It’s 5 pm.
I have a ten-page paper due tomorrow for my English class, and the only thing I’ve written is my name. My professor assigned the paper three weeks ago. I told myself that I wouldn’t put it off — that I’d write a page or two each night. (I also knew I was lying to myself when I made that promise.) It’s okay, though. It’s only ten pages, it won’t take me that long, and I have the entire night ahead of me.
It’s 7 pm.
I was going to start writing, but I got a little side-tracked. I ate dinner, and then I got this creative idea for a drawing that I just had to sketch out. I’m going to start the paper in like ten minutes, I swear.
The clock blinks at me, it’s 9 pm.
Look, an old friend called and we started talking, okay? I didn’t mean to spend two hours on the phone, but I lost track of time. I’m writing — right now! I mean, I’m definitely going to have to pull an all-nighter to get this one done, but that’s okay. I’ll finish it.
At 6:30 am, the sun is creeping over the horizon.
It’s completed. Ten pages are finished— class is in two hours. I didn’t really proofread it as thoroughly as I wanted, and some of my ideas may seem a little rushed, but it’s done, and that is what matters.
I’ll be honest with you — procrastination has always been my fatal flaw.
When I’m not putting off English papers, I’m putting off something — an art project, a phone call, cleaning the house. I’m not exactly sure why I do it, but I do suspect it has to do with satisfaction. When I know a nearby deadline looms over me, there’s this little spark of satisfaction I get from telling myself I can worry about it later. (“Go out with friends, that English paper can wait,” the voice of inner-slacker whispers to me.)
The truth is, however, the relief I experience from not letting myself get overwhelmed is far greater than the satisfaction I get from delaying the inevitable — yet I, and millions of other people, still procrastinate. We choose to feel good now rather than later.
Fortunately, the adult world has forced me to address my problem. I’m still not perfect, and the temptation to procrastinate is still there, but I’ve picked up on some tips and tricks that help me overcome the desire to delay work.
Make a list of what you need to do.
One reason why I sometimes delay a project or task is because I’m unsure of where to start or how to approach it. I don’t know how to start the paper, I don’t know how that phone call is going to go, I don’t know how to begin that drawing. So I don’t. I go do something I do know how to do and leave the unknown tasks for later.
The way that I combat this issue is by making a list. If I’m writing an article and I don’t know what I want to say, the first thing on my list might be “figure out what I want to say.” Then, I plan out the rest of the steps — leaving none of the process up to chance. Once you have something completely planned out, it feels less daunting and overwhelming. It seems achievable, and just by making the list, you already feel like you’ve accomplished something.
It is also surprisingly effective in making me focus on the task at hand, and I don’t get turned off by my own uncertainty.
So, you know that your task is going to take you five hours. The thought of sitting down and doing the same thing for hours and hours is enough to make anybody want to put it off.
My solution is to take measured breaks. I’ll work for an hour and then take a fifteen-minute break. The project might end up taking me a little longer overall, but I find myself a lot more willing to sit down and work on something if I know there’s an end in sight.
The only potential problem with this is that you’ve got to discipline yourself a little — don’t let fifteen minutes of relaxation become thirty minutes. (Trust me, it’s not worth it.) Take a deep breath, remember your goal, and get back to work.
Don’t get angry with yourself for procrastinating
If you’ve waited till the last minute to finish that blog post, you might be a little angry at past-you for waiting this long. However, there’s no benefit in anger — not only will it make you feel more stressed and overwhelmed, but every minute you spend scolding yourself is a minute you’re not being productive.
What you can do is channel that anger into your task, and remind yourself of that awful feeling the next time you’re tempted to procrastinate.
Change your environment
If I’m just hanging out at my house, it’s easy to not write that paper. I have so many other things I can distract myself with — reading Medium articles, petting my cats, cleaning. Before I know it, two hours have gone by, and I really haven’t done anything actually useful.
Sometimes, the best way to force yourself to work is by changing the environment — take your laptop to the library or a nearby coffee shop. You’ll have nothing to distract yourself with, and you’ll have come there for the express purpose of working.
Of course, not all tasks or projects are portable. For instance, you can’t cook a meal anywhere else but in the kitchen. In these kinds of situations, I recommend taking the distractions away. Store your phone somewhere and stash other projects or tools in another room. The goal is to alter your environment enough so that all you’re left with is the task you need to complete.
Reward yourself for good behavior
If I know I need to clean my room but haven’t mustered up the willpower to do it, I’ll make an incentive. Usually, it’s buying myself a coffee.
Once I write that paper or finish that sketch, I can look forward to a well-deserved Starbucks break. If I don’t complete my work, I won’t be able to enjoy a reward. It might seem a little juvenile, but it works for me.
Don’t forget the big picture
Sometimes, we end up procrastinating bigger, long-term goals rather than just English papers. When we’re so worried about everything happening right this second, we forget about those distant future plans.
If there’s something you really want to do, but just haven’t found the time or energy for it, ask yourself: how will this affect my life? Will it be better? Will it make me happy? Why am I stopping myself from doing something that will make my life better?
When it comes down to it, there’s really no logical reason to procrastinate on these long-term goals, and the more you wait, the more you’re holding yourself back from being happy.
There may be some people who work better under the stress and pressure of procrastination, but I, and probably many of you, are not those people. Nine times out of ten, procrastination does not make our lives or our work any better. But, just because it has held you back in the past, doesn’t mean it has to in the future.