How to Stop Putting Things Off: A Series of Steps
LEARN NEW SKILLS AND CHANGE YOUR WORKING LIFE
Step One: Understanding Procrastination
Procrastination is Extremely Common
My friend just left a full-time job that expected her to be on the clock for forty hours a week. Now working for herself, she needs to set her schedule and hold herself accountable for finishing projects. It has been a struggle not just to stick to her plans but also a shock that she’s less happy now than when she had a boss she didn’t like.
This phenomenon is much more common than I ever realized before I ran into it in my own life. Working in private practice means no one else determines when I do my work or how much I get done. The absence of outside accountability means that other priorities intrude all the time.
My dog wants a walk, my kids get home from school and fill me in on their day, a friend calls, or the laundry beckons. Those are just the distractions that come from other people in my real life! I also regularly look up and notice I’m not on task because I switched to checking email, scanning the open tabs in my browser, or looking at my phone.
Autonomy seems fantastic but comes at a cost
Some people thrive in self-directed environments. It couldn’t be me, but I know folks who follow their task lists and calendars religiously, regardless of anyone else knowing or caring. They think, “I wrote it down and said I would do it; therefore, I must!”
For many people, though, being both boss and employee is a recipe for struggle. Students, the self-employed, artists, writers, retirees, and stay-at-home-parents face this challenge. People who have bosses envy this condition because it seems ideal from the outside. Get rid of all the dumb stuff your boss thinks you should do and use all your great ideas, not just the ones someone else greenlights.
Other people help us stay motivated
Working in a physical location with a boss and coworkers present contributes to (more) focused work for a lot of folks.
1. Having a boss who might stop by and form an impression of your progress,
2. Attending meetings and giving updates on deadlines, or being visible to colleagues doing similar work,
3. Knowing there’s a chance someone will walk by and see you wasting time.
So you stay on task to avoid the pain of embarrassment or even a bad performance evaluation. So if you’re home with no one tracking your progress but yourself, how do you get yourself to accomplish your most odious tasks?
If you don’t know how to stop procrastinating at work, you’re in good company
Many more people have joined these ranks in the last few years; working from home is now ordinary instead of exceptional. Work-from-homers might still report to a boss, but the structures, routines, and rewards of work have changed drastically. The challenge of how to stop procrastinating at work is pervasive.
Worse, with everyone siloed off alone, we start to believe that we are unique and that our procrastination indicates a deep personal flaw or defect. On top of all that, it starts to feel like it’s out of our hands - like we can’t stop procrastinating no matter how hard we try.
EVERYBODY puts things off. For some people, though, procrastination is excruciating.
Procrastination is on a spectrum. If we define “procrastination” as a single moment of delaying an unpleasant task, everyone procrastinates all the time. Even if you’re doing one unpleasant task, there’s another that’s not getting done while you work.
At one end of the procrastination spectrum, you might have a healthy recognition that time and human capacity are limited. On the other end, though, is a form of procrastination that dominates life.
For procrastinators whose full-time jobs are flexible, the challenge to stay focused is a full-time prospect. When there are 40 hours each week to contend with, there’s an excellent chance you will struggle to spend all of them the way you want to
Procrastination and Depression
One of the most painful features of this problem for me is that I feel as though I’m at war with myself. I no longer have an antagonistic relationship with a boss who makes me angry and upset. When my day is over, I’m frustrated, discouraged, and disappointed in myself.
What’s more, I have sometimes felt completely at a loss as to how to stop procrastinating at work. I can decide today that tomorrow is going to go differently and then fall into the same familiar ruts.
Feeling motivated and productive are linked to all kinds of other good feelings - accomplishment, pride, hope, and satisfaction. When those feelings are low, though, we usually feel depressed. Does that mean that achievement is the opposite of depression? No!
Feeling productive and motivated aren’t necessarily connected to status, money, or achievements. We feel motivated and productive when we’re satisfied with how we spend our time and have the energy to do more of it. You could feel productive and motivated by making a grilled cheese sandwich, taking a nap, or working on a spreadsheet.
Assess your motivation to stop putting things off
We’ll check in about this a few times along the way, but here at the start, when we’ve just reminded ourselves how awful procrastination feels, how much do you want to change? If you had to rate your motivation from 0-100, what’s your rating? I’m guessing you’d rather keep reading, but it’ll help later if you write it down now.
And 0-100, how much does procrastination bother you? Assuming you can’t stop procrastinating, Is it causing significant problems in your life? Is it getting in your way daily? A few times a week?
