Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. It’s a common problem, which can cause many issues, like 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 hundreds of scientific research papers, and contains a systematic approach you can use to overcome procrastination, together with a list of anti-procrastination techniques, and tips for using them effectively.
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 word, while accepting that it won’t be perfect, and might even be quite bad at first.
In addition, you can make it easier for yourself to get started first, for example by preparing your tools without yet trying to start working, and also make it harder to procrastinate, for example by removing 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 “be able to run a full mile 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 cases in which 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 about why people procrastinate.
- Create an action plan. It should involve using relevant anti-procrastination techniques, which account for the goals that you set and the nature of your procrastination problem.
- Implement your plan. Make sure to reflect on 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:
- Break tasks into manageable steps (e.g., into sub-tasks that you can easily complete).
- Commit to a tiny first step (e.g., to working for just 2 minutes).
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes (e.g., by accepting that your work won’t be perfect).
- 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 while you do them).
- Make it harder to procrastinate (e.g., by removing 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 noon tomorrow).
- Plan how you’ll handle 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’d 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., by emulating a role model).
- Use time-management techniques (e.g., by alternating consistently between work and rest).
- Create starting rituals (e.g., by counting down from five before taking action).
- Start with your best or worst task (e.g., with 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 can use any combination of techniques that you want, but should start by focusing on a few that seem most relevant to you given your specific situation.
You’ll likely benefit from writing things down, such as your goals and plan. This can have various benefits, like 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 a bit of the above, than from getting stuck doing nothing at all. Also, 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 you need to write a paper, you can break this down into steps like choosing a topic, finding sources, and writing the introduction.
This unpacking technique can have various benefits, including helping you plan your work and making large tasks feel less overwhelming. When using it, it might help to:
- Unpack only part of the task at a time (e.g., only your next 3 steps).
- Identify steps that you can complete in a single session (i.e., without requiring a break).
- Remind yourself that “the way to eat an elephant is a bite at a time” (i.e., that you can handle big projects using a step-by-step approach).
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.
You can use various criteria to decide what’s considered a “tiny step”. Two popular ones are the 2-minute rule and the 5-minute rule, which involve committing to the specified amounts of time.
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 your 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.
- Eliminate weak options from your available choices.
- 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’ll need to work on a document later, you can leave it open on your computer, so it will be immediately available when you start working.
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 make this boring task more fun by listening to music while you do it, and seeing how much you can get done in a 10-minute cleaning sprint.
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 with someone else).
- 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 scheduled 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 count to different numbers (e.g., 5 or 20), but it’s important to actually count, and to avoid procrastinating until you’ve finished doing this.
For example, if you want to write a book but keep postponing it 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 you 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 (or 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 for finishing each chapter.
You might sometimes also benefit from setting ultra-short deadlines, which are measured in seconds or minutes, for example by using a timer to give yourself 1 minute to make a decision.
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—like stress or added hurdles—then you might want to modify or avoid them.
Form implementation intentions
Implementation intentions are concrete plans regarding when, where, and how you’ll pursue your goals. 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 (to support your goal intentions). Good rules are often ones that you can apply automatically (i.e., with minimal deliberation), which increases the likelihood that you’ll use them.
For example, if you need to study without being distracted, you can decide that you’ll do so at the library while wearing noise-blocking headphones. You can also decide that if someone comes over and starts trying to talk, you’ll respond by saying “sorry, we can chat later, but I really have to study right now”.
Identify and address your fears
People often procrastinate because they’re afraid of something, like failing or being criticized.
If this might be the case for you, then you should think through your situation to figure out what you’re afraid of. Then, you can use various techniques to address your fears.
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?”). Doing this can also help with other things, like creating your action plan.
Increase your motivation
The following are key ways to do this:
- Gamify your behavior. This involves incorporating elements from games, like 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 (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 after every 10 points.
- 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. For example, you can use a dedicated app, or the Seinfeld strategy (by marking a big X in a calendar on each day you achieve your goals).
