Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. It’s a common problem, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students, and which can lead to issues such as missed opportunities and increased stress.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably struggling with procrastination, or are trying to help someone who is. You’ve probably also tried to overcome procrastination before, and found it hard to do so.
This guide is a definitive source on how to stop procrastinating, which will help you finally solve this problem. It’s based on decades of scientific research, and contains a systematic approach you can use to overcome procrastination, together with a list of anti-procrastination techniques, and tips for using them.
How to stop procrastinating
To stop procrastinating right now, identify the smallest possible step you can take to make progress toward your goals, and try to start with just that tiny step, while giving yourself permission to make mistakes during the attempt. For example, if you need to write an essay, you can decide to start by writing just a single sentence, while accepting that it won’t be perfect, and might even be quite bad at first.
In addition, you can also make it easier to get started, for example by preparing everything that you need for your work without yet trying to start the work itself, and also make it harder to procrastinate, for example by eliminating potential distractions from your environment.
To overcome procrastination in the long term, do the following:
- Set specific and realistic goals. For example, if you want to start exercising, a good goal might be “manage to run for 1 mile straight by the end of the month”, while bad goals might be “do some running” (unspecific) and “run a marathon by the end of the month” (unrealistic).
- Assess your procrastination. First, identify situations where you delay unnecessarily, to figure out what exactly you procrastinate on (e.g., studying) and how you do it (e.g., by browsing social media). Then, think about those situations to also figure out where and when you procrastinate (e.g., at home or the library, on starting or finishing tasks, in the morning or evening). Finally, figure out why you procrastinate (e.g., due to perfectionism, fear, anxiety, depression, ADHD, sensation seeking, or abstract goals), potentially after reading why people procrastinate.
- Create an action plan based on relevant anti-procrastination techniques, while accounting for the goals that you set and the nature of your procrastination problem.
- Implement your plan, and then monitor your progress and refine your approach, primarily by figuring out which techniques work for you and how you can implement them most effectively.
The following are key anti-procrastination techniques you can use, which are presented in more detail in the next section, together with additional techniques:
- Break tasks into manageable steps (e.g., sub-tasks you can easily complete).
- Commit to a tiny first step (e.g., working for just 2 minutes).
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes (e.g., by accepting that your work will be imperfect).
- Make it easier to do things (e.g., by preparing everything you need in advance).
- Make tasks more enjoyable (e.g., by listening to music).
- Make it harder to procrastinate (e.g., by eliminating potential distractions).
- Delay before indulging the impulse to procrastinate (e.g., by counting to 10 first).
- Set deadlines (e.g., by deciding that you’ll complete a certain task by tomorrow evening).
- Plan how you will deal with obstacles (e.g., by deciding that if X happens, then you’ll do Y).
- Identify and address your fears (e.g., by considering what advice you would give to a friend).
- Increase your motivation (e.g., by marking streaks of days on which you achieve your goals).
- Increase your energy (e.g., by taking necessary breaks).
- Improve your environment (e.g., by adding reminders of your goals).
- Use social techniques (e.g., emulating a role model).
- Use time-management techniques (e.g., alternating consistently between work and rest).
- Create starting rituals (e.g., counting down from five to zero).
- Start with your best or worst task (e.g., your easiest or hardest one).
- Develop self-efficacy (e.g., by reflecting on your successes).
- Develop self-compassion (e.g., by reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes).
- Treat underlying conditions (e.g., ADHD).
You will likely benefit from writing things down, such as your goals and plan. This can have various benefits, such as helping you think more clearly and making your decisions feel more concrete.
You can use a similar approach as an intervention to help someone else stop procrastinating, by doing the above on their behalf, doing it together with them, or encouraging them to do it themselves.
Finally, remember that imperfect action is generally better than no action, so you’ll benefit more from trying to do just some of the above, than from getting stuck doing nothing at all. Furthermore, the longer you delay, the more likely you are to do nothing, so you should start right now, while understanding that you’ll probably get some things wrong at first, but that you’ll be able to improve your approach over time.
