How to stop procrastinating (But maybe you shouldn't, learn why)
Stop fighting procrastination and learn to manage it. Understanding procrastination using the latest research will save you time and lift your spirits.
I have what is not-so-affectionately referred to as student syndrome.
Beholden to deadlines, I used to spend most of my week avoiding the work I knew needed to be done only to scramble and mobilize my tired brain cells at the last possible moment. I pulled all-nighters, chugging coffee and energy shots like I was vying for sponsorship from caffeine.
It was a stressful and vicious cycle.
It would take me days to fully recover, and by the time I did, the next set of deadlines would be hanging over my head, prompting me to start the exhausting circle anew.
But that’s not how I work anymore, and after you read this article, it won’t be how you work anymore, either.
Because while I still live by the deadline -- I’m a student and a writer, two professions defined by the due date -- it’s not always a bad thing.
And it’s not something I try to overcome, either. I’m as much a chronic procrastinator as I am chronically busy, and trying to expend myself denying both facets is a quick recipe for burning out.
So today, we’re going to take a contrary point of view.
We’re not going to fix procrastination. We’re just going to get better at it.
Let’s dive in.
What causes procrastination?
When you hear about procrastination, it usually comes with images like the way I introduced this article:
Someone stressed out.
Someone who isn’t managing their time well.
But respectfully, I disagree with the idea that procrastination is inherently an excuse for self-defeat, and research backs me up (see our last tip).
Still, let’s examine procrastination. What do scientists say about it?
The most common causes according to psychology are:
Not knowing what the task entails
Uncertainty about the ability to perform the task
Plain ole’ not wanting to do the task
The list of reasons goes on, painting a picture of lackluster creators who are dictated by their moods as much as their excuses.
But we both know that’s not the real picture of the procrastinator.
No, today’s procrastinator is more like a fish trying to cross the stream against the current, especially if they’re entrepreneurs.
After all, 40% of the creators in Podia’s community have a day job, and 73% of those are planning to leave their daytime employers behind to become their own bosses.
And pulling that off takes a lot of moving pieces. Too many for any single person to manage constantly without heading straight for burnout.
There is no shame in putting things off and giving yourself chill time.
At least, there shouldn’t be when you consider just how prevalent procrastination actually is.
What do I mean?
Take Tinder, for instance. Now, with the caveat that Tinder came about well after I’d shared my vows with someone and I’ve never personally used it, research has uncovered a surprising statistic.
The majority of people on Tinder aren’t trying to find someone to share a drink with.
They’re just trying to kill time and get a little confidence boost while they’re at it.
That’s what almost 45% of millennial users say about why they use Tinder, anyway.
On a less humorous note, there are also statistics like this:
The average employee in the US kills about a full workday -- 8 or more hours -- a week while on the job.
The same is true in the UK as well, where workers spend 27% of their time at work doing anything but what they’re being salaried to do.
So either people who speak English natively have a serious predisposition towards procrastination and slacking off, or there’s a much simpler explanation for what causes procrastination: life.
Crazy idea, right?
So instead of telling you how to fight procrastination, let’s go even more against the grain and talk about how to become a better procrastinator.
3 tips to manage your procrastination and time effectively
#1. Go for the immediate gratification factor
I know, I know -- the idea of purposefully and intentionally going after instant gratification somehow feels cheap and like it’s the ‘wrong’ thing to do.
And it’s little wonder why -- every article you find talking about instant gratification comes with this heavy tone of exasperation, decrying the impatient consumer.
Consider this infographic, for instance. While excellently designed, it reads more like a condemnation than a statistic, telling you that only 26% of customers are willing to wait more than half an hour for takeout food.
How dare they, right?
It’s all technology’s fault that we expect immediate payoffs and aren’t satisfied with anything less than immediate gratification.
Except it turns out that the pursuit of gratification has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with human nature.
And this distinction matters for achieving your goals. Studies have looked at the esteem level people hold their goals in and their persistence with achieving them, and here’s what they found:
Our immediate enjoyment of pursuing a goal is far more important for predicting our persistence in reaching it than the perceived importance of the goal.
In other words, those who set their sight on the long game -- gym-goers who exercised for improved health over their lifetime, workers who wanted to advance their careers -- were significantly less likely to persist than those who aimed for short-term, immediate gratification.
It’s probably our brains’ fault. The human brain is amazing at remembering what makes us happy and what doesn’t, forming reward pathways that reinforce behaviors by giving us a kick of dopamine when we do something that’s enjoyable for us.
Think of dopamine as a rebate for behavior. When something stimulates the right parts of our brain, like a tasty meal or a fun exercise, it’s committed to memory, and we’re more likely to engage in the behavior going forward than to choose less rewarding alternatives.
Which means instant gratification isn’t a symptom of a generation that’s impatient (and the most perfectionist to boot), it’s part of our biological structure.
And you can use that.
Dreading writing an article about procrastination? Create a reward pathway by only letting yourself drink your favorite chai tea when you’re working.
Putting off getting the house picked up? Trick your brain into associating putting laundry away with your favorite room-freshening scent that makes you think of your grandmother’s kitchen.
You get the idea.
If you want to procrastinate less, make the tasks at hand more enjoyable with a reward for yourself. Gamify your to-do list with something that’s fun and provides an immediate payoff.
In the meantime, it’ll make your progress more entertaining, and in the long run, it’ll reinforce behaviors that curtail your procrastinating tendencies by creating a new habit.
It’s a simple, and dare I say, rewarding process.
#2. Use timeboxing to put constraints on your procrastination
As entrepreneurs and creatives, we tend to avoid the idea of putting anything into a box, especially if those things are our products or selves.
But constraints are a good thing, especially when it comes to time.