One tool in our arsenal is getting specific. Instead of thinking about “procrastination” as a vast, looming cloud, we’ll find ways to break it down and make it more manageable. One part of that to that is to put numbers on your motivation and the pain you’re experiencing. That will also help us tell later on if we’ve made a difference.
Noticing How Procrastination Works
Before doing anything to change the situation, I just paid attention. I took notes on what was happening with my level of focus during my workdays.
Putting things off is universal. Your experience is specific.
Noticing vs. Being on Autopilot
Turning your attention to your thoughts and feelings will take practice. It might feel like it should come naturally but very likely won’t.
You’ll set out in the morning to notice them, and hours into your day, you’ll realize you have no idea what they were. If you haven’t spent time doing it before, it will feel awkward. The vocabulary might be new to you, and it will feel strange to think about thinking because it is a skill that, like all skills, takes practice.
Distractions are short-term pain relief
A sequence like the following happens several times every day: I have a goal to make progress on a task. I start on the task and focus for a while. I eventually have a feeling I don’t like (boredom, frustration, shame, or anxiety, for example). I don’t want that feeling to last, so I send my mind in a different direction.
Distractions are short-term pain relief. When I feel bored, frustrated, discouraged, guilty, or anxious, I can distract myself and find temporary reprieve.
The roulette wheel of emotional turbulence is always available. I can distract myself and find relief from boredom, frustration, or discouragement at any moment. I can effortlessly replace the first emotional flood with a new one! The new feelings might not be good, but they will be different.
We have good reasons to procrastinate at work
Sometimes my work is dull or discouraging. Giving myself breaks shows I’m realistic and have compassion for myself. It’s reasonable to acknowledge that I need breaks and want to feel connected to other people.
I also need social interaction. I work at home and spend a lot of time alone. It delights me to see cute dog pictures and personal life updates, read weird jokes and roll my eyes at dumb arguments. It doesn’t replace a real-life social connection, but it’s an upgrade over a complete absence of other people.
Noticing my patterns wasn’t enough to change my habit on its own, but it has been one part of helping me continue to work. Observing and articulating what’s happening in these moments has made me feel more reasonable, less alone, and more competent.
Step Two: The Magic Wand Question
What would I wish for if I could wave a magic wand and change something about my work and procrastination habits?
My first and second wishes aren’t available in real life:
1. I would be thrilled if I could wave the wand and have work completed without my doing it!
2. Failing that, I would love to have a team of people to keep me on track, cheer me on when I’m struggling, and check my work to see if it’s any good.
Given that those are impossible wishes, I settled on a realistic goal: My goal is to trust myself and feel good about the ways I spend my time.
A Liveable Goal
My goal might not be your ideal outcome. What’s your goal? Before you read more, pause and write it down. What wish would you make if you could wave a magic wand and stop procrastinating at work?
Okay. Got it? Did you write down your goal? What would be different if you could instantly resolve your procrastination? It might seem like a minor question, but it’s not.
Step Three: Create a Specific Goal
Now that I’ve accepted that I can’t just magic the problem away, I need more detail. If my stated goal is just “stop procrastinating,” I’m doomed. We’ve already defined procrastination as one moment or more of avoiding a task. By that definition, I will never have a single day without procrastinating.
Defining victory is a challenge! How will I be able to tell if I’ve stopped procrastinating at work? What would be different if my effort to stop putting things off was wildly successful? How would I know that I had succeeded?
What would serve as a goal for you to start out with? You might not know what’s reasonable just yet, but maybe you want to start with five minutes a week on making a dreaded phone call or pulling two things out of a closet that you’re not going to use anymore. Choose a place to start measuring and write it down.
Step Four: Appreciate the Status Quo
The following is a technique called the Triple Paradox. It involves making three lists: advantages, disadvantages, and values.
The paradox is that we’re intentionally not thinking about “the advantages of getting to work” or “the disadvantages of procrastination.” We could easily describe what’s painful about procrastination and why it would be good to change. Instead, we want to dig up as many examples as possible of reasons to stop trying to change.
When you’re making your lists, these are the questions to keep in mind to get you thinking:
Advantages of Putting Things Off. What’s helpful about putting things off? What would I miss if someone pushed a button that (Liar, Liar-style) forced me into always being focused and efficient?
Disadvantages of Changing. What challenges will make this change extremely difficult and unpleasant?
Core Values I Show by Procrastinating. What do I like about myself that my procrastination reveals? How does putting things off (surprisingly!) show something positive about me and my values?