If you feel overwhelmed, just start with the first technique in this section (committing to a tiny step), until you feel ready to do more.
Break tasks into manageable steps
For example, if your task is to write a paper, you can break this down into steps such as choosing a topic, collecting relevant sources, and writing the introduction.
- Identify steps that you can complete in a single session (i.e., without requiring a break).
- Unpack only part of the task at a time (e.g., consider only your next 3 steps).
- Remind yourself that “the way to eat an elephant is a bite at a time” (i.e., that you can handle big projects by completing one step after the other).
Commit to a tiny first step
For example, you can sit down intending to only write a single sentence on your thesis, or go to the gym intending to work out for only a few minutes.
Popular ways to decide what’s considered a tiny step are the 2-minute rule and the 5-minute rule, which involve committing to the specified amounts of time, but you can use any criterion that works for you.
Give yourself permission to make mistakes
For example, if you’re writing a paper, accept that your work won’t be perfect, especially when it comes to the first draft, and remember that you can always revise your writing afterward.
This can be particularly beneficial if your procrastination is driven by perfectionism, in which case you should also make sure to set reasonable goals and standards for yourself (i.e., ones that are attainable and good enough).
Make it easier to decide
For example, you can:
- Improve the decision-making environment (e.g., by removing distractions).
- Rely on your intuition.
- Aim to make decisions that are good enough (rather than perfect).
- Use a structured approach to decision-making.
- Start by eliminating weak options from your choice set.
- Create decision pairs, by comparing only two options at a time rather than multiple ones.
- Get feedback from someone else, and potentially ask them to choose for you.
- Use a random tool (e.g., coin flip).
Doing this is especially important if you procrastinate primarily due to indecisiveness.
Make it easier to do things
For example, if you need to work on a document later, you can leave it open on your computer, so it will be immediately available without searching when you open the computer.
Essentially, you should make it as easy as possible to start and keep doing what you should be doing, primarily by removing any friction that might hinder you.
Make tasks more enjoyable
For example, if you need to clean the house, you can listen to music, and see how much you can get done in a 10-minute sprint of work, to make this otherwise boring task feel more fun.
Make it harder to procrastinate
For example, you can use the following precommitment devices:
- Eliminate temptations (e.g., by leaving your phone in a different room).
- Make temptations harder to choose (e.g., by turning off the internet on your phone).
- Make temptations more unpleasant (e.g., by putting a timer on your phone that makes an annoying alarm go off once your break is over).
- Associate negative consequences with temptations (e.g., by betting your partner that you’ll do extra chores if you touch your phone in the next hour).
Delay before indulging your impulses
For example, if you want to check your phone for notifications when you should be working, make yourself count to 10 first; if the urge to procrastinate persists after you finish counting, then you can follow through on it, but if it disappears, then you can work instead.
You can try to count to different numbers (e.g., 5 or 20), but it’s important to actually count, and to avoid procrastinating until you’ve finished.
For example, if you want to write a book but find yourself postponing starting for years, you can set a deadline to finish the first draft of the first chapter within 2 weeks.
Deadlines should be:
- Appropriate, so they shouldn’t give too much or too little time.
- Concrete, so they should specify an exact point in time.
- Meaningful, so they should involve an effective incentive for abiding by them (e.g., someone who will hold you accountable).
You might benefit from setting intermediate deadlines, which correspond to specific steps (i.e., proximal goals) that you need to complete along the path to your final (distal) goal. For example, if you need to write a book, you can set a deadline by which you will finish each chapter.
You might also benefit from setting ultra-short deadlines in some cases, which are measured in seconds or minutes. For example, you might give yourself 1 minute to make a decision, using a timer.
Deadlines can help avoid procrastination in various ways, including making tasks feel more concrete, and creating a sense of urgency. However, you should make sure that the deadlines are indeed helping you, and if they cause issues—for example due to added stress or hurdles—without leading to sufficient benefits, then it’s better to modify or avoid them.
