The Science-Backed Secrets To Stop Procrastinating, Once And For All

Stop procrastinating and start doing

What if I told you that chronic procrastinators are more likely to die alone, poor, miserable and unemployed?

There – now I’ve got your attention.

Sadly, it's true!

While it may not be quite that dire, there's no way to sugarcoat the data: multiple studies have shown that chronic procrastination is associated with lower pay; unemployment; higher stress; reduced life satisfaction and lack of a partnership.

We’ve all been guilty of unnecessary procrastination at one point or another. That’s why the diet always starts on Monday. But what makes some of us procrastinate only some of the time, while the rest of us know no other way?

As Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology and one of the leading experts in procrastination research, points out, "Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator."

Even though we might have the best of intentions, most of us tend to choose short-term rewards over long-term consequences, known in scientific circles as ‘hyperbolic time discounting’. This is independent of our differing reasons for procrastinating: task aversiveness, fear of failure, or simply the rush associated with completing a task at the eleventh hour.

You know that panicky feeling you get right before a task is due? The one where your heart is ready to bungee jump out of your mouth for fear of not being able to finish? The chronic procrastinators among us know that feeling all too well. So why on earth do we choose to do this to ourselves, time and time again?

A study by the American Psychological Association sums it up best:

“The present evidence suggests that procrastinators enjoy themselves rather than working at assigned tasks, until the rising pressure of imminent deadlines forces them to get to work. In this view, procrastination may derive from a lack of self-regulation and hence a dependency on externally imposed forces to motivate work.”

Procrastination may seem innocuous, but it's not. Party's over, folks - sorry! Studies show that procrastinating on academic tasks results in lower performance and higher illness and stress levels. Even more bad news, as you saw above: serial procrastinators have higher unemployment rates and lower salaries.

Ferrari has found that up to 20 per cent of people could be chronic procrastinators (up from around 5 percent in 1978). It's true that we have far more distractions today, but seemingly it “really has nothing to do with time management,” he says. “As I tell people, to tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”

So save yourself the procrastination-induced heart palpitations, and snap yourself out of it with these tried-and-tested tips:

start first thing to avoid procrastinating

1. Start first thing

If your morning ritual consists of watching Sunrise or checking your Facebook/Insta feed, you’re doing it wrong. Get into the habit of starting your day off on a productive note, and it’s more likely to stay that way. Tell yourself that you only have to work for a short allotted amount of time (say 30 minutes).

Science is on your side here – once you get into the groove, you probably won’t want to stop. This is called the Zeigarnik Effect: once you get started on something, you are more likely to want to complete it because you can’t stop thinking about it. (This can probably also explain why people binge-watch shows on Netflix). 

Break it into bite-sized chunks to make a task feel more managable

2. Break it into bite-sized pieces

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I don’t know about you, but I always relish ticking off items on my To Do list. If you make the items more doable, you are far more likely to get them done so you can have the satisfaction of ticking them off. If you break down an onerous task (say, complete a 5000-word essay) into smaller ones, it becomes much more approachable. For example:

  1. Decide the topic
  2. Write introduction
  3. Research
  4. Write first section
  5. Write second section
  6. Write conclusion

See how it seems much more manageable now?

3. Worst things first

Putting off the task you’re dreading most, time and time again, can be exhausting because it depletes your willpower. (Yes, apparently there is a finite amount of willpower, so use it wisely.) Fry your biggest fish first, and you’ll have one massive task ticked off your to-do list to enjoy the rest of your day (relatively) guilt-free. 

get a deadline to stop procrastinating

4. Get a deadline

Figure out how much you need to get done on any given day, and write it down, with deadlines for each one. Studies have shown that writing down goals and setting deadlines makes you more accountable. Make these goals SMART and ask for a deadline (studies show that self-imposed deadlines are less effective than externally imposed ones). 

5. Don’t give yourself the option to fail

If you remove all your distractions and temptations, you won’t be able to give into them. You can go to the library, or read at the beach. If your vice is mindlessly surfing the internet, there are a number of ways to block distracting websites and social media, or even the internet altogether. SelfControl is a Mac app to block your choice of distracting websites; Freedom similarly blocks websites or apps for both Mac and Windows. Or you can try putting a time limit on how long you browse distracting sites by installing the StayFocusd plugin for Chrome. 

6. Write down your goals, and share them with a friend

If you write down your goals and share them with a supportive friend, you are more likely to accomplish them. A study demonstrated that people who did this were 78% more likely to succeed than those who only thought about the goal they wished to accomplish. 

7. Good enough is good enough

Sometimes the fear of a task is enough to prevent you from getting started. So instead of worrying about writing the perfect essay, just get started. You can always go back and tweak it later. The closer you get to the finish line, the larger the goal becomes in your mind – what psychologists call the ‘Goal Looms Larger’ effect

8. Carrot or stick

People respond differently to positive and negative reinforcement, so figure out what motivates you best. I find that promising myself a small reward (say, a nap in the sun) is motivation enough to stop procrastinating and finally get started on a task. But some find punitive measures to be more effective. One example is telling yourself that you can’t watch your favourite TV show until you finish a particular task (you might need someone to hold you accountable for this). Another more extreme example is to bet money on it – the website StickK encourages users to set measurable goals and monitor their progress – and if they fail, money is donated to a charity or an ‘anti-charity of your choice. So not finishing that assignment could mean that you’re helping to fund the equivalent of the KKK, which should hopefully be motivation enough to stick with your goals. 

Have any other tips that have helped you stop procrastinating? Tell us in the comments below.

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