When you make a genuine choice, as in “I want to get this done, despite all the good reasons not to,” your motivation is more likely to last.
Step Five: Pinpoint Unhelpful Thoughts
Next up, I want to figure out the thoughts I have right before I switch to checking my email or scrolling on social media. Switching from working to distracting feels like an automatic, beyond-my-input process.
Nonetheless, I know from experience that it may feel unconscious, but I’m avoiding or engaging with my work because of thoughts. If I have the thought, “I have one hour to finish this whole presentation, and my reputation depends on doing a great job, I will likely be focused and effective. If I’m thinking, “eh, this project isn’t that important. I might as well read up on the news,” I won’t get any work done.
Every minute at my desk, I think about my work, my time, getting a snack, my deadlines, and how appealing, justified, or sensible it would be to avoid the hard stuff.
Step Six: Generate Helpful Thoughts
My next step is to see if I can convincingly disagree with each thought and dissolve its power. A lot of the unhelpful thoughts make sense on their own, or would be harmless if they didn’t come with a nudge. That’s why, in the following technique, your focus will be on that second part of the thought - the one that discourages you from getting started.
If I’m able to come up with helpful thoughts now, I’ll also be able to shift my thinking the next time I want to avoid something. Even when temptation is high, I’ll remember what I came up with and respond differently than I have in the past.
Step Seven: Action Steps and Supportive Tools
Tool #1 Reinforce the New Thoughts
Once you feel confident you can respond to each tempting thought convincingly, find ways to reinforce the responses. You could do this by shortening them to be easier to remember. If you can summarize your positive thoughts in one or two words, you’ll be more likely to call them to mind in difficult moments. You can write your one-or-two-word reminders on post-it notes and put them on your desk or computer monitor. You could make a list of them and read them at the start of each workday to keep them fresh in your mind.
The tempting thoughts have had a lot of repetitions, and you’ve likely had a lot of practice showing yourself that you aren’t capable of focusing. It’ll take some repetition of the positive thoughts to start to convince yourself otherwise.
Tool #2 Problem Solution List
Create a problem-solution list. Make two columns on a sheet of paper with problems on one side and possible solutions on the other.
Tool #3: Bit by Bit
This tool is also known as “little steps for big feats,” but I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
Break your project down into the smallest steps you can think of. Let’s imagine you need to make a phone call you’re dreading.
The steps might be:
Track down the phone number
Write down what you plan to say
Practice the script
Make the phone call
If you have this written on your list as simply “call so-and-so,” adding the step of finding the number could make a big difference. If you’re creating a presentation, you might need to write an outline, find some quotes, track down photos to add and write the text for one slide (then the next). “Write the text of one slide” is less intimidating than “come up with a presentation.”
Tool #4: The Five-Minute Rule
Set a timer for five minutes, then take the very first, most minimal steps you can on something you’ve been avoiding. You can keep going if you’re on a roll when the timer goes off, but you only get credit for those first five minutes.
I learned from David Burns that motivation follows action, not the other way around. We usually expect to feel like working before we start, but we typically don’t get that sweet, sweet fuel until we have a little momentum. Getting started and feeling engaged with the process, realizing our capabilities, and experiencing the satisfaction of accomplishment can light a fire.
And if you’re extra good at this one, you’ll challenge yourself to stop at the five-minute mark and feel good about it! Getting started is an accomplishment.
Tool #5: Convenience (i.e., easy to approach, hard to avoid)
Help yourself out by making it easier to do what you’re asking of yourself and harder to fall back on old habits.
Let’s illustrate the idea behind this tool by talking about flossing. If you were trying to get in the habit of flossing your teeth, you might go so far as to leave the dental floss on your pillow after you get out of bed in the morning so that you won’t be able to climb into bed at night without being reminded of your goal.
Is there anything you can do to make it more appealing to dive in on your project? Are there tools that would make it more inviting? A change to your workspace? Would some “digital wellbeing” tools help you meet your goals? Are there barriers to avoidance that you could put up?
Some ideas just to get the ball rolling, but this will be very specific to you and the things that get in your way:
Stop a subscription to a news site you always read
Unplug your video game console or put the controllers somewhere inconvenient.
Make the lighting and temperature in your workspace more comfortable.
Are you using the right tools to support the work you’re trying to do? Satisfying pens? Well-functioning keyboard? Comfortable chair?
Set your phone to display in black and white to make it less inviting.
The goal is to think creatively. You want to remove any friction between you and getting to work and add some obstacles to all your distractions.