- Reward your accomplishments. For example, you can take a short break to watch TV for every chapter that you read in preparation for a test. You can also find ways to make your progress feel more rewarding, like going over your to-do list at the end of each day, to feel good about how much you got done.
- Set immediate outcomes. For example, you can eat a piece of candy as reward for every task that you complete while working on a project. That’s because the closer in time outcomes are, the more you care about them (both positive outcomes for acting on time and negative ones for procrastinating).
- 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 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. The 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, like when you need to complete an unpleasant task that will lead to a substantial reward, it may be better to have an outcome focus. Other times, like when thinking about an outcome stresses you, it may be better to have a process focus instead, by concentrating on the task instead.
- 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 short break (e.g., go outside to breathe some fresh air).
- Take a long break to ensure you get sufficient rest.
- Improve your lifestyle (e.g., by eating better, exercising, and getting enough sleep).
- 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 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.
- Eliminate bad cues. For example, move the icon of your favorite social-media app (e.g., Reddit) away from your phone’s home screen, 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, reminding 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.
Use social techniques
These include the following:
- Emulate a role model. For example, if you’re procrastinating on a task because it’s hard, ask yourself what a person you admire would do if they were in your situation, or pretend this person is watching you now.
- Have someone hold you accountable. For example, you can ask a close friend to check on your progress once a week, or find an accountability buddy to work with.
- Build a social-support network. Such network is comprised of people (e.g., friends and study partners) who can help you in various ways, like providing emotional support when you face your fears.
- Improve your social environment. For example, 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 upcoming tasks in a notebook or an app.
- 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 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, while 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 for an hour after lunch (i.e., that’s your slump time), then try to avoid scheduling work for that time, or try to schedule less important work that you’ll be able to focus on more easily. Alternatively, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning (i.e., that’s your peak time), then try to schedule such tasks for that time. 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
For example, you can use a countdown, by counting down from some number (e.g., 5), while telling yourself that when you reach zero you’ll do what you need to, and then prompting yourself to do so once you finish the count (or earlier). This is sometimes called the 5-second rule.
Alternatively, you can use other rituals, like clapping your hands once, listening to an energizing song, or going through some routine.
You can condition yourself to use these rituals through easy tasks, which will make it more likely that you’ll follow through on them 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 mentally get into work mode.
Conversely, people sometimes find it beneficial to start with their worst (e.g., hardest 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 also called eating the frog or eating the elephant beetle, where the animal in question signifies the worst task.
A task can be considered the best/worst out of various groups of tasks (e.g., 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, for example because you need it for 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 might also be able to do this by changing the situation so the task is no longer a bottleneck (e.g., by finding ways to make progress on other tasks), or by eliminating the bottleneck (e.g., by delegating it to someone else).
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”.
This can involve procrastinating productively on the original task, by doing beneficial but less important things. For example, if you should be studying for a test, you could procrastinate by doing homework instead (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 can cause, like 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, then rather than trying to force yourself to work on your next assignment, go to take a proper 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 you avoid procrastination, primarily by improving your ability to cope with the presence of negative emotions and the absence of positive ones. This generally involves using beneficial (or adaptive) emotion-regulation techniques, like addressing your fears, rather than detrimental (or maladaptive) techniques, like 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 your work. 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, like reflecting on your successes, and identifying strategies you can use to achieve your goals.
Self-compassion involves extending sympathy to yourself, particularly when you struggle or suffer. To increase your self-compassion, you can:
- Remind yourself that everyone struggles and makes mistakes.
- Forgive yourself for past procrastination.
- Remind yourself that messing up doesn’t mean that you’ll never 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, while accepting your thoughts and emotions in a non-reactive and non-judgmental manner).
Treat underlying conditions
If your procrastination is caused (even partially) by conditions like ADHD or depression, try to those conditions, using professional help (e.g., a therapist) if necessary.
This guide gave you the main tools you need to stop procrastinating; now, it’s up to you to use them.
If you already know what you need to do next based on what you’ve read, 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.