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The Science of Procrastination and How to Motivate Yourself at Will

You’ve got a massive project to complete, and instead of working on it, you’re scrolling through your phone. Or maybe you gave yourself plenty of time to complete a task but found that you avoided it right up until the deadline. If this sounds familiar, then congratulations, you’re human. So how do we stop procrastinating? 

We’ve all procrastinated about something, at some point, right? But it’s also something we know isn’t great for our mental health — or productivity

Finding the right strategies to stop procrastination in its tracks isn’t easy. Otherwise, we’d always find the motivation to complete our work. We’d regularly experience the satisfaction of putting our feet up to relax, knowing the job’s done. But those cat videos online sing like a siren, calling to the parts of your brain that are easily distracted and just want to escape and indulge.

How do you move past procrastination? Let’s hack your motivation to stop those pesky distractions from ruining your productivity.

Procrastination Definition

Procrastination means to delay, postpone, or put something off without an identifiable reason. The term can indicate a delay in tackling a one-off task, or it can carry a bit of judgment, implying a tendency to put tasks off habitually or intentionally. 

Most people know there are consequences for the delay — but you’re still electing the pain of procrastination. Some even go so far as to call it a “self-regulatory failure.”[1]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6598646_The_nature_of_procrastination_a_meta-analytic_and_theoretical_review_of_quintessential_self-regulatory_failure_Psychol_Bull_133_65-94 Ouch. 

Procrastination means that you’re choosing to either do something you’d rather do than that thing you’re supposed to be working on, or you’re torturing yourself with mindless distractions.  In many ways, procrastination is so difficult to define because it can look different for different types of people and personalities.

There are also different types of procrastination. 

Types Of Procrastination

There are several different types of procrastination, each with its own flavor. Sometimes, scientists group procrastination into two main camps: active and passive.

Active Procrastination

Active procrastinators are those people who put off writing their paper until the night before but always end up with an A. In this instance, procrastination is a strategy — a conscious choice that leverages their natural working style. 

They know that they perform best under pressure, so they actively create that pressure by putting things off until the last minute. In this instance, procrastination isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing — these people understand what it takes to make themselves produce results. One study in Switzerland even found that active procrastination was linked to student GPA.[2]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886916312016?via%3Dihub 

Passive Procrastination

Here’s where the rabbit hole of distractions swallows you. You’ve got something important that you should be doing, and you’re spending hours saving and organizing recipes you’re never going to cook. Cleaning the top of your kitchen cabinets. Re-organizing your sock drawer. 

You aren’t doing what you want to be doing, and you’re certainly not doing what you *should* be doing. Maybe you’re even low-level beating yourself up as you mindlessly watch yet another puppy video. And — you’re likely not fully relaxed because you’ve got your work hanging over your head. 

Other Ways To Understand Procrastination

Beyond active and passive procrastination, there are other ways researchers and psychologists group procrastinating behaviors. For example, they break down acute vs. chronic procrastination.

Acute Procrastination

Acute procrastination is your regular, garden variety procrastination. This is the type of procrastination that strikes pretty much everyone on occasion. You don’t want to weed the garden, so you put it off until just before your guests arrive. Or you’re not feeling all that confident about a project at work, so you wait to tackle it. Typically, you’re pretty responsible and you meet deadlines, it’s just that occasionally you fall prey to the human tendency to procrastinate.

Chronic Procrastination

When procrastination is habitual, it’s considered chronic. Chronic procrastinators are the people who put off going to the doctor even if they have symptoms they know they shouldn’t ignore. They pay their bills late. They routinely get in trouble at work for missing important deadlines. For these people, procrastination is a part of their life and they regularly suffer consequences for this behavior. 

Why Do People Procrastinate?

Another way to look at and categorize procrastination is the reason behind it. Once you understand why you procrastinate so much, it becomes possible to create a battle plan to counteract the behavior. 

It’s important to mention here that for some people, procrastination isn’t just some bothersome tendency — it could be a symptom of a serious health condition, like depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If your procrastination is accompanied by anxiety, depression, OCD, or ADHD, it’s imperative to work with your doctor to understand your individual needs and how to best treat procrastination.

In the absence of medical reasons for procrastination, some of the other underlying causes of  procrastination include:

  • Feelings of overwhelm
  • Overwork or overscheduling
  • General dislike
  • Perfectionism
  • Age

Feelings of Overwhelm

Sometimes the root of procrastination begins with feeling like a project is too big or too confusing. Often, procrastinating is a problem with getting started. When faced with a large task, we put it off because it’s just too much to handle.  

The solution: Find a quick win. Tackle a small chunk of the project, even if you’re starting in the middle. It will help build momentum. 