This strategy is trickier to enforce if you’re working without customers or a boss -- though hiring a virtual assistant can help fill the gap -- but the basic idea is this:
Set a time limit on projects like a dead man switch. For me, that’s right before my weekly deadlines are up for work or class. For you, that might be the night before you have to turn your deliverables over to your customers.
This technique is known as ‘timeboxing.’ It originates from Agile software development and is typically included in a good ‘scrum’ or ‘sprint’ in which a team goes from idea to implementation in a given time frame -- usually no more than a few weeks.
The intricacies of why and when to use Agile are probably best reserved for project managers, but this is what you need to know about it -- of the organizations that adopt it, 55% do so to improve their productivity, and 71% say it’s helped them manage changing priorities.
Both of those tasks sound an awful lot like the challenges small business owners face every day, no?
If timeboxing works for organizations that need to deliver products to paying consumers, it can definitely scale down to individuals who need to do the same with digital goods.
But, let’s look at this on a more granular level.
How do you apply timeboxing to your daily life if there’s no one else to enforce it for you?
Simple. Create that enforcement by making a commitment to someone else, ideally a customer or beta-tester, and likewise create consequences if you don’t meet that obligation.
If it’s a customer, the consequence will be losing them. When you don’t meet your commitments, you’re communicating that you don’t care to honor them -- whether that’s true or not -- and 68% of customers stop doing business with a company when/if they perceive indifference.
Is it high stakes?
Definitely. Customer retention is one of the most important qualities to nail for your business. If you've got solid retention, you have a business that can survive shutting down an online course or raising your prices.
So is it worth it? Also definitely, because using constraints like timeboxing does more than just enforce a deliverables schedule -- it also makes you far more likely to complete your goals.
Short deadlines, research finds, are less prone to procrastination than extended deadlines. Likewise, limited resources, such as time, are more likely to prompt creativity than an overabundance of resources.
Simply put, if you’ve only got 5.24 hours of free time to pursue your goals -- that’s the average amount of leisure time people have in the US in a given day -- then you’re more likely to be productive and get creative than if you give yourself 36.68 hours in a week to do it.
Tight, short deadlines and boxes may feel like anathema to the entrepreneur’s way of life, but they can be the difference between a dream and a deliverable.
So in this case, limit yourself.
It can be more beneficial than you think.
#3. Be an active, not a passive, procrastinator
At this point, this article might seem like the “yes man” of procrastination pieces. Everything I’ve said so far sounds too good to be true, and that isn’t going to change in this tip.
Because scientists have realized that procrastination, like impostor syndrome, comes in more than one flavor, but unlike impostor syndrome, one of them is actually awesome.
I’ll let the researchers, Jin Nam Choi and Angela Hsin Chun Chu, explain:
“...Members of this newly identified group of procrastinators, active procrastinators, prefer to work under pressure and make deliberate procrastination decisions. They are more likely to accomplish tasks with satisfactory outcomes…”
It gets really interesting the further you wade into the study, too. Check this out:
There are a few points of interest in this chart, but the most prevalent that I want to point out is the similarities between “nonprocrastinators” and active procrastinators regarding stress and life satisfaction.
Basically, everything you’ve ever read that tried to shame you about waiting until the last minute and not getting work done as quickly as possible?
There’s no factual basis for it. The key to procrastination isn’t avoiding it, it’s about being deliberate with it.
Plus, consider this.
Contingent planning, or accounting for interruptions and maintaining flexibility in your schedule, has been shown to improve productivity and enhance engagement levels over more traditional task-based time management.
This is noteworthy because, as the above table displays, active procrastinators are naturally more prone to contingent planning than either nonprocrastinators or passive procrastinators.
It was an unexpected result for the researchers, but an enlightening one:
“...active procrastinators may have more flexibly structured time and are more sensitive to changing demands in their environment. For this reason, they will act more spontaneously, resulting in more frequent temporal changes.”
How, you might be wondering, do you combine an active procrastinator’s flexibility with the timeboxing we talked about in the last tip?
Easy. Actively plan for interruptions as part of your procrastination schedule. The two ideas aren’t untenable, and as the table above attests, don’t spell immediate ruin for your results.
Otherwise, keep this in mind for active procrastination:
Active procrastinators are motivated by the challenge of a quick deadline.
So if you’re a chronic procrastinator, the key is intending on it and acknowledging that it’s going to happen, then setting a deadline for when you’ll stop.
Because if you feel like you work better under pressure, you probably do, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
After all, great things are made under pressure -- things like diamonds, planetary mantles, and fall-apart curry chicken.
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A great wrap-up headline to be determined later
Procrastination plagues the best of us at the worst of times, and there’s no quick-fix cure for it.
Here’s the skinny on procrastination:
Reasons for procrastinating run the gamut from sickness to laziness, and there’s no single cause to procrastination.
We propose that procrastination in entrepreneurs is less about personal choices and more about life. Most of us have more than one job -- a day job and a side-hustle -- plus families, activities, and the periodic need to sleep.
You can’t beat procrastination, but you can take steps to mitigate it.
In fact, if you want to procrastinate less, make work more rewarding for yourself. Instant gratification is a powerful predictor for long-term persistence for goals.
Better yet, set hard limits for yourself. Timeboxing raises the stakes and can lead to more creative productivity than what you’d find with an open schedule.
Finally, not all forms of procrastination are negative. Active procrastination, or deliberate procrastination, can lead to similar outcomes as not procrastinating and seems to afford greater flexibility overall.
Give these tips a try to curve your procrastination and manage your time more effectively.
(And if you get a moment, I’d love to hear how it goes -- but let me guess, you’ll get back to me about it later.)