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How to stop procrastinating – from a procrastination psychologist

We’ve all been there – trading study time for Netflix or chores. Procrastination has a knack of getting in our way, but fear not, you can beat it. In this article, with insights from procrastination psychologist Nick Wignall, we’ll uncover why we procrastinate and how it impacts us.

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    Nick Wignall

    September 18 2023
    How to overcome procrastination


    Although psychologists have been studying procrastination for decades, it’s only in the last few years that we have built a consensus on what really contributes most to procrastination and, as a result, how best to deal with it.

    Psychologist and procrastination researcher Piers Steel conducted a meta-analysis of all the research on procrastination in the past few decades and discovered that there are four primary causes of procrastination:

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    We tend to procrastinate when we have a low expectation of reward or success in our task. If you have never written a paper of more than five pages, that 15-page research paper might shake your confidence a bit.

    We also procrastinate more when there doesn’t seem to be much immediate benefit from successfully completing our task. For most of us, writing a research paper is not an inherently enjoyable task and no one gives us any kind of reward when we turn it in.

    We’re more likely to procrastinate the more easily distracted we are. It’s easier to procrastinate on that paper when you are constantly getting texts from friends about the exciting stuff they’re doing while you’re in the library.

    The further away the deadline for a task, the higher our likelihood of procrastinating. When the due date is three months away, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we have plenty of time.

    Interestingly, these four factors also work together in a particular way to contribute to procrastination – what Dr. Steele calls the procrastination equation:


    In other words, your likelihood of procrastinating goes up if the product of your confidence and value are small relative to the product of your distractibility and the delay between assignment and due date. On the other hand, you are less likely to procrastinate when your confidence and value are high relative to your distractibility and delay.

    But here’s the really big takeaway from this research: we all procrastinate for different reasons.

    Hopefully that helps clarify why procrastination is such a sticky problem and why we all tend to procrastinate a little differently. Here are some tips to stop you procrastinating once and for all.

    Five tips to stop procrastinating

    Begin with small tasks

    Effective time management is crucial to overcome procrastination. Here are strategies to help you plan your day, week and sleep schedule:

    1. Create your own deadlines: University assignments often have distant due dates, making time management challenging. To fight procrastination, why not make your own deadline? For example, if your paper is due on 31 November, create a personal schedule with deadlines like the introduction by 31 September, the body by 31 October, and the conclusion by 15 November.

    2. Time management techniques: Explore different time management methods to boost productivity and decision-making:

       - Batching/time blocking: Allocate specific blocks of time to similar tasks or activities on your to-do list.

       - Pomodoro technique: Work in focused intervals, typically 25 minutes, followed by a short break.

       - Calendar app: Use digital calendars to schedule and organise your tasks.

       - Give every minute a job: Plan your workday by assigning tasks to each minute. This approach helps you make decisions about what to prioritise and when to do it.

    3. Morning and night check-in: Reflect on your day in the morning and in the evening. This practice helps you set priorities and look back on your progress over a shorter period of time.

    4. Plan your sleep: Establish a consistent sleep schedule and stick to it. This will help combat bedtime procrastination and lead to a more productive day schedule.

    Make environmental changes

    Changing your work environment can be a powerful antidote to procrastination. Many of us tend to work or study in the same familiar places repeatedly, which can become breeding grounds for distractions. Instead, when faced with an important task, consider changing your surroundings. Drive to a different neighbourhood and work in an unfamiliar coffee shop or take your laptop to a park for a change of scenery.

    Consider using physical clocks and timers to keep yourself on track. It’s worth noting that relying on apps may not be as effective, because there is evidence that impulsive behaviour, particularly in cases of ADHD, can be made worse by digital distractions.

    Eliminate distractions

    Getting rid of distractions can seriously help with procrastination.

    Think about it like this: you’re trying to write an essay but your phone keeps buzzing with messages, and your noisy roommate is playing video games nearby. It’s hard to concentrate, right? So, try to get rid of those distractions.

    Put your phone on silent or in another room, maybe even use apps that block distracting websites. If you like music, you can listen to some focus or instrumental music. Find a quiet and comfy spot that you have designed to work, and you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to stay on track and get things done.

    This strategy links to the impulsiveness part of the procrastination equation. By deliberately reducing distractions that offer immediate gratification, such as turning off notifications to prevent you checking your phone, you’re lowering your impulse to do something else. This can boost your motivation to work on tasks with more distant rewards.

    Practise self-compassion

    It’s essential to be kind to yourself, especially when a lot of the work you cover at university may not be instantly rewarding or feel immediately valuable. However, you can change the value of assignments by adding your own rewards, preventing last-minute stress from unintentional laziness.

    Consider treating your future self to something that you find enjoyable or rewarding, such as a milkshake or an hour of video games, as a reward for successfully finishing a task and maintaining self-control.