Overwork or Overscheduling

Have you ever found yourself staying up late watching Netflix or “researching” something (ok, someone) on social media? Sometimes, the need for zoning out or just doing something that’s fun shows up as procrastination when we’re overworked. Recently dubbed revenge bedtime procrastination, this habit of staying up late doing all the things we really wanted to do earlier in the day often crops up when we’re just too busy. 

The solution: Breaking up your work time using the Pomodoro technique or time blocking tells your brain that you’ll get a break soon. Sometimes, that’s enough to get you going. 

General Dislike

It’s just human nature: we tend to put off those things that we don’t like doing. Whether a task just seems difficult or unattractive it’s more likely that you’ll procrastinate when it comes to these kinds of projects. Procrastination rears its ugly head when we feel like we have to work with someone or something we don’t like. It crops up when we think a task we’ve been assigned is too hard or even beneath our abilities. Anytime there’s resentment or distaste for a job, procrastination may not be too far behind. 

The solution: Find a why. Look at the bigger picture, and find the reason why this task makes an impact. Not committed to the bigger mission? That’s okay. You can make up a story in your mind, even a far-fetched one. It might be just what you need to get going. 

Procrastination and Perfectionism

It may seem counterintuitive, but perfectionism can result in procrastination. Sometimes, people with perfectionist tendencies get caught up in producing work that they want to be a masterpiece. This pressure that they place on themselves leads to anxiety about the project — which ultimately leads them to put it off altogether.

The solution: Tell yourself that done is better than perfect. If that doesn’t work, you can decide to set aside time after your task is completed to polish it to your standard. 

Student Procrastination

To some extent, procrastination is just to be expected when you’re a student or teenager. After all, younger people tend to have lower levels of self-discipline. They’re developmentally not as mature — and they’re testing out what it’s like to make choices for themselves. This includes testing how it feels to experience the perceived rewards of putting off a project or paper. Plus, students have a large workload and lots of opportunities for distraction. It’s just part of this stage of life. Procrastination statistics suggest that up to 46% of college students indulge in the habit.[3]https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-0167.31.4.503 Some estimates suggest the number is closer to 95%.[4]https://asset-pdf.scinapse.io/prod/2109913864/2109913864.pdf

The solution: You’ll grow out of it. Until then, you can try the tips you’ll read about later in this article to minimize your tendency to put things off.  

The Effects Of Procrastination

Sure, procrastinating can make you feel bad. It can make you feel mad at yourself. It can be frustrating. But even more than that, procrastination has been linked to lower grades,[5]https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00050068808255605 higher levels of stress and fatigue, and less satisfaction with work and income.[6]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4752450/

How To Stop Procrastinating Right Now 

So you’ve gained a better understanding of why you procrastinate. But you’d like to overcome it and hopefully, avoid procrastination altogether, right? Well, the best way to beat procrastination is to find your particular brand of motivation.  

Theories Of Motivation 

One of the main ways to counteract procrastination is to circumvent it with proper motivation. Where motivation exists in abundance, procrastination cannot exist, right? 

There are two types of motivation:

Intrinsic Motivation 

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. Intrinsic rewards are the types of psychological rewards that are internal, inside of ourselves. These are things like feelings of pride and fulfillment you get from a job well done and personal satisfaction from your result. 

Extrinsic Motivation 

Extrinsic motivation is where we feel motivated by external forces. Prizes, recognition, incentives, and bonuses are examples of extrinsic motivators. This is often the type of motivation experienced in the workplace. These rewards are visible to others and often include some recognition or monetary value. Extrinsic motivation can also involve avoiding punishment.

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So how do we find motivation and then stay motivated to stop procrastinating?

Find What Motivates You

The motivation process is not always an easy one. But there are ways to cultivate a store of positive motivation. 

Understanding what motivates you best — and pairing that with the why behind your procrastination is the real key to ending less-than-productive habits.

It takes a bit of self-reflection, which doesn’t come naturally for most of us. But try spending some time thinking about or journaling about some of the following questions:

What level of challenge do you enjoy? 

Motivation tends to wane when we’re feeling bored and when we’re tackling something too hard. Think about your challenge tolerance sweet spot and how to rearrange your tasks to fit those needs.

Do you like to feel like you’re part of something bigger?

Levels of motivation tend to rise when we feel as if we’re fulfilling a need in the world. Helping others. Producing work that matters. And here’s the thing. There’s usually a way to frame what you’re trying to do through this kind of lens. Even the seemingly insignificant tasks make a difference in the world. See what you can do to make the object of your procrastination fit this narrative.

Do you lean most often towards intrinsic or extrinsic rewards?

