To develop good habits, for instance, do your important work in a consistent pattern daily: *After I do this, I do my deep work*. Devise a system for starting new tasks (drawing on one you’ve handled well); that will make it easier to get the ball rolling. When a task makes you anxious, do the easiest part first and progress from there; motivate yourself to do a boring task with a reward for completing it. And if you’re cognitively blocked, consider what would make a task impossible—and then identify its opposite.
Novel work often is filled with friction. You must recognize that tension doesn’t mean you’re not making progress. And if a project still feels overwhelming, tackle it in small chunks of time, not big ones.
Most of us procrastinate. We feel guilty about it and criticize ourselves for it. And yet we still do it. Why? Because of at least three factors: the absence of good habits and systems (poor discipline), intolerance for particular emotions (like anxiety or boredom), and our own flawed thinking patterns.
When you understand these causes, you can use strategies that target them. You can minimize minor incidents of procrastination—such as when you drag your heels and don’t start a project until close to its due date—and head off the bigger problems your patterns of delay are causing.
Your Habits (or Lack Thereof)
A common theory is that procrastination is the result of a lack of discipline. Procrastinators choose leisure and fun over hard work. A more modern variation of this explanation is that they don’t have good systems and habits. Multiple studies have shown that strong habits reduce our need for self-control. They make it easier to stick to effortful behaviors and resist distractions. But the process of establishing a habit that confers such benefits usually takes a few months.
To assess whether this is an issue for you, ask yourself: What habits do I have in place to tackle my most important tasks? If the answer is none, try these approaches:
Schedule your deep work consistently. I define deep work as focusing on your most important long-term project. It might entail, say, crafting a business strategy, doing complex data analysis, or writing a book. Deep work is generally challenging, but doing it consistently each day, in a regular pattern, will make it less so.
Habits make sequences of behavior more automatic. Consider that once we’re no longer novice drivers, we don’t consciously think about what we do whenever we get behind the wheel of a car. More-complex habits like going to the gym or learning a language can also become more automatic. That happens through repetition and cuing. So you shouldn’t attempt to do deep work at 11:00 in the morning one day and 3:00 in the afternoon the next. And even if the exact time you settle into it isn’t the same, your deep work should fit into your day in the same pattern: After I do this, I do my deep work. For example, each day after spending up to an hour on email and administrative tasks, I start my deep-work session, which for me usually involves writing.
Create a system for starting new tasks. What about responsibilities you’re handling for the first time that feel outside your wheelhouse? You’ll be less likely to put novel tasks off if you have a master system for approaching them. The steps you take when you encounter something new will become their own type of habit, which will reduce decision fatigue about how to start.
My own system involves a consistent sequence of steps: First, I consider three options for how I could approach the task. Next, I conduct a premortem analyzing the things that are most likely to go wrong. Then I calculate how long I should spend on the task. And last, I find ways to quickly test my assumptions.
How can you develop your own system? Reverse engineer it: Bring to mind an example of a challenging task you’ve completed successfully and identify the steps you used to accomplish it. I prefer this approach to attempting to copy someone else’s methods, because it will result in a system that suits your own nature and strengths.
We tend to avoid tasks that stir up negative emotions. In psychology, avoidance and its close cousin, rumination, are known as transdiagnostic factors—that is, they’re symptoms of many common mental-health difficulties. People who cope with stress by using avoidance tactics are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, ADHD, and eating disorders, and it becomes a vicious cycle. When their mental health worsens, their avoidance does too.
But even people who only sometimes feel sad, doubtful, and anxious about their work—or can’t tolerate the boredom or stress it induces—tend to avoid tasks that evoke such emotions. This response is heightened during periods of uncertainty. When you feel overwhelmed, you’re more likely to procrastinate. In this state even simple tasks, such as replying to emails, can seem daunting.
To know whether your emotions are the primary reason you put work off, ask yourself: How is my mental health? Do the tasks I avoid inspire certain emotions? Do they make me bored, angry, anxious, or resentful? Then try these strategies:
Disentangle your feelings. Accurately identifying your emotions—something psychological researchers term emotional granularity—will help you manage them. When it comes to procrastination, it’s also useful to analyze how much each emotion is affecting your attitude toward a task. For example, you might find that writing a presentation for your boss provokes anxiety at a level of 8 on a scale of one to 10, resentment at a level of 6, and boredom at a level of 4. Once you’ve determined that, you can then address the emotions individually. The rating system will help you evaluate how effective you are at minimizing them.
When a task bores you, schedule a reward for completing it or do it in a more fun way—for example, with teammates you like.
When a task makes you feel resentful or irritated, find what you genuinely value about it. Maybe you get annoyed by having to make the revisions that your supervisor asks for, but you really value honing your craft. You may feel resentful about cross-division committee work but value the opportunity to improve your organization’s culture. You may get frustrated by a teammate’s request for tech help but value being a supportive colleague.
When a task makes you anxious, start with the elements of it that make you the least apprehensive and progress from there. This is exposure therapy: gradually working up to what most scares you. What seems unmanageable initially will feel within your grasp once you’ve worked through the easiest steps.
This approach to turning difficult emotions into greater focus and dedication is part of a skill set called psychological flexibility, which was developed by the psychologist Todd Kashdan and his team. The more people use it, the happier, healthier, and higher performing they tend to be.
Use self-compassion to overcome strong negative memories. Sometimes the emotions we have about a task are driven by a prior experience. Here’s a story from my own life that illustrates this.