    Studies suggest that being kinder to yourself can reduce procrastination and improve mental health. To achieve this in the first place you need to be forgiving and understanding towards your own challenges and setbacks.

    Achieve tasks through realistic goals

    Setting realistic goals is closely linked to the concept of expectancy. By establishing achievable objectives, you can improve your belief and confidence in your ability to accomplish them. Unrealistic goals can damage your expectancy over time, leading to an increase in procrastination.

    Aim for what Cal Newport refers to as “slow productivity”, a term to describe a more sustainable way to work. Consider creating a timeline for large tasks, focusing on long-term progress rather than short-term gains. Think in terms of slow and steady progress.

    Estimate the time that you need for a task and then double it to provide yourself with time buffers, reducing stress and anxiety associated with tight deadlines. This will not only help you get through your tasks, but it will also help avoid negative consequences of procrastination, such as missing deadlines or failing to complete an assignment.

    Techniques to overcome procrastination

    Let’s briefly discuss the importance of reducing or eliminating procrastination in the long run.

    Procrastination can have significant consequences, especially in the workplace, where it can lead to professional setbacks and strained relationships with colleagues and superiors. Additionally, procrastination is often linked to increased stress, which can have detrimental effects on your overall health.

    You can let your roommates or family know that you need some uninterrupted time to focus. Politely explain that you’ll be studying or writing for a specific period and would appreciate fewer distractions.

    You can use a sign on your door or headphones to signal your concentration. Also, mention that you’ll be available for urgent matters and switch off your social media during this period of time.

    Consistency is key, so establish a routine for your focused study sessions. This helps you avoid procrastination and stay productive.

    Acknowledge you are procrastinating

    Acknowledging when you are procrastinating is a critical first step in addressing this behaviour. It involves becoming aware of the signs that indicate you’re avoiding tasks or delaying important work.

    These signs could include feeling a strong urge to do anything but your task, finding excuses, or constantly switching between tasks without making progress. Identifying these triggers can help you intervene and redirect your focus towards productive work before developing a bad procrastination habit. 

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    Types of procrastination

    There are many times of procrastination and it’s beneficial to understand them so you can address them effectively:

    1. Deadline procrastination: This is the classic student manoeuvre where you put off assignments until the eleventh hour. You might believe you work best under pressure, but it often results in last-minute stress and lower-quality work.

    2. Decisional procrastination: Have you ever found yourself unable to choose a research topic or decide on a major? Decisional procrastination occurs when you delay choices due to fear of making the wrong ones, which can stall your progress.

    3. Chronic procrastination: Chronic procrastinators consistently postpone tasks across different aspects of their lives, from coursework to personal responsibilities. This can seriously impact your overall well-being and academic success.

    4. Perfectionist procrastination: If you’re a perfectionist, you might procrastinate out of fear that your work won’t meet your own sky-high standards. This fear can prevent you even starting a task.

    5. Task avoidance procrastination: Some students dodge certain responsibilities because they find them uninteresting or emotionally challenging. This can result in neglecting important tasks in favour of more enjoyable activities.

    6. Irrational procrastination: Occasionally, students procrastinate without a clear reason, even for tasks they’d actually enjoy or that could benefit them. This type can be perplexing and may have psychological roots.

    7. Short-term v long-term procrastination: Consider whether you focus too much on short-term pleasures and instant gratification, potentially compromising your progress towards long-term academic goals.

    Identifying which type you are suffering from is crucial. Once you’ve pinpointed your procrastination problem, you can try the right strategies like setting clear goals, breaking tasks into manageable steps, managing your time wisely, and addressing any underlying issues to successfully start getting things done.

    Use strategies built for your unique type of procrastination

    It’s important to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to procrastination. Once you figure out which type of procrastinator you are, you can start taking action.

    1. Deadline procrastination:

    - What to do: Don’t wait until the last minute. Set your own deadlines that are a bit earlier than the official ones. Break your work into smaller chunks and schedule times to tackle them. Try the Pomodoro Technique for focused bursts of work.

    2. Decisional procrastination:

    - What to do: Decisions don’t need to be perfect. Make a list of pros and cons for your options. If it’s not a life-or-death decision, give yourself a deadline to make up your mind. Talk to friends or mentors for advice.

    3. Chronic procrastination:

    - What to do: Start small. Tackle easy tasks first, then work your way up to the big ones. Set clear goals and to-do lists to feel a sense of accomplishment. If it’s really messing with your life, think about talking to a counsellor.

    4. Perfectionist procrastination:

    - What to do: Forget perfection; aim for progress. Realise that it’s okay to make mistakes. Break tasks into bite-sized pieces and reward yourself for completing them, even if they’re not perfect.

