Procrastination is nearly universal. Heck, I sat down to write this and spent 10 minutes scrolling through Facebook and then another 5 googling a couple questions that popped into my mind before I ended up here. We all do it. Most of us wish we could stop. So how does someone go about breaking the habit of procrastination?
I used to procrastinate with the best of ‘em. I vividly remember being in 5th grade and frantically scribbling down the answers to last night’s homework while the teacher was walking around the classroom and collecting everyone else’s. It doesn’t get more last minute than that. In high school, I got into the habit of pushing off writing essays for so long that I’d wake up early on the day they were due to write them before I went to school. Most of my homework was done in a rush during the period before the one where it had to be handed in. I get it. Really. I got my work done on time, but I had it down to a science, pushing off starting until the absolute latest minute that I could while still managing to complete it.
This habit lasted for roughly the first 20 years of my life. At some point during my sophomore year of college, shortly after The Big Breakup, I decided to really commit to getting the best grades I could. I felt the need to throw myself into something productive in order to distract myself from the constant urge to either scream at or profess undying love to my ex. In order to get better grades, procrastination became one of the first of my bad habits that just had to go.
You may claim to “work better under pressure”, but over the course of a semester, I guarantee the papers that were written when you had time to think, and snack, and take breaks, will be better than the ones written in a sleep deprived, Dorito fueled haze at 2 a.m. Plus, as I declared my Computer Science major near the end of sophomore year, I ended up with lots of logic-based assignments, which I’ve found are best approached by reading the problems soon after they are assigned and allowing them to marinate in your mind for a day or two before going back to solve them later.
After managing to stop procrastinating for a few weeks, I found that never having to go through those times of panicked, frantic paper writing, or desperately trying to figure out what that homework question is even asking you to do, had made my life so much less stressful that I never wanted to go back to procrastinating. I don’t like stress. Scratch that, I hate stress. We all know that being stressed is terrible for us and that we need to experience less of it.
When it comes to procrastination, this stress is of your own making. You could have avoided that. The first time you complete a paper early and get to spend your Tuesday night watching Netflix with a clear mind, then going to bed at a reasonable hour while everyone else is up until 5 a.m. writing that paper, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Develop a deep feeling of love for your future self. We are constantly fucking over our future selves by eating crap, staying up late, remaining sedentary, and procrastinating. But eventually, you’ll get to (or have to) be your future self. Aim to be so kind and so loving toward your future self today that you cannot wait to be them one day.
If you work on your paper now, your future self won’t have to feel that stress of doing it at the last minute, and your future self will love your past self for it. Why wouldn’t you care about your future self and want to treat them well? Because you’ve decided that instead of doing something good for them now, it’s easier to just… not? That’s a terrible excuse. If your best friend needed a favor, you’d do it, right? Even though, obviously, it would be easier to just not do it. You do it because you care about your best friend. Treat yourself the same way. Your future self will get to experience the rewards of being cared for, and your present self gets to feel like they did something good for someone.
If I haven’t just convinced you to love your future self and do things that will benefit them whenever you have the opportunity, there are a couple other things you can try. If you’re one of those people who feels no pressure to work on something unless there’s a deadline, then set a deadline for yourself. You have fifteen problems due on Friday at midnight for calc 2? Not anymore you don't. You have five due Tuesday night, five due Wednesday night, and five due Thursday night. If you need to, have a friend enforce these deadlines, or reward yourself for meeting each one. Spreading out the work will make it easier to complete. Five problems take way less time than fifteen. The concepts you’re learning will stick better, as you use them a bit and let them sink in before reinforcing them again the next day. And best of all, guess what you’ll be doing at 11:37 on Friday night. I have no idea, but it won’t be calc homework!
Maybe you’re not in school anymore. Aside from work and taxes, adult life comes with fewer deadlines than student life. Say you’ve been meaning to redo your living room for years. The space doesn’t bring you joy, it’s dull and lifeless and you avoid using the room even though you paid for it. But there’s nothing pushing you to get started on redoing the living room, so you haven’t. Not anymore! Set some deadlines.
By next Sunday, you have to have a paint color picked out. Tell your mom about this deadline because you know she’ll be eager to hear what you’ve decided on and will be disappointed if you don’t have a color by then.
By the Sunday after that, you have to decide which furniture is staying and which is going. Tell your niece who’s headed to college about this deadline, and let her know she’s welcome to any of the furniture you aren’t keeping. When she’s decided what she wants, immediately haul the rest of it to Goodwill or the curb, depending on its condition. While you’re at it, move the furniture that remains to the center of the room so you can paint.
