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How to stop procrastinating

Did you open this article and tell yourself you’d read it later? You’re not alone. In this digital age, there are more distractions pulling on our attention than ever before. The thing we need to be doing keeps gnawing away at the back of our minds, but we find ourselves putting it off until the last possible moment. If you’re ready to break this cycle, stick with us and keep reading — this one’s for you.

We’re all familiar with procrastination — the act of delaying or postponing something until later, or another day entirely. Serial procrastinators represent about 20% of the population. For any of us, procrastination can happen when we feel overwhelmed by a task, or when something is regarded as too tedious to tackle, or when the fear of failure obstructs a lofty goal. The good news? Understanding why we procrastinate, and learning a little more about what’s going on in our minds, can help us break the habit and feel more productive.

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How can we stop procrastinating?

Key takeaways:

  • The more we procrastinate, the harder the habit can be to break

  • Get motivated by starting small instead of thinking ahead to your end goal

  • A regular mindfulness practice can help us avoid procrastination

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Why we procrastinate

We’ve been procrastinating long before the lure of the social media scroll. Centuries ago, Greek philosophers called it the Akrasia effect. “Akrasia” means lacking command, and this term was often used when people went against their better judgment. Many of us can relate to putting off filing that tax form or making that difficult phone call. And while we usually get to the task in the end without negative consequences, we still might wonder why we couldn’t just get on with it in the first place.

With one in five of us being chronic procrastinators, the habit can start to become debilitating and negatively impact our health and well-being. Chronic procrastinators tend to avoid important actions and decisions in all areas of life, even to the extent of putting off a visit to the doctor to discuss a worrying health concern.

To get to the root of our procrastination, one study from 2019 suggested a neurological connection — it happens when the limbic system, the emotional part of our brain, overtakes the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us plan and make decisions. Because we tend to favor instant gratification, eating a snack rather than getting on with a work project can seem more important to our happiness in a certain moment.

From a character standpoint, procrastination is sometimes put down to being disorganized, or even lazy. But neither is at the heart of the reasons why people procrastinate, and research points increasingly to emotional causes. Timothy Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, has researched procrastination for decades and says: “Procrastination is an emotional-management problem. We procrastinate when we find a task aversive, we resent doing it, or we fear it. To escape those emotions, we escape the task,” he says.

Among the emotional reasons we procrastinate could be low self-esteem — unhelpful negative storylines dominating our thoughts — that can be linked to everyday anxiety. In fact, procrastination and anxiety often go hand in hand. Sometimes, we delay starting a task or project because we feel anxious about it, and anxiety procrastination can also manifest as perfectionism, when you hold yourself to an unnecessarily high standard and it feels impossible to overcome the task in front of you. Whatever the root cause, one thing is clear: the more we get used to procrastinating, the harder the habit is to break.

How to stop procrastinating

Procrastination is like a muscle — the more we use it, the stronger it gets. So breaking the habit and learning how to not procrastinate involves finding out why we do it in the first place. One of the key reasons why we procrastinate is when a big goal or objective is in front of us, and we don’t know where to start. Instead, we put off starting that work project altogether and tell ourselves we’ll feel better about tackling it tomorrow, when the reality is we’re likely to feel the same.

One way to get motivated to accomplish a daunting project is to start small at the beginning instead of looking ahead to the end. Try to think of the project as a series of repeated steps, where the only one you need to complete at the start is the first. As you take more steps toward your goal, you’ll get more comfortable with the work and start to trust that you’re on the right path. What’s more, you can feel a sense of accomplishment every time you reach a new small milestone on the road to your larger goal.

When anxiety causes us to procrastinate, it’s important to pause and identify those thoughts and feelings rather than adding judgment that makes us label ourselves as unmotivated or lazy. Instead, recognize the anxious thoughts for what they are — just thoughts passing through. Learning to manage our thoughts and feelings, not just our time, is key to getting to the root of the procrastination problem … and that’s where meditation and mindfulness can be helpful.

Using a mindfulness practice to avoid procrastination

An added benefit of a consistent meditation practice is that it can help us learn how to avoid procrastination. The more we sit with the mind, the more we bring our attention to its tendencies. That way, when we’re moving through our lives, we’re able to catch ourselves when a thought arises that would usually lead to procrastination — and that’s when we learn not to indulge it. When we bring this kind of awareness to the issue at hand, this is mindfulness in action.

Research supports mindfulness as a helpful tool in learning to procrastinate less, and has even shown that a regular meditation practice can actually change the physical structure of our brains and improve our executive decision-making skills. We also know that meditation can help to declutter our thoughts and sharpen our concentration, leading us to stay more focused and on task. One study found that one 15-minute session of Headspace resulted in a 22% reduction in mind-wandering.

We know that procrastination can be a pesky habit to break, but a mindfulness practice can be your best defense. Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe says: “Procrastination can come in so many forms: making a cup of coffee, checking social media, tidying up your house before you can start work. But if you can catch yourself at that moment … and just sit for a moment longer, you’ll often find the need to do so really subsides.

"This is one of the things that a meditation practice can help with, giving you enough perspective on your thoughts that, from time to time, you can try something new, rather than just operating on autopilot. Not acting on the impulse to procrastinate is relatively easy. You don’t need to exert effort — in fact, all you need to do is nothing."

For more support, the Headspace app offers Focus music to help us zone in on any task or project that needs tackling. Led by our Chief Music Officer John Legend, Focus music features playlists from several artists and other soothing sounds designed to create more mental clarity, help you get in the groove, and feel more productive. With other meditation sessions for self-esteem, productivity, focus, and letting go of stress, it also helps with a range of practices that can ease the dithering and delaying that gets in the way of progress.

As an everyday practice, meditation is a real-life tool to help us all learn how to stop procrastinating. It can also be used as a good test of self-discipline. Carve out the time, commit to meditating, and show up for yourself, without putting it off. Each day we show up, we chip away at the power of procrastination, and continue to strengthen the mind.

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