Tool #6: Accountability Support
Some people benefit from having one person keep track of their goals and progress. You could recruit a friend, a family member, a coach, or a therapist. Ask them to talk to you on a recurring schedule and expect you to accomplish specific tasks. You decide how frequently you want to check in - daily, weekly, monthly - then set goals for the period in question and report on how you’ve done.
It’s essential to choose someone who will be the right combination of kind and strict. If your support person is too cuddly, meetings will devolve into lists of reasons your plans fell through. Too rigid, and you’ll start avoiding or resenting them, risking an otherwise meaningful relationship.
If the stars align just right, you might know someone who’s also dealing with procrastination, and the relationship will be mutually supportive. You might even discover that being vulnerable about your goals and setbacks brings you closer!
You’ll notice that detailed and specific goals will be critical for this tool and the one that follows. Both tools will be way more helpful if you can quickly answer “yes” or “no” to the question “did I reach the goal or not.”
Tool #7: Rewards and Punishments
This tool is probably straightforward from the title, but there are some tips for avoiding pitfalls. I’ll start with Punishments first because I get less excited about them. Self-criticism was my (ineffective) tactic for kicking the procrastination habit for so long. I’m not ready to reach for another form of punishment as my motivation.
One version of a punishment that has been successful for other TEAM therapists and their clients is the donation threat. First, you’d set a VERY CLEAR goal and deadline. Then write a check to an organization you can’t stand, put it in a stamped, addressed envelope, and give it to a trusted friend. If you don’t meet the goal by the deadline, your friend puts the envelope in the mail.
Rewards are one way to work around procrastination’s short-term vs. long-term challenge. If the rewards of working were immediate, we would likely get our work done all the time for the sake of the reward. When the reward is abstract or distant, it’s rational to find it unmotivating. To get around that, we can give ourselves something positive before the big payoff (a degree, a clean garage, the income from a published book) to keep us going.
Tool #8: Temptation Bundling
Is there something you love that you can pair with doing your work? Temptation Bundling is most helpful if you can find something you can conceivably only have access to while doing the task you want to avoid. I don’t personally use temptation bundling for my procrastination habit, but you might be able to think of a way to make it work for you.
Listening to an audiobook could be an effective bundle if your procrastination doesn’t involve mental focus. For example, if you’re putting off cleaning out a closet, you might know it’s going to take multiple sessions to get through the whole thing. You could plan to start a very plotty, compelling novel and only listen to it while working on the closet. Then you’ll want to get back to work to find out what happens next.
Tool #9: Do This or Do Nothing
“Do This or Do Nothing” is a technique I got from my husband. Years ago, he was stuck on a massive writing project and couldn’t seem to make progress. In desperation, he eventually decided to close himself in a room with a pen and a notebook and set a timer.
For a set period, he had to stay in the room. He didn’t have to work on his project; he would get a win by sitting there quietly. The catch was that sitting there quietly was his only other option. At first, he was stubborn enough to sit there without working, but writing was more appealing than boredom after a while.
This one is particularly appealing to me because I am very easily distracted! When I work at a computer, I find it much more challenging to focus on one thing at a time. When I need to focus, my best setup is a pen, a legal pad, and a nearly-empty room.
Tool #10: Envision Your Dream Outcome in Vivid Detail
One thing that causes a lot of procrastination is that the unpleasant parts of a bargain are clear and present. The rewards might be abstract and distant.
Let’s say the thing you’ve been procrastinating on is a garage-cleaning project. Maybe you think about doing it every time someone mentions hosting a gathering at your house, and you think, “I can’t have people over until there’s space for my car in the garage.”
To use this technique for that problem, you would picture the party you’ll have when you finish cleaning the garage. You could imagine the food, drinks, decorations, the people you’d invite, friends laughing or playing games or hanging out afterward to help you with the dishes. To drive this home, you could write a few paragraphs about it or find a photo that sums up the vision. Either of those could be a reminder and encouragement when the going gets rough.
Procrastination happens when potential rewards are distant, but the costs of getting started are right in front of you. You think about starting work on the garage, but then there’s heavy lifting, decision-making, and problem-solving. Giving yourself a detailed picture of the reason for putting up with all of that makes cleaning feel more rational and reinforces your determination.
Note: This post is part of a comprehensive guide by Feeling Good Therapist Cheryl Delaney. Cheryl has helped many clients with procrastination. Recently she started struggling with it herself. This series walks you through the entire process she used to conquer her own procrastination so you can apply the same skills in your own life. The original article is published here.