Set another deadline. By the end of the month, the living room must be painted, and since you can’t do three coats of paint in an evening, that part definitely can’t be put off until the last minute. Then give yourself another two weeks to decide on, and purchase, new furniture and decorations. Schedule a get-together the day after those two weeks are up so that you can’t push it off any longer than that and so you can show off your new living room. By giving yourself deadlines and letting people who care know about them, you’ve put yourself on a schedule. You can’t just keep putting it off, saying “oh next summer” or “after the kids move out”, because we all know that isn’t going to happen. Set a deadline. Get moving.
Similar to the deadline idea, you can also set a schedule, if you’re the type of person to stick to schedules. If you’ve never stuck to a schedule in your life, this isn’t for you. But if you’re like me and will follow a schedule down to the minute, schedule in the things that need to be done. Those fifteen calc problems due Friday? Get out your planner, or your phone, or your calendar, or a post-it note, or wherever you like to schedule, and write down that Tuesday from 3-4 pm and Wednesday from 1-2 pm, you’re going to work on your calc homework. This gives you time to stop by office hours Thursday morning if you need help and potentially schedule in more time Thursday afternoon if you haven’t finished the problems yet. Then, stick to the schedule. Or if you’re redoing your living room, add to your preferred planning system that you and your wife are going to buy paint for the living room after your usual Sunday morning grocery run. Just schedule it in. If you’re able to stick to a schedule, the actual scheduling takes 30 seconds and when that item comes up on the day you’ve scheduled it, without thinking about it, you’ve started doing that thing you’d normally put off.
If something enables your procrastination, get rid of it. Maybe instead of going to the gym or doing homework, you often find yourself scrolling through Instagram, or Twitter, or the notorious time waster - Reddit. Maybe you’re more creative about it. During my freshman year of college, I’d call my mom just to talk whenever I didn’t want to do homework. I’m being productive, right? My mom misses me, right? This isn’t wasting time, right? Or there’s the classic: procrasti-cleaning. You hadn’t noticed that your bathroom was so dirty until you sat down to study Latin. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
If the messy space really does prevent you from thinking clearly, set a 20 minute timer, get it out of your system, and then get back to work. Block Reddit. There are browser extensions that will allow you to block certain sites during certain hours. Make a note to call your mom on your walk to class tomorrow. Then you won’t feel guilty about not calling your mom, and you can get your work done now. Put your phone in the other room or give it to your partner and tell them you can’t have it back until you’ve completed whatever it is that you need to do. Make it a priority to keep your room clean, so that you can’t use it as an excuse when you should be working. Whatever it is that you use to procrastinate (Netflix, anyone?), find a way to make it inaccessible during the times where you need to be working.
You can always bribe yourself into doing something now, rather than putting it off. Deciding that, contingent on you completing the brainstorming and outline for your paper right this second, you can go get yourself a donut later is a pretty quick and dirty way to get yourself working on that paper. If you’d like to tone that down a bit, you could decide to listen to an episode of your favorite podcast, but only if you head out to look for paint for the living room right now, instead of in… oh, like a few months, maybe.
Getting shit done before you go do all the fun stuff means you won’t be feeling guilty as you’re trying to enjoy your free time. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the feeling of watching TV or scrolling through Instagram when in the back of our mind, we know that we should be doing something else. It’s hard to enjoy the fun activity if you’re feeling guilty for doing it. So go get that thing done, then let the fun activity be your reward.
Ultimately, as with pretty much everything else, breaking the habit of procrastinating comes down to having some self discipline. Using these tips will make it so that you need to use less discipline, but even if you’ve scheduled it in, set a deadline, and decided on a reward for afterward, you still need to actually do the thing. These tips can make it much easier, and give you more motivation, but that last push will always need to come from discipline. Without self discipline, changing your behavior is nearly impossible. So when we get down to it, there are no other options besides sucking it up, and doing it. The more often you practice taking action, the easier it will become. And I guarantee that most of the time, whatever it is you’re putting off will be significantly easier and take significantly less time than you thought it would, and you’ll feel so much better when it’s over. Just get moving.
As with most things that I set out to teach, breaking the habit of procrastination is one of those things where you won’t realize how much it was hurting you until you’ve stopped. The freedom and reduction in stress that come when you stop procrastinating are addicting. Getting started is the part that takes discipline. Once you’ve experienced the benefits, it’s hard to go back. You’ll be able to set a more comfortable schedule for yourself, no longer feel guilty for enjoying your free time, produce better quality work, rarely have to work while tired, and be much more able to say yes to last minute plans because you’re no longer cramming to finish something you put off until the last minute. Avoiding procrastination changes lives. Not only will you stop procrastinating on all the things you have to do, but you’ll stop procrastinating on the things you want to do. That side business, losing that weight, planning that trip you want to take, when you stop procrastinating, all those things can finally be realized and life starts improving immensely. Stop waiting, and go after a life you love to live. One day, you’re going to be your future self.