Understanding your natural tendencies is important. Do you revel in the feeling of being the type of person who completes things? Lean into that. Do you get positively giddy with excitement about a new purchase? Hold it over your own head until you’ve done the thing.

The Ultimate List Of Procrastination Tips

Once you’ve figured out why you’re procrastinating and spent some time evaluating your own motivation style, then employ one of these tactics that resonate with you to put an end to procrastination.

Start Small 

If a task feels overwhelming, start by breaking it down into smaller pieces. This helps make it feel more manageable and gives you a quick dopamine snack every time you complete a small piece of the big project. And then, your motivation to keep going rises. 

Ever felt the satisfaction of checking an item off your to-do list? This is the basic idea here — take a large project and turn it into lots of small things that you can just check off your list. 

Just Start. Anywhere. 

One of the main reasons procrastination rears its ugly head is because we feel overwhelmed or intimated to start the project. But there’s a strange paradox to finding motivation: it often follows after you start doing that thing you’re putting off because you’re scared or tired or too busy. And because productivity usually leads to more productivity, once you start doing something, you create momentum. 

Momentum is a powerful force that keeps you in motion — all the way to the finish line of your goal. So break down your task, and then find the power within to just begin, even if your resistance is pushing back against you hard at first. 

Try Focusing For Short Bursts

If you can’t get your head straight to work for an hour, just try working for five minutes and see how it goes. Then try another few minutes. 

Or try a tactic like the Pomodoro method — work for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break. After four 25 minute sessions, take a longer, 15-30 minute break. Before you know it, you may just finish your task and be able to revel in the glory of completion.

Minimize Distractions

If distractions are your problem, just take them out of the picture entirely. Phone too much of a temptation at night? Charge it in another room. Family constantly interrupting while you work? Make a policy that prohibits visits unless there’s an emergency. It’s important to feel comfortable setting boundaries with yourself and others in order to achieve your goals.

Work With Your Natural Tendencies

Don’t try to fight your nature. If you find yourself procrastinating in the morning because you like to work in the afternoon, just wait and work in the afternoon. Do difficult tasks when you feel your best.

Lean Into Routine

Get in the habit of doing the hard stuff first. Since procrastination is often the product of not knowing where to start or feeling overwhelmed, just beat it in the face by getting the tough stuff done first. That way it’s over and you’re free for the rest of the day. Motivation loves a good routine. You’ll have to find less of it on your own if your habit is simply to wake up and do the task you’re regularly putting off.  

Reframe Dislike

If the progress on your task is hindered because you Just. Don’t. Wanna. Try to reframe your attitude. If a task feels beneath you, reframe it so it’s a world-changing project. If you’re having to work with someone or something you despise, remember how good it feels to be someone who gets their stuff done.

Adjust Challenge Level

Don’t let things be too easy or too hard. Try turning up the difficulty if you’re feeling uninspired and bored by a project. Likewise, if something is way too challenging, take it down a notch and you will likely find yourself achieving your goal. Which is a really good feeling that leads to stores of motivation!

Shoot For A ‘B’ Paper

When perfectionism strikes, it can keep you from getting started. Give yourself permission to just do an OK job. Not every single thing you’ll ever create will be epic. Better to start and earn a B than not start and fail, right? 

If you need to, you can tell yourself you’ll give your work a final once over once it’s done. 

Treat Yourself

Bribe yourself with an incentive! Kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from a little motivational treat once in a while. If you’re more of an extrinsic motivation type, you can reward your good behavior with a purchase post-accomplishment. Or, try treating yourself during the unpleasant task. 

Only burn a fancy candle while you’re working, or only watch your favorite show when you’re on your spin bike. If you lean more on the intrinsic side, envision how good it will feel to complete the darn thing already.

Employ An Accountability Buddy

Let’s face it, peer pressure works. Announce on social media that you’re going to accomplish that task you’re avoiding. Or have your sister who’s a little hard on you threaten to reprimand you if you don’t get your stuff done. Recruit an accountability buddy who will be firm with you if you don’t follow through. 

Actually Measure Your Progress

So often we race along from task to task without taking a minute to celebrate our progress. We dismiss the gains we’ve already made because we’re so busy beating ourselves up about not getting further. Seeing how much you’ve actually achieved can help you stay self-motivated…so don’t skip the assessment step when you’re losing motivation on your way to achieving a goal. 

Make Sure You’re Covering The Basics

It’s hard to be your best, most go gettin’ self when you’re not in prime physical condition. Don’t underestimate the power of good quality sleep, proper nutrition, and regular exercise.

How To Be Motivated And Finally Ditch Procrastination

To recap, if you’re struggling with procrastination, step back and figure out why you think you may be putting off your responsibilities. Self-awareness is the key here. 

Then, think about who you are and your natural motivation style.

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