therapist. Similarly, if you have or suspect you have ADHD or an anxiety disorder, then these strategies might not be useful to you until you seek treatment. 

7. Let go of excuses

Procrastination can trick you into thinking that you can only get work done when the stars align and all your surrounding conditions are perfect. It’s 10:23 pm and you think to yourself “I should wait until the top of the hour to start” or “I can’t possibly get work done without my ergonomic set up.” While it’s always nice to set up the ideal work environment for you, be honest with yourself about the fact that you don’t actually need those things to start working. And if there is something you need to start, like a report from a colleague, then your first step should be to get what you need.

8. Done is better than perfect

Perfectionism is a common cause of procrastination. The idea that whatever you produce must be 100 percent perfect means that it’ll be very difficult to get anything done, because perfectionistic standards do not exist. The fear of failure will always hold you back if you aim for perfection. Instead of striving for perfection, think about doing better than you did before. It is always attainable to do better, but perfection will always be unattainable. 

9. Share accountability

Part of the curse of procrastination is that chronic procrastinators tend to be more productive with external pressure, like a deadline. In order to avoid the reliance on a deadline to be your kick in the pants, try working with an accountability buddy. Sometimes simply telling another person what you plan to do can give you enough external pressure to complete your tasks. It’s important that your accountability partner isn’t someone like your boss, whose pressure can lead to more anxiety. A co-worker, especially one who works in a completely different department and therefore can’t be considered competition, works best. 

10. Start with what works for you

Starting can often be the hardest part for procrastinators. Starting with either your important or unimportant task can help you start and maintain motivation throughout the day. If you typically struggle with starting your work day but then get into the flow, then start with your unimportant tasks. The idea is to remove as many barriers to starting as possible. If you have no problem starting but tend to lose steam as the day continues, then start with your most important tasks or a difficult task to make it easier to then work on a small task later.

11. Set yourself up for success

For the procrastinator, every small obstacle to starting increases the chance of procrastination. You can set yourself up for success by preparing all of the things in advance that you will need the next day, to make it easier to get into the flow. This could mean setting up the outline of a document the day before, or even organizing your desk so it’s nice and clean. 

Distractions are another common culprit of procrastination. A quick check of the phone can easily turn into an hour of scrolling through social media. You can set yourself up for success by putting your phone in a separate room and getting rid of Slack notifications. Clockwise automatically syncs up your schedule with Slack, so you won’t get any notifications during a meeting or Focus Time

12. Reward yourself

Focusing on reward and the positive aspects of work can help lessen the anxiety and dread about working that causes procrastination. Give yourself a specific reward that you can only get if you finish everything on your schedule for the day. Soon, you’ll associate work with the reward for the rest of the day. 

13. When nothing else works, start with just five minutes

There are some days when the mere thought of work can fill you with dread. For these days, commit to one tiny first step. Can you work for five minutes straight? Just five minutes. Then go for another five, and another. 

The Pomodoro technique works beautifully for procrastinators. With this method, you commit to just 25 minutes of uninterrupted work, followed by a five-minute break. After four rounds of 25 minutes, you can take a half hour break. The clock ticking helps give a push of external pressure that can help you get things done, and the frequent breaks make work less daunting. In no time, you’ll find yourself in a rhythm that mitigates procrastination.

6 apps to overcome procrastination in the workplace

Need a little bit of help implementing some of these strategies for overcoming procrastination? The following six apps can give you the leg up.

1. Freedom

This desktop-based app reduces distractions so you can focus on your work. It cuts off access to websites like Facebook while you’re working.

2. Clockwise 

Clockwise is a time orchestration platform that lets you and your teammates design your ideal workday. Just enter your preferences, put your schedule on autopilot, and watch as Clockwise automatically resolves scheduling conflicts and finds the best times for meetings — all while scheduling and protecting Focus Time. By helping you feel confident about how you’re spending your time, Clockwise helps you quell any of the negative emotions associated with procrastination.

3. Tomato Timer

Tomato Timer is a simple app that sets timers for you to implement the Pomodoro method. It sets 25 minute timers for your work time, as well as timers for your breaks. 

4. Focus To Do 

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive app to use the Pomodoro method with, then Focus To Do is the app for you. It integrates the Pomodoro method with a simple to-do list interface. A main tenant of the Pomodoro method is breaking up large tasks into smaller ones. This app lets you associate those smaller tasks with Pomodoros.

5. Focus@Will

Focus@Will uses neuroscience research to curate a playlist meant for optimal focus. This app is great for those days where you just can’t seem to enter a flow state. 

6. RescueTime

Not sure what your biggest time-suckers are? RescueTime works in the background to record how much time you spend on certain apps and websites during the day, so you can see what needs to be banned by Freedom while you’re working.

Going forward

Everyone procrastinates from time to time. But if you find that procrastination is affecting your productivity, or even your mental health, then it’s time to take steps to overcome it. The first steps are recognizing that procrastination is more than laziness and identifying why you might be putting things off in the first place. Is it perfectionism? Is it overwhelm? Use our strategies and app recommendations to put yourself on the path to greater initiative, proactiveness, and personal development. 

About the author

Judy Tsuei

Judy Tsuei is a Simon & Schuster author, speaker, and podcast host. She’s been featured in MindBodyGreen, BBC Travel, Fast Company, Hello Giggles, and more. As the founder of Wild Hearted Words, a creative marketing agency for global brands, Judy is also a mentor with the Founder Institute, the world's largest pre-seed accelerator. Judy advocates for mental and emotional health on her popular podcast, F*ck Saving Face. Follow along her journey at WildHeartedWords.com.

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