    5. Task avoidance procrastination:

    - What to do: If a task takes less than two minutes, do it now. Mix in stuff you like with the boring stuff on your to-do list. Chop big tasks into smaller, less scary bits.

    6. Irrational procrastination:

    - What to do: Dig deep and figure out what’s really holding you back. Is it a fear of failure or negative emotions? Sometimes, there’s more to it than meets the eye. If it’s a big mental block, talking to a therapist can really help.

    7. Short-term v long-term procrastination:

    - What to do: Try to resist quick rewards and focus on the bigger picture. Set long-term goals for your studies and career, then break them into smaller chunks. Give yourself a pat on the back when you hit those milestones and reflect on how you did at the end of the day.

    Remember, it’s all about finding what clicks for you. These tips are like tools in your procrastination-fighting toolkit. Try them out and see what makes your productivity soar!

    Lack of motivation

    Addressing a lack of motivation is a common challenge in overcoming procrastination.

    Find your ‘why’: Understand why your goals matter to you on a personal level. This deep understanding can reignite your motivation by reminding you of your purpose and what you’re striving to achieve. For example, if you’re aiming for academic success, your “why” might be a better future or personal growth.

    Visualise success: Mentally picture yourself achieving your goals. This exercise can boost your confidence and motivation. For instance, if you’re working on a tough project, envision yourself confidently presenting it or receiving praise for your work.

    Find accountability: Share your goals with someone you trust, such as a friend or family member. They can provide support and hold you accountable for your progress, motivating you to stay on track.

    Stay inspired: Surround yourself with motivational content, such as quotes, success stories or role models who’ve achieved what you aspire to. Regular exposure to these sources can keep your motivation levels high. You can even create a vision board for university.

    Stay healthy: Prioritise self-care by getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising. Good physical health directly impacts your energy and mental outlook, enabling you to pursue your goals with enthusiasm.

    Stopping procrastination due to disorganisation

    Disorganisation can be a significant part of procrastination. To fight this, consider creating systems and routines that help you stay organised and on track.

    1. Use a planner or calendar: Use a physical diary or a digital calendar to keep tabs on your class schedules, assignment deadlines, exams and other important dates. Set reminders to help you stay on track with your commitments.

    2. Use folders and binders: Organise your notes, handouts and assignments into subject-specific folders or binders. Consider colour-coding and labelling to give easy access.

    3. Digital organisation: Arrange your digital files and documents into folders on your computer or cloud storage. Use clear file names and a consistent structure to locate materials effortlessly.

    4. Avoid overcommitting: Exercise caution when taking on multiple extracurricular activities, clubs or part-time jobs because it can lead to exhaustion and disorganisation.

    5. Stay informed: Stay updated with announcements, syllabi and course materials provided by your professors to prevent any unexpected surprises.

    These strategies will assist you in maintaining order and efficiency throughout your university experience, making it more manageable to handle your academic workload and responsibilities.

    Preventing revenge bedtime procrastination

    Revenge bedtime procrastination is a term that has gained popularity on social media to describe a specific type of procrastination behaviour.

    It refers to the tendency to stay up late at night, sacrificing valuable sleep hours, as a way to “reclaim” personal time and leisure activities that you feel you didn’t have during the day.

    Revenge bedtime procrastination can disrupt your sleep and productivity. To prevent this, limit your screen time before bedtime, because the blue light from screens can interfere with your sleep quality.

    Try apps designed to reduce screen time or set a fixed bedtime to ensure you get adequate rest. Adequate sleep is crucial for combating daytime fatigue and reducing the temptation to procrastinate.

    Chronic procrastination: when it cannot be stopped

    Finding the root cause

    University life can bring unique challenges that contribute to chronic procrastination. It’s vital to pinpoint the cause of your procrastination to effectively address it:

    - Fear of failure: Experiencing academic pressure or fearing poor grades can lead to procrastination. Understand that making mistakes is part of learning, and seeking help when needed is a sign of strength.

    - Perfectionism: Striving for perfection in every assignment can be paralysing. Embrace the idea that “perfect” doesn’t exist, and aiming for excellence is more attainable.

    - Lack of motivation: Some subjects or tasks may not be immediately engaging. Break them down into smaller, more manageable parts and find ways to make them more interesting or relevant to your goals.

    - Emotional factors: University can be emotionally challenging. Procrastination may be a coping mechanism. Consider seeking support from university counselling services to address underlying emotional issues.

    - Poor time management: If you’re struggling with time management, explore resources available at your university.

    Seeking professional help

    If chronic procrastination is negatively impacting your academic performance and overall well-being, don’t hesitate to reach out to your university’s counselling or mental health services.

    They can offer counselling support, time management workshops or academic advisers who can assist in structuring your course load in a more manageable way.