Form implementation intentions
Implementation intentions are concrete plans regarding when, where, and how you’ll pursue your goals, which are meant to support your goal intentions. They primarily involve establishing if-then rules (i.e., “If X happens, then I’ll do Y”), which describe how you’ll overcome obstacles and temptations using goal-directed behavior. Good rules are often ones that you can apply automatically (i.e., with minimal deliberation), to increase the likelihood that you’ll use them.
For example, if you need to study without being distracted, you can decide that you’ll go to the library with the relevant textbook and sit there with noise-blocking headphones. You can also decide that if someone comes over and starts trying to talk, you’ll respond by saying “sorry, I’d love to chat, but I really have to study right now”.
Identify and address your fears
People often procrastinate because they’re afraid of something (e.g., failing or being criticized).
For example, you can use self-distancing, by considering what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation, or by talking to yourself using self-distanced language (e.g., “what should you do?”). This can also help with other things, such as assessing your procrastination, and forming effective implementation intentions.
Increase your motivation
The following are key ways to do this:
- Gamify your behavior. This involves incorporating elements from games, such as competition with others and the accumulation of points, into other types of activities. For example, if your New Year’s resolution is to have no zero days (i.e., days on which you make no progress toward your goals), then you can give yourself a point for each day you achieve this, and get a reward for every 10 points you get.
- Create streaks. Streaks are chains of days in a row on which you achieve your goals. You should track them in a way that’s motivating and convenient, to maximize their effectiveness. For example, you can use a dedicated app, or you can use the Seinfeld strategy (by marking a big red X in a calendar on each day you achieve your goals).
- Reward your accomplishments. For example, you can take a short break to watch a TV show that you like for every chapter that you read in preparation for a test. You can also find ways to make your progress feel more rewarding, such as going over your to-do list at the end of each day, to feel good about how much you got done.
- Set immediate outcomes. The closer in time outcomes are, the more they are valued. Accordingly, having immediate outcomes—either positive outcomes for acting in a timely manner or negative outcomes for procrastinating—can motivate you, even if the outcomes are relatively minor. For example, you can eat a piece of candy as reward for every task that you complete while working on a project.
- Visualize your future self. For example, if you’re procrastinating on an assignment because its grade will only come in a few weeks, you can imagine your future self getting that grade. This technique (called episodic future thinking) improves the connection between your present and future selves (i.e., your temporal self-continuity), to make you care more about your future self, the future consequences of your actions, and the perceived value of future outcomes. This visualization can focus on positive or negative future outcomes, can take place from a first- or third-person perspective (i.e., through your own perspective or through someone else’s), and should generally be as vivid as possible.
- Decide whether to focus on outcomes or tasks. Sometimes, such as when you need to complete an unpleasant task that will lead to a substantial reward, it may be better to have an outcome focus. Conversely, sometimes, such as when thinking about an outcome causes you stress, it may be better to have a process focus instead, by concentrating on the task at hand.
- Reflect on the value of your outcomes. For example, write down why an outcome that you’re pursuing is important to you.
- Remind yourself of your goals. For example, if you want good grades in order to get into a certain college, you can put a sticker with its logo on your laptop, to remind you what you’re working toward.
- Associate outcomes with tasks. For example, you can write down how the task that you’re working on will clearly lead to the outcome you’re interested in.
Increase your energy
For example, you can:
- Listen to energizing music.
- Take a break (e.g., go outside to breathe some fresh air).
- Get enough rest and sleep.
- Improve your lifestyle (e.g., by eating better and exercising).
- Minimize unnecessary energy drains (e.g., by setting heuristics regarding the default clothes you’ll wear each day, to reduce the number of unimportant but taxing decisions you have to make).
Doing this is especially important if you procrastinate primarily due to low energy (e.g., because exhaustion is making it hard for you to exert self-control).
Improve your environment
A bad environment pushes you to procrastinate, while a good environment pushes you to act. Accordingly, the following are key ways to improve your environment:
- Remove distractions and temptations. For example, disconnect your phone from the internet or leave it in a different room.
