When Pat told me she struggles with procrastination, my first thought was, “you’re not alone.”
Studies over the last few decades suggest that procrastination is on the rise. In the late 1970s, about 5 percent of the population admitted to being chronic procrastinators, whereas today, about 26 percent do.
We don’t know why this might be happening, but several studies have reported increasing numbers. It may be technology and distraction that are causing more of us to delay taking action on our projects. More jobs are becoming less structured, requiring workers to step up and manage themselves, which increases the opportunity for procrastination.
Procrastination seems to have a genetic component, too—if someone in your immediate family had it, you may be more at risk. Scientists have linked it to personality traits, as well.
Whatever causes it, it’s unpleasant. It tends to make sufferers miserable, and most try to find a way to overcome it. They clearly understand its destructive nature, but unfortunately, find it difficult to change their behavior.
The good news is that you can “develop schemes,” as one researcher put it, to overcome procrastination. In fact, research shows that with practice, procrastinators tend to procrastinate less.
So what is it we need to practice?
Why Do We Procrastinate?
To determine how to outwit procrastination, first we need to understand the basic reasons why we cave into its temptations.
First of all, we tend to procrastinate on tasks we find unpleasant or difficult. Even if we enjoy doing something, like writing, we may put it off because we perceive it as being hard, or imagine that we are not feeling “up to it” at the moment. If the project inspires stress or anxiety (my agent must love this story), then again, it may be perceived as unpleasant, and we may put it off.
It’s not that procrastinators don’t want to work, necessarily. You won’t find a harder-working person than a procrastinator the day before a deadline. But when given the chance, procrastinators will choose the more pleasant of two tasks to complete, even if the more difficult one is more urgent or more important.
Second, we procrastinate when we can’t see the immediate rewards. If you were told you could earn $1,000 by cleaning your house right now, you’d probably have no problem getting right to it. But if there is little reward in the task ahead of you (the boys will just mess it up again in a few hours anyway), procrastination is more likely to win.
Third, we procrastinate when we allow ourselves to become distracted, and we all know how easy that is these days. Researchers note that attention is critical to self-control, and procrastination is a demonstration of lack of self-control. Allow your text messages and emails to interrupt you while you’re writing, and you can bet it won’t be long before you’ll be delaying your entire writing session.
Finally, we procrastinate because we believe we can get the task done later. We imagine we will have more energy and be better prepared to tackle whatever it is on another day. Ultimately, we fool ourselves into thinking we’re better off leaving the project in our future self’s more capable hands.
Of course, the outcome of all this is that we don’t get our stuff done. That creates stress and anxiety, and over the long term, a lack of confidence and low self-esteem.
In one German study, for instance, procrastination was associated with higher levels of stress, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and reduced satisfaction with life as a whole.
5 Key Schemes for Reducing Procrastination
How do we stop ourselves, then, from putting off the projects we need to get done?
We have to address each of the elements mentioned above. In a way, we have to fool ourselves, or work around the emotions and thoughts that lead to procrastination so we don’t get sucked in. Below are five ways to do just that.
1. Ease the Anxiety
We often put off tasks like writing because they make us nervous or anxious. We have this vision of the perfect story in our heads and we worry we won’t be able to make it happen on the page, so we avoid it, fearing failure.
We can ease this anxiety by taking the pressure off ourselves. Imagine you’re just going to practice writing. You’re going to do a trial run or a warm-up draft. Give yourself permission to play around, and promise you’ll do the real version later. This can help you reduce the fear enough to get started.
2. Fool Yourself
Even people who don’t procrastinate have a hard time getting started on a project. We all tend to feel that initial resistance, and if you struggle with procrastination, you may feel it even more powerfully.
The key, then, is to set up ways to fool yourself into getting started. Try setting a timer for five minutes, and tell yourself that’s all you have to accomplish. Tempt yourself with something good like your favorite cup of coffee or chocolate treat to have as you sit down to work. Get into the mode of writing by pulling up some articles about it. Tempt yourself with something that sounds easy and fun, and use it as a lure to get your way into your writing.
3. Reduce Distractions
You know it’s best to turn your cell phone, email, and Internet off when writing, but if you tend to procrastinate, you may leave these on just for an excuse to avoid your “difficult” task.
Again, you have to know yourself. Realize that you may fall victim to distraction, and that it could ruin your writing session. Be your own drill sergeant and demand that all gadgets are put away until you’re done. One study found that when procrastinators made their email icon invisible, for example, they were less likely to be distracted by it.
