how to stop procrastinating and get your work done

If you often find you still haven’t started that project that you had intended to do days earlier, if you have trouble simply sitting down and starting a piece of work, or if you often do less-urgent work as more important deadlines are approaching, you’re probably a procrastinator.

And you have lots of company. After all, it’s tempting to think, “I’ll get to that tomorrow” and do something you’d rather spend time on instead. Most people procrastinate at least occasionally, but if it’s interfering with your ability to perform at the level you’re capable of and accomplish the things you want to do, it’s time to take action:

1. Think about the consequences of not doing the work sooner. Putting off work means you might end up missing a deadline, doing a halfhearted job, letting someone down or staying up all night to finish a project. It could also affect the way you’re seen professionally or in your personal life. Make sure you think about these consequences. Your might find that simply reminding yourself of how miserable you’ll be cramming to finish something at the last minute can be enough to get you to start working on it earlier.

2. Resolve to work in small chunks. With procrastination, the hardest part is often just getting started. Tell yourself that you’re going to sit down and work on a project for just a small chunk of time – one hour, or even just 15 minutes. Much of the time, you’ll end up working longer than that because getting started is the hardest part, and it’s easier to get started if it doesn’t feel like you’re making an enormous time commitment.

3. Set yourself interim deadlines. Break projects into pieces and resolve to get one piece done per day (or per week or whatever makes sense for you). For instance, rather than just think, “I have to clean out the whole filing system,” decide to do one file drawer a day. While the entirety of a large project can be intimidating enough that it feels easier to put it off, it’s much harder to be intimidated by a small piece of the project.

4. Don’t strive for perfection. It’s a lot harder to get started on a task when you think the work needs to be perfect. So don’t even aim for great – just aim to get the work started. For example, if you have to write a report, sit down with the goal of simply getting words on paper without worrying about how good they are. You can go back and revise later, which will be a lot easier once you have something to work from.

5. Enlist a partner. If you have a friend or co-worker who also struggles with procrastination, agree to help each other out. Jointly commit to spending one hour each working on whatever you’ve been putting off, and then check in on each other at the end of the hour to ensure you each kept your commitment.

6. Commit to deadlines. Tell your boss you’re going to have that report draft to her by Wednesday, even if there wasn’t previously a deadline attached to it, or announce publicly to your team that you’ll have the new filing system ready this week. Of course, don’t do this unless you trust in your ability to follow through – otherwise you could end up as a procrastinator and someone who doesn’t meet commitments.

7. Create rewards for yourself. Don’t let yourself watch the next episode of that TV series you’re binge-watching until you complete half an hour of work on the project you’ve been putting off – but then reward yourself with a guilt-free viewing. You can also reward yourself with a walk, a cupcake or whatever else motivates you.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. CollegeAdmin

    Here’s another tip I once saw: start your day over at 2pm. I’ve had days where I feel like I’ve gotten nothing done and it just spirals, so give yourself the option of a “reset” in the middle of the day and start fresh. It actually helps!

    Also, if you like blogs on this topic, check out zenhabits or TimeManagementNinja.

    1. tcookson

      Glad I’m not the only one who needs this right now. I was on a roll until I took Thanksgiving week off, and then our office was closed for snow last Thursday and Friday and this Monday. Now I feel like I’d rather be home with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate and it’s hard to get motivated.

  2. Anon

    I have often found that allowing myself to sleep in and then lazing around for a hour then beginning my work around 1 or 2 PM, promising myself I will not Netflix X-Files until at least one of my projects is done works wonders.

  3. Cathy

    Re: Small Chunks

    I love the Pomodoro technique (even wrote an AppleScript to completely customize work/break durations and number of cycles) and when I’m in the zone I’ll do 90-minute working sessions with 15-minute breaks. However, when I’m most decidedly NOT in the zone but know I need to have some form of forward momentum I’ll do a “backward” Pomodoro: 5-10 minutes of work with 5-minute breaks. It’s serial tasking at its worst but it gets the ball rolling and I usually find myself lengthening the work times as the momentum builds.

    1. Ann O'Nemity

      +1 for the Pomodoro (tomato timer) idea. I use it occasionally, usually when I’m feeling overwhelmed and undermotivated. Small chunks makes the work seem more manageable, and the steady sense of accomplishment serves as a motivator. I also like to use the breaks as an opportunity to take a short walk, which usually has a refreshing effect.