    Staying persistent and dealing with your procrastination

    Overcoming chronic procrastination is an ongoing process, but as a university student you have the opportunity to develop valuable life skills:

    - Track your progress: Use a journal or apps to monitor your progress and setbacks. This helps you identify which strategies are best for your needs.

    - Celebrate achievements: Acknowledge even small accomplishments. Completing a reading or submitting an assignment on time is a victory worth celebrating.

    - Stay open to learning: University is a time of personal growth. Be open to trying new approaches and learning from your experiences.

    - Peer support: Share your challenges and successes with fellow students. You’re not alone in facing procrastination, and peer support can be motivating.

    Remember, managing chronic procrastination is part of your academic journey. By understanding its root causes, seeking support when needed, and staying persistent, you can develop valuable skills that will serve you well in both your university life and future career.


    Q. What does procrastination mean?
    A. Procrastination is when you keep putting off things you're supposed to do.

    Q. Why do we end up procrastinating?
    A. Recent psychology research tells us that procrastination happens when we don't think a task is worth the effort, there's no immediate reward, we're easily distracted, and the deadline is far away.

    Q. So, why do we delay stuff when we don’t see much gain in doing it?
    A. When we don’t see a big payoff for doing something, we’re more likely to procrastinate because it doesn’t excite us.

    Q. Why does being easily distracted makes us procrastinate more?
    A. Being easily distracted makes it easier for us to put things off. Instead of working, we get side-tracked by other tempting things.

    Q. Does the time left before a task is due affect our procrastination?
    A. Yep, the more time we have before a deadline, the more likely we are to procrastinate. We trick ourselves into thinking we’ve got loads of time.

    Q. What is the procrastination equation and how does it make us procrastinate?
    A. The procrastination equation is a fancy way of saying that when we’re not confident and don’t see much value in a task, and we’re easily distracted with a long wait till the deadline, we’re more likely to procrastinate. It’s all about balancing these factors.

    Q. Why do people procrastinate differently, and why is it so hard to stop?
    A. People procrastinate in unique ways because we’re all different. That’s why it's tough to tackle procrastination – there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

    Q. What are some ways to stop procrastinating?
    A. Try setting your own deadlines, using time management tricks, changing where you work, being kind to yourself, setting realistic goals, and finding what triggers your procrastination.

    Q. How does the ‘25’ or Pomodoro Method help beat procrastination?
    A. The “25” or Pomodoro Method means working for 25 minutes and then taking a short break. It keeps you focus and manage your time better.

    Q. Can changing my environment really stop me from procrastinating?
    A. Yep, changing your workspace can help you avoid distractions and stay on track.

    Q. Why is being nice to myself important when battling procrastination?
    A. Being kind to yourself is essential because it reduces the negative feelings that come with procrastination and keeps you motivated.

    Q. How does setting realistic goals help with procrastination?
    A. Realistic goals boost your confidence and make you more likely to get things done, reducing procrastination.

    Q. What tricks and techniques can I use to finally kick procrastination?
    A. Start by recognising when you’re procrastinating, figure out why you’re doing it, and then use strategies that match your unique procrastination style.

    Q. Why does a lack of motivation lead to procrastination, and how can I fix it?
    A. When you’re not motivated, you’re more likely to procrastinate. Quick rewards and consequences can help boost your motivation.

    Q. Can being disorganised really make me procrastinate more, and what can I do about it?
    A. Yep, disorganisation can lead to procrastination. Try creating systems and routines to keep things organised.

    Q. What’s revenge bedtime procrastination, and how can I avoid it?
    A. Revenge bedtime procrastination is when you stay up late doing unproductive stuff. To avoid it, limit screen time before bed and stick to a consistent sleep schedule.

    Q. What should I do if I can’t shake chronic procrastination?
    A. If chronic procrastination sticks around, be gentle with yourself and consider therapy if it‘s linked to deeper issues.

    Q. How does perfectionism mess with my productivity, and how do I deal with it?
    A. Perfectionism can slow you down. Focus on making progress instead of aiming for perfection.

    Q. Can visual cues, systems and routines help students battle procrastination?
    A. Absolutely! Visual cues such as reminders, as well as time management systems and daily routines can help students stay on top of their work.

    Q. How can I stop procrastinating right now?
    A. You can start by trying some of the tips mentioned in the article, like setting your own deadlines, managing your time better and changing your workspace.

    Q. What’s the biggest reason for procrastination?
    A. Procrastination happens when we don’t feel confident, don’t see the value in the task, get easily distracted, or have a long time before the deadline.

    Q. Give me three simple ways to beat procrastination.
    A. Set your own deadlines, use time management tricks and switch up your workspace.

    Q. What’s the three-minute rule for procrastination?
    A. The three-minute rule is all about starting a task for just three minutes. It helps you get over that initial hump and build momentum.

    Update by Grace McCabe in September 2023

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