The first time I gave a talk about my research at a conference, it didn’t go very well. I was a grad student. I lived in New Zealand, and the conference was in Australia. I decided to fly into a bigger city near the conference and take an overnight bus to the smaller city where it was being held because the flight was cheaper. I wasn’t in the best shape when I arrived. I felt like a deer in the headlights and stared down at my notes while reading my talk. I can still viscerally recall what it felt like to be in that room and look out at that audience, which included my adviser and my teammates, feeling that they were objectively better than I was at everything research-related, especially presentations.
Now when I need to give a talk, that 20-year-old memory comes flooding in. Suddenly I become my younger self, and all the skills and confidence I’ve developed in the years since slip through my fingers. When hit with such powerful memories, even people with excellent project management and problem-solving skills can find that they go out the window.
If you notice yourself having this kind of reaction, examine whether it’s related to an event from your childhood, early career, or more-recent work. Consider, too, whether there’s a pattern to the types of tasks and memories involved.
A lot of compelling research shows that you can heal these emotional wounds with compassionate self-talk. Here’s an example of what that sounds like: “I’ve been disappointed with my performance in the past, and that’s making me hesitant. That’s a normal and understandable feeling. But I was a beginner then, and I’m not now. It’s OK to learn through experience.” Find and then reuse self-talk that works for you.
Your Thought Patterns
If you’re reasonably well disciplined in many areas but struggle in others, specific thought patterns may be to blame. Some cognitive factors involved in procrastination are pretty universal—for example, most of us underestimate the complexity of tasks that have long deadlines—while others are deeply personal.
Here’s one of my own problematic patterns: When people tell me that they like a particular piece of my writing, I tend to jump to the conclusion that my other stuff is no good, which ties me in knots when it’s time to write again—even though I’ve just received praise!
To figure out whether cognitive blocks are contributing to your procrastination, ask yourself: Does the task feel more difficult than the steps objectively are, given my skills? Do I quite enjoy (or at least get a sense of satisfaction from) a task once I start it? If the answer is yes, it implies that you tend to think about work in a way that makes it seem more unpleasant than it actually is. Try these strategies to navigate past your cognitive blocks:
Reverse brainstorm. Although I didn’t use reverse brainstorming much before putting it into my book Stress-Free Productivity, it has since become one of my favorite tactics. When applied to procrastination, it involves considering what you would do to make your task impossibly hard or something you’d really want to avoid doing. Once you have those answers, you then come up with their opposites, which will make you feel less blocked.
For example, a task might seem unachievable if I imagine having to get it perfect the first time or having to do it in the exact same style as a colleague that I admire. The flip side of this is that the task will seem easier if I accept that missteps and imperfections will occur and if I approach it in my own way, harnessing my own strengths.
Another quick reframing technique is to think about all the ways that a task you’re putting off is similar to one you can do easily and well. For example, I feel incredibly comfortable writing blog posts but not speeches. However, both involve making a few points quickly, keeping the language conversational, telling stories, and giving the audience a “that’s me” experience. The key here is to define the parallels very specifically, as I have.
Learn to accept friction-filled work. Familiar, moderately productive tasks tend to be accomplished smoothly and can thus feel more satisfying than novel ones that are more difficult but offer greater potential value. That’s why we often choose to check minor items off our to-do lists rather than tackle projects that will have more impact.
Don’t make the mistake of equating frictionless work with productivity. Diverse teams, for example, often generate better ideas but can experience more tension. Novel work is often full of friction, which inherently slows progress and can cause stress. That leads to a common cognitive error called emotional reasoning, which happens when you overextrapolate from how you feel. When you feel tense and challenged, for instance, you might conclude that you’re moving in the wrong direction or not making enough progress. It’s important to understand this phenomenon and recognize when it’s happening to you. Metacognition, or awareness of your thinking processes, can help you counteract mental errors.
Keep in mind that if you show up to do important work and approach it as strategically as you can, you will make progress, even if it doesn’t feel that way. The more tolerant you are of friction-filled work, the less you’ll procrastinate. Commit to doing the task that has the most potential for some period each day, even when it results in tumultuous feelings and thoughts.
Limit yourself to short work periods. When a task is important or we’ve been putting it off, we often believe we need marathon work sessions to get it done. In most cases this thinking stems from self-criticism sparked by guilt over lost productivity. But the prospect of slogging away on a challenging task all day tends to trigger more procrastination.
Here, you can try one of two strategies: 1) Plan to work on whatever you’re avoiding for 10 minutes today and pick it up again tomorrow. Doing a little today will get you over the emotional hump of starting. 2) Plan to tackle it for 90 minutes today and cap it at that. If you’re reasonably conditioned to deep work, it’s likely that you can get yourself to do almost anything for that amount of time. It’s a reasonable goal. You can also adapt this principle. For example, you might try a strategy like adding an extra 10 minutes each workday to the time you spend on the task until you get to two hours total. It’s like training yourself for an endurance race.
In any self-help article it’s important to acknowledge the limits of the advice given. If a persistent mental-health problem like depression or anxiety is contributing to your procrastination, then you should pursue an evidence-based treatment, ideally with the help of a professional, not struggle along on your own. As your mood and anxiety improve, you’ll be less prone to feeling overwhelmed and frozen.
Also, even though I’ve broken down the causes of procrastination into three categories here, they are interrelated. Your behavior (habits and systems), emotions, and thoughts are all connected. So no matter what the primary reason is for your tendency to put off certain tasks, any of the strategies here should help you more consistently attend to work that you have trouble mustering the energy or focus to complete. Think of it as a menu for combating procrastination, experiment with several options, and find the ones that work best for you.
Editor’s note: Alice Boyes, PhD is the author of Stress-Free Productivity, from which this article is adapted.
Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.