      1. tcookson

        I do that, too. I have an online timer saved on my browser taskbar, and I use it all the time. I usually set it for 60 minutes and then take a 10 minute break (during which I read AAM). When the break timer goes off, I set it for another 60 minutes.

        I have a job where I get interrupted a lot for other people’s requests, and I find that having a timer set motivates me to get back on task more quickly after an interruption. With no timer set, if someone interrupts me I’ll drift off-task and start working on something completely different. Knowing that I’m trying to beat a time-clock focuses my attention on getting immediately back to the task at hand.

    2. Elysian

      I totally agree about the “backward” method. Sometimes I just have to set a timer and promise myself that I’ll work on this project for “just 10 minutes” before my next break. While that would be a horrible practice if I did it all day, usually after 10-15 minutes of forced work I end up in the “zone” and can keep going.

    3. themmases

      The Pomodoro timer is great! I only use it when I’m procrastinating or when I have such a huge project that I don’t want to burn myself out halfway through the day, but it’s perfect for that.

      I often procrastinate when a task seems so big I don’t even have a clear picture of what I’ll do first when I work on it, and just feel like there will be tons to untangle before I can do productive work. Telling myself “no matter what useless point I’ve reached at the end of 25 minutes, I am definitely taking a break then” really helps me get started. Usually I find that the issue wasn’t as complicated as I’d built it up to be, and then I’m in the zone within a couple more cycles.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        When the task is huge or unclear, my first step is writing down the steps that I can figure out and breaking it down into manageable chunks. That makes it a set of smaller and clearer steps that I can work on.

  4. Yup

    I’m a recovering procrastinator, and these tips are all excellent. One thing I do to get over the initial block is ignore the usual workflow order and just start wherever I feel motivated. Like writing a report: I don’t worry about starting at the beginning and working my way through sequentially, I just start writing whatever section is clearest in my mind.

    A big payoff in kicking the procrastination habit is that you actually spend *less* time overall dealing with stuff you hate. Before, I’d spend X hours thinking about the thing — worrying about it, performing displacement/avoidance tasks , etc — plus Y hours actually doing it. By not procrastinating, I get to skip X and go straight to Y.

    1. fposte

      Absolutely on the “ignore the workflow”–I think of it as adapting test-taking behavior to work life. Do the stuff that you’re ready to do and can polish off and then come back to the troublemakers. In my experience, the troublemakers seem less troublesome as I get farther along, too.

      1. VintageLydia

        It’s how I’ve survived tough exams all through school. Once I realized I don;t have to answer anything in order, my test anxiety vastly improved. I suck at short answer and essay portions, so I’ll do the multiple choice or true false or whatever first and that normally jogs my memory enough to do short answer/essay questions.

  5. ChristineSW

    Excellent tips, both in the article and the comments here! Particularly love the idea of working in smaller chunks. I have a boatload of pictures sitting on my desk now that I need to scan; I will definitely use some of these techniques for that!

    1. Ex Mrs Addams

      Haha, at an old job I could legitimately read aam as part of my work (I used to help run jobsearch courses, so aam was a fantastic resource).

    2. tcookson

      Me too! My first thought when faced with a task I’d really rather not start is, “Hmmm . . . I wonder what’s going on at AAM?”

  6. Cath@VWXYNot?

    I would also add: next time you finally complete a task you’ve been procrastinating on exceptionally badly, take a few moments to sit and savour the lovely feeling of relief and accomplishment. Then make a conscious effort to remember that feeling next time you find yourself starting to put something off again, and use it to motivate yourself to just get the damn thing done already.

  7. Whippers

    Ugh, I love this. This is what I love about Alison; she acknowledges that people aren’t perfect and that it’s okay to not be great at things, just as long as you try to improve yourself. A lot of managers seem to expect that people should just arrive fully formed and able to do everything perfectly at their command.

  8. Anonymous

    #8. Stop surfing the web reading ways to be productive when you’re putting off being productive. :)

    1. VintageLydia

      I’m so guilty of this. I go to UFYH or whatever instead of actually cleaning/organizing the house. About half the time it inspires me to get working. The other half… I’m working on it.

      1. TychaBrahe

        Next time you are procrastinating about cleaning, make your procrastination TV—sit down and watch an episode or two of Hoarders.

  9. Cassie

    I tried the Pomodoro technique, but I’d just ignore the timer and keep working.

    Two things I’m currently – 1) typing out each step (for multi-step tasks) so I don’t have to “think” so much when I’m actually doing the task. It also helps me not accidentally miss steps. And 2) plowing through simple tasks before working on larger projects. I can get lost in those projects.

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