- Make the environment more pleasant. For example, clean clutter from your desk to make it more convenient to study there.
- Eliminate bad cues. For example, move the icon of your favorite social-media app (e.g., Reddit) away from the home screen of your phone, so you won’t see it every time you open your phone.
- Add good cues. For example, put a sticky note on your favorite gaming platform, which reminds you to finish your work before playing (this is a nudge—a small change to your environment that encourages you to act in a beneficial way).
- Switch to a better environment. For example, go study in the library instead of your room, to separate the area where you work from the one where you rest (especially if this helps you switch mentally into work mode).
Use social techniques
These include the following:
- Find and emulate a role model. For example, if you’re procrastination on a task because it’s hard, ask yourself what your role model (someone you admire and aspire to be like) would do if they were in your situation, or what you would do if they were watching you now.
- Have someone hold you accountable. For example, you can ask a close friend to check up with you once a week and make sure that you’re on track to achieving your goals. Similarly, you can work with together teammates who depend on you to do something on time.
- Build a social-support network. Such network is comprised of people, such as friends and study partners, who can help you in various ways (e.g., by providing emotional support in the face of fears).
- Improve your social environment. Notably, you should avoid negative peer influence (e.g., people who glorify procrastination) and seek positive peer influence (e.g., people who care about their work).
Use time-management techniques
Such techniques include the following (in addition to others that are discussed in this guide, like setting deadlines):
- Use a to-do list. For example, you can write down a list of study tasks in a dedicated notebook, a random piece of paper, or an app, together with relevant information to remember, such as associated deadlines.
- Prioritize tasks. For example, you can use the Ivy Lee Method, by writing down, at the end of each day, six tasks you want to complete tomorrow, ranked in order of importance. Similarly, you can use an Eisenhower matrix, by determining how important and how urgent your upcoming tasks are, and then using that to decide what to work on.
- Set reminders. For example, you can put a sticky note next to your laptop if there’s something you need to do tomorrow, or you can use an app to send you a notification when there’s a task that you need to complete soon.
- Alternate consistently between work and rest. For example, you can use the Pomodoro technique, by working on your tasks for 25-minute long stretches, with 5-minute breaks in between, and taking a longer 30-minute break after every 4 work sets.
- Schedule dedicated blocks of time in advance. For example, you can allocate 30 minutes in the afternoon to making an important decision that you’ve been postponing (a technique called timeboxing).
- Schedule work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you struggle to concentrate on your work for an hour after lunch (i.e., that’s your slump time), then you should avoid scheduling work for that time as much as possible, or schedule less important work that you’ll be able to focus on more easily. Conversely, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning (i.e., that’s your peak time), then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible. When doing this, you should often aim to reach a flow state, where you’re completely immersed in the activity you’re engaged in, and are consequently highly productive and unlikely to procrastinate.
- Establish consistent routines. For example, have a dedicated time each day when you work on a specific type of assignment, or a dedicated day each week when you do a specific chore.
Create starting rituals
Starting rituals help you mentally transition into work mode. They can take various forms, such as clapping your hands once, listening to an energizing song, or drinking a cup of tea before sitting at your desk.
A key starting ritual you can use is the countdown (sometimes called the 5-second rule), which involves choosing a number (e.g., 5), counting down from that number while telling yourself that when you reach zero you’ll get started, and then prompting yourself to get started once that happens (or before, if you’d like).
You can make this technique more effective by conditioning yourself to use it on easy tasks, which will make it more likely that you’ll follow through on it with hard tasks.
Start with your best or worst tasks
People sometimes find it beneficial to start with their best (e.g., easiest or most fun) task first, for example because this increases their confidence or helps them shift into work mode.
Conversely, people sometimes find it beneficial to start with their worst (e.g., hardest, scariest, or most unpleasant) task first, for example because this helps them get it out of the way quickly while they’re fresh. This approach is sometimes called eating the frog or eating the elephant beetle, where the animal in question signifies the worst task.