Another way to avoid distractions and reduce procrastination is to work in environments that reinforce your goals. In other words, if you want to write, go to the library or to an office or other area where people are quietly working. Go in with some of your writing buddies to rent a space if you like. Just this action alone can mean the difference between getting your project done and letting it languish.
4. Create Immediate Rewards
Writing (and related activities) can be particularly difficult for procrastinators because the rewards are often so distant. If you’re working on a novel, for instance, it could be years before you see publication, say nothing of any other rewards like good reviews, royalties, or contest wins.
Therefore, it’s up to you to create your own rewards for the work you get done. This may seem silly, but remember—rewards are inherent in everything we do. If writing was your job, you’d be getting a paycheck for it, and maybe some benefits and bonuses along the way, along with the occasional pat on the back from the boss.
A writer has no supervisor, though, so you have to become one yourself. Create deadlines for when you will complete certain chapters, drafts, and other steps along the way. Then create rewards for the completion of each of those steps. They can be whatever you like—a nice meal out, a new book or CD, a weekend away, or a trip to a cherished writing conference.
If you have supportive loved ones, you can ask them to help you out, and to celebrate your accomplishments with you. These steps will make completing each task more rewarding.
5. Chat with Your Future Self
Researchers tested nearly 600 undergraduate students, and found that those who could see their future selves as an extension of their present selves were less likely to procrastinate than those who saw less similarities between the two.
Those who felt disconnected to their future selves used different parts of their brains when thinking of that person. The brain acted like it was imagining a stranger!
This phenomenon is in action when you imagine your future self will be more energetic, more well-rested, and better able to manage the project you’re avoiding today. Of course, that’s rarely the case. When you arrive in that person’s shoes tomorrow or next week, you’re likely to find she’s just as resistant to working on this project as her past self was.
The solution is to find ways to more clearly imagine the future you. If you can see that person as being the same as the person in the mirror today—with the same doubts, fears, and insecurities, and lacking any miraculously powerful skills you don’t have—you’ll be more likely to overcome your tendencies to procrastinate.
When you’re tempted to put something off, take a moment and try to visualize your future self having to deal with it. Often doing this will inspire you to take care of it now, so your future self can relax and enjoy having the project done.
Practice Makes Perfect
Whatever methods you may use to help yourself overcome procrastination, the most important thing is to practice. Practice overcoming your resistance to working on a project. Practice getting things done so you can cross them off your list. Practice avoiding delays.
The more you succeed, the more likely you’ll be to beat your habit of procrastination. The experience of success is extremely motivating and has shown in studies to be most important in helping people overcome this destructive habit.
Remember, we all have limited time to do the work that matters to us most. As Benjamin Franklin said, “You may delay, but time will not.”
Boost productivity, improve time management, and restore your sanity while gaining insight into your unique creative nature and what it needs to thrive. Find practical, personalized solutions to help you escape self-doubt and nurture the genius within in Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, available today at Amazon and all major book retailers. Enjoy your FREE chapter here!
Steel, P., “The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure,” Psychol Bull., January 2007; 133(1):65-94, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17201571.
Steve Inskeep, “Chronic Procrastination on the Rise, Professor Says,” NPR, July 21, 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92728671.
Beutel, Manfred E., Eva M. Klein, Stefan Aufenanger, Elmar Brähler, Michael Dreier, Kai W. Müller, Oliver Quiring, et al. “Procrastination, Distress and Life Satisfaction across the Age Range – A German Representative Community Study.” PLOS ONE 11, no. 2 (February 2016), e0148054. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0148054.
Blouin-Hudon, Eve-Marie C., and Timothy A. Pychyl. “Experiencing the temporally extended self: Initial support for the role of affective states, vivid mental imagery, and future self-continuity in the prediction of academic procrastination.” Personality and Individual Differences 86 (November 2015), 50-56. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.06.003.
Ersner-Hershfield, Hal, M. T. Garton, Kacey Ballard, Gregory R. Samanez-Larkin, and Brian Knutson. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow: Individual differences in future self-continuity account for saving.” Judgment and Decision Making 4, no. 4 (June 2009), 280-286, journal.sjdm.org/9310/jdm9310.pdf.
Colleen M. Story has worked in the creative writing industry for over twenty years. Her latest release, Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, helps writers and other creative artists escape the tyranny of the to-do list and nurture the genius within. Her novels include Loreena’s Gift, a Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner. She has authored thousands of articles for publications like Healthline and Women’s Health and ghostwritten books on back pain, nutrition, and cancer. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, and works as a motivational speaker and workshop leader. Find more information on her author website, or follow her on Twitter.