Want to Stop Procrastinating? Here Are 7 Different Tricks to Try Now (Not Later)
We’ve all been there: There's a deadline that's weeks (or maybe even hours) ahead, and you’re very comfortable with how much time you have to complete your task. All of a sudden the due date creeps nearer—but you continually put off the work until it’s midnight the night before it’s due. Then, panic.
Most people are guilty of procrastinating, whether it’s starting a project, writing a report, cleaning the bathroom, planning an event, making a phone call, or something as simple as running errands. What's often harder than actually completing the task is figuring out how to stop procrastinating before you start. As your to-do list continues to grow, the task you need to do can become even more daunting. That's why we start procrastinating in the first place—we’re too overwhelmed and intimidated by it and don't know how to begin. How do we motivate ourselves to get moving early in the process, and complete a project in a reasonable amount of time? We asked time-management and productivity experts to share their best tactics for tuning out distractions and staying on task—and how to bring yourself back into focus after straying from your to-do list. Follow these simple, yet effective strategies to become the most productive version of yourself (you're going to love it!).
Do the Worst Thing First
This may be the last suggestion you want to hear, but there’s a good reason to start with the task you're most dreading. “We have a limited, depletable supply of willpower and resources,” says Piers Steel, PhD, a professor of human resources and organizational dynamics at the University of Calgary and the author of The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Things Done ($11, amazon.com). Attack the hardest task when your energy is fresh and you give yourself the strongest chance of success.
Waiting until you're fatigued can have a damaging domino effect. “Putting off the dreaded item on your list saps your strength,” says Eva Wisnik, the founder and president of Wisnik Career Enterprises, Inc. and a long-time time-management trainer for lawyers and corporations in New York City. Ultimately all your other tasks suffer—stressing over that worst thing “makes you not completely present with anything else,” Wisnik says. Identify and get started on the most daunting project, which isn't always necessarily the biggest job but the baddest (at least in the context of your mind). “Checking it off will make you feel super-productive,” Wisnik says, and you'll start to feel infused with positive energy and excited that to only have easier tasks left to conquer.
Reassess and Restart Your Day at 2 p.m.
What’s more irritating than realizing the morning's flown and you haven't checked anything off your to-do list? Watching your afternoon play out the exact same way. Combat this frustrating phenomenon by implementing a midday reboot: “At 1 or 2 p.m. every day, assess how much you’ve accomplished, remind yourself of what’s critical, and alter your plan so you can tackle the most important thing,” Wisnik says.
In other words, grant yourself a second morning—a restart—in the middle of the day (grab another small cup of coffee or tea for the full effect). And if there’s a new project that's become high priority, you still have the time and the energy to start it at 2 p.m. instead of feeling burnt out and procrastinating on that project until there's no time to complete it. “If you wait until 5 p.m. to evaluate your day, you’re out of time—and in crisis mode, putting out fires,” she adds.
Break the Job Into Smaller Pieces
It’s natural to get overwhelmed by the size and scope of certain tasks. Joseph Ferrari, PhD, a psychology professor at DePaul University, in Chicago, and the author of Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done ($16, amazon.com), says this type of procrastinating is a case of “seeing the forest and forgetting that it’s made of trees.”
Ferrari's advice: “Cut down one tree—and if you can’t cut a whole tree, cut three branches.” Instead of being disheartened by how much you can’t do—or just how much you need to do—consider what you can do, however small. Think about it: The only way to get to the top of any staircase is to take it one step at a time. If you have 12 boxes of clutter to sort, do only one. On the other hand, if you simply have to get it all done, think about this: Sometimes shrinking a task is about quality rather than quantity. Says John Perry, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, and a cohost of the radio show Philosophy Talk: “Ask yourself, ‘How good a job do I really need to do?’ Some things are not important enough to warrant perfection.” It makes more sense to do top-notch work when updating your resume for example, than when drawing up flyers for a block party.
Hold Yourself Accountable to Someone Else
It’s easy to blow things off when your commitment to yourself is the only thing at stake. But make yourself accountable to a friend and suddenly potential embarrassment and guilt becomes a powerful motivator. It’s “positive pressure,” says life coach Cheryl Richardson, the author of Take Time for Your Life ($9, amazon.com). Just as you’re more likely to exercise when you’re meeting a friend at the gym, you may be more apt to fill out critical paperwork if you have a partner checking in on your progress (even virtually). Fear of letting someone down might be the perfect motivator. Call a friend or a sibling (not the warm-and-fuzzy kind—the tough-nut, no-excuses kind) and tell them what you plan to get done. Ask them to check in and crack the whip at an appointed time. Then let the positive pressure work its magic.
Having trouble even beginning a burdensome project? Try the old trick of setting a timer for 10 minutes. Work in a focused, perhaps even frantic manner for that short stretch, and watch what happens. “Anyone can do 10 measly minutes,” says Debbie Mandel, a stress-management specialist in New York City and the author of Addicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7-Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life ($6, amazon.com). “You may get engrossed and end up working even longer.”
Once a sense of satisfaction replaces the dread you felt before, there’s a decent chance you’ll continue. Another trick to moving past that initial paralysis is to create what's been called an “implementation intention,” says Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change ($11, amazon.com). Instead of simply identifying your goal (e.g. Get a new printer cartridge), establish how and when you’ll actually accomplish it, taking into account how long the whole process might take. For example: Saturday morning at 11, ask the kids to figure out exactly which printer cartridge we need; go to Staples at noon.
Eliminate Distractions and Interruptions
If you get pulled away from tasks by every ping, pop-up, and notification, that means you're human. But keep in mind that other people aren’t interrupting you; you're interrupting yourself.
The way to break free from technology is, ironically, to employ it: There are so many applications you can download to block distractions on your phone, tablet and computer.
- Freedom disables all roads to the Internet for an allotted amount of time. And cheating isn’t easy—to sneak back online early, you have to reboot your computer.
- RescueTime tracks your every online move and provides easy-to-read, painfully revealing charts. Seeing your wasted time in pretty graphs will be a serious wakeup call.
- LeechBlock works with the Internet browser Firefox to block certain sites—or all of them—either perpetually or during specific periods. If you have an addiction to those online sample sales with new offerings every 15 minutes, you can use this app to take away temptation. (It's the same principle as keeping your favorite cookies out of the house.)
Plan an Anti-Procrastination Day
Gather your most neglected tasks and a no-nonsense companion and head off on an odyssey of extreme productivity, vowing not to return home (or to go on Instagram or turn on the TV) until your long-ignored to-do’s are done. If it helps motivate you, reward yourself with an iced coffee, a walk around the block, an episode of TV, or another (quick) break every time you make a significant dent in your list.