You can use whichever option works better for you. Note that a task can be considered best/worst for various reasons (e.g., how easy it is) and in various contexts (e.g., out of tasks in a day or in a project).
Immediately complete small tasks
It can sometimes be beneficial to complete small tasks as soon as you encounter them, for example because the motivation for them is still fresh, because scheduling them will require more work than just doing them, or because this prevents them from piling up into something that feels overwhelming.
You can decide what’s considered a “small” task, based on what works well for you. A popular definition is any task that takes less than 2 minutes to complete (this is known as the 2-minute rule, and is distinct from the similarly named rule about committing to a tiny first step).
Deal with bottlenecks
A bottleneck is a task that’s causing you to delay on other tasks (e.g., because you need bureaucratic approval or emotional closure).
Bottlenecks can cause substantial issues, so you should prioritize dealing with them. In addition to doing this using general anti-procrastination techniques, you may also be able to modify the situation (e.g., by finding ways to make progress on other tasks) or eliminate the bottleneck (e.g., by delegating it to a colleague, or realizing that it’s unnecessary in the first place).
Switch between tasks
For example, if you’re stuck on a certain task, you can switch to a different task for a while, and return to the original one when you feel “unstuck”.
When doing this, you can procrastinate productivity on the original task, by doing beneficial but less important things. For example, if you should be studying for a test, then you could procrastinate by doing homework (rather than browsing social media). You can even do this in a structured manner, by scheduling unimportant tasks that feel urgent, and then using the desire to procrastinate on them as motivation to work on your original tasks. However, be cautious about the potential issues that this technique can lead to, such as procrastinating on your most important tasks for too long.
Take a break
For example, if you just finished writing a paper, and are now procrastinating on your computer instead of working on your next assignment, then rather than trying to force yourself to work, it might be better to take a break in a different room for a few minutes.
This can often be the most effective choice for your long-term productivity and wellbeing, for instance if it’s crucial in order to let you clear your head and recharge mentally.
Improve your emotion regulation
Learning to regulate emotions better can help avoid procrastination, primarily by improving your ability to cope with the presence of negative emotions (e.g., due to fear) and the absence of positive emotions (e.g., due to a non-exciting task). This generally involves using adaptive emotion-regulation techniques (which lead to positive outcomes), such as addressing your fears, rather than maladaptive techniques (which lead to negative outcomes), such as ruminating over concerns.
For example, one technique you can use is to acknowledge the presence of negative emotions, while reminding yourself of your mental toughness and commitment to finishing a task. In addition, other emotion-regulation techniques you can use include inquiry-based stress reduction, and mental contrasting with implementation intentions.
Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals, which is important in order to avoid procrastinating. You can increase your self-efficacy using various techniques, such as reflecting on your successes and identifying strategies you can use to achieve your goals.
- Remind yourself that everyone struggles and makes mistakes.
- Forgive yourself for past procrastination.
- Remind yourself that messing up doesn’t necessarily mean you that won’t be able to change.
- Think about how you would help a friend in a similar situation.
- Practice mindfulness (by paying attention to yourself and your environment as they are in the present moment, and accepting your thoughts and emotions in a non-reactive and non-judgmental way).
Treat underlying conditions
This guide gave you the tools you need to stop procrastinating; now, it’s up to you to use them.
If you already know what you need to do based on what you’ve read so far, do that.
If you’re unsure where to start, do the following:
- Write down a specific and realistic goal relating to something you’ve been procrastinating on.
- Write down how, where, when, and why you’ve been procrastinating on it.
- Pick 1–3 anti-procrastination techniques that look like they might be relevant (if you’re unsure, go with breaking tasks into manageable steps, committing to a tiny first step, and making it harder to procrastinate).
- Start implementing these techniques.
Remember that you don’t need to get it perfect; for now, the important thing is to just get started. Later, you can refine your approach, for example by adding goals and techniques.
The longer you wait, the less likely you are to act on what you’ve learned, so start now, instead of telling yourself you’ll do it later.