Experts Reveal How To Use Psychological Tricks To Stop Procrastinating

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
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Procrastination, or putting things off until the very last minute, isn't exactly great for productivity, but many of us do it. According to research by professor of psychology Joseph Ferrari, up to 20% of people might be chronic procrastinators — regularly delaying tasks because they don't want to do them — but virtually everybody wants to fix their procrastination habit, no matter how severe it is. Nobody is fully motivated to do the things on their to-do list all the time, but if you're experiencing serious difficulties with procrastination, there are certain psychological tips and tricks to keep yourself focused and beat the impulse to delay things till tomorrow, the day after, and the day after that.

The first step to defeating procrastination is to understand it, and there are several misconceptions about why we procrastinate at all. "So many people think procrastination is a time management problem, when in fact it's an emotional regulation problem," Dr. Tim Pychyl, Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University and head of the Procrastination Research Group, tells Bustle. If you're procrastinating, he says, you're not being lazy; you're reacting to an emotional response to the act itself. "Someone will put something in their diary, and then think 'I don't want to. I don't feel like it. I'll feel more like it tomorrow,'" he says. "It's that existential moment where you face a task and recognize with your whole body screaming at you, I don't want to."

For a lot of people, procrastination has its roots in anxiety. "Anxiety leads to avoidance and avoidance only further compounds anxiety," psychologist Dr. Paola Bailey, PsyD, tells Bustle. That aversive emotional reaction, whether it's rooted in anxiety or in something else, is what motivates us to procrastinate — which means that to get past it, we need to develop ways to move past those emotions, and transform them into something helpful.

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Knowing where to start to conquer procrastination can be difficult, but research offers a few possibilities. "The main trick is to get super curious about what your brain is telling you when you procrastinate," Dr. Bailey says. Many of your emotions surrounding procrastination likely don't rise to the level of conscious thought, so you need to do some digging to find them, she tells Bustle. "You have to slow down long enough to ask yourself a lot of questions surrounding what you're avoiding, what you're afraid of, what's really making you uncomfortable, anxious or scared about the task."

If this sounds familiar, it's because it's the process behind cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — and CBT can be very helpful if you procrastinate a lot, Dr. Alexander Rozental, a researcher specializing in procrastination at Karolinska Institutet, a Swedish University, tells Bustle. In 2015 his team conducted the first clinical trials on procrastination treatment with CBT, using 150 and 92 participants respectively, and the methods were pretty comprehensive. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves changing the pattern of your behaviors through examining your thought patterns, and Rozental says that people in the study were helped to do various therapeutic activities, "like breaking down long-term goals into subgoals, removing distractions from the environment where you usually procrastinate, and exposing yourself to negative feelings associated with a particular task."

The results were positive, with people showing continued improvement in their procrastination levels up to a year after treatment — and in people who'd been given treatment in CBT groups rather than via an internet-based program, their procrastination continued to lessen dramatically. "This implies that seeing someone face-to-face, and perhaps together with others in the same situation does have some advantages over just trying to complete the treatment by yourself," says Dr. Rozental.


If you don't have the resources to have CBT with a professional, you can endeavor to achieve the same results at home. "The solution is finding new thoughts to replace the thoughts that you normally have," explains Bailey. "You may have thoughts like 'I don't know how to do it,' 'I always fail', 'it's so unpleasant', and things like that. Be aware of what those thoughts are and find replacement thoughts, like 'It is hard, but you do OK with hard things when you try.'" Your emotions about procrastination are very individual, but recognizing these thoughts and targeting them consciously will help procrastination in the long run. It's also important to be realistic, Bailey says. "Remember that telling yourself 'I'm great and I'm going to do a perfect job' isn't helpful, because you're not going to believe that," she tells Bustle.

Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation can be helpful for procrastinators. "Mindfulness used in relation to procrastination is very strategic, because what you're learning is a non-judgemental attitude towards one's emotions," Dr. Pychyl tells Bustle. "I can say, I have those emotions, but I need not be those emotions." Studies have demonstrated that chronic procrastinators have bigger amydgalas — the part of the brain that dominates emotional processing — than other people. Eight weeks of mindfulness meditation can cause amygdala volume to shrink, actively changing the brain to be less procrastination-friendly.

Beyond therapy and mindfulness, there are other at-home strategies that can help you develop better self-regulation about procrastination. If you're struggling with procrastination at work, Dr. Rozental recommends doing some practical interventions, like removing distractions from your work environment, scheduling work for your most alert times of day, and working in short, focused intervals of around 30 minutes. These methods are low-stress and low-energy, but they can be helpful.

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If you're still procrastinating, you can also do some psychological trickery. Going through the task in very small increments, Dr. Pychyl tells Bustle, is a great way to tackle procrastination. He suggests asking yourself, "What's the next action I would take if I did this?" The action should be very small, he says. "If you keep that action threshold low, then you're well on your way to doing what you're supposed to be doing. When people ask, How do you beat procrastination? I say, just get started." Bailey's favorite tools for tackling procrastination include Trello, which can help organize your schedule into small bite-size pieces and navigate it bit by bit.

If this still sounds difficult, think of it in terms of effort. "Start each assignment with the least amount of effort you’re willing to perform," Dr. Rozental suggests. This could mean working on something for just ten minutes, or cleaning out one drawer in your desk — a small step, but still one step. "What you have to do is be able to turn your attention from your emotions over to action. You're not denying your emotions, but you're taking your attention and putting it elsewhere," says Dr. Pychyl.

And there's one other step you can take to get over chronic procrastination: be kind to yourself. "Research points to the fact that forgiving yourself for procrastination is very helpful," Bailey tells Bustle. "It's not that you get a free pass; you want to be compassionate and forgive yourself, and also have accountability for how you do it better next time." Take a deep breath, be compassionate to yourself about putting that task off forever — and have a plan for what you'll do next time you need to do your taxes, make that unpleasant phone call, or complete that nerve-wracking task.

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