How to Stop Procrastinating

When we talk about how to stop procrastinating - it is important to state upfront that procrastination is not laziness. Instead, procrastination is the gap between intention and action. Occasionally, action may involve some discomfort and people learn to escape some of this discomfort by putting things off.

Because of this, procrastinators often suffer – their happiness may be diminished, their relationships can be strained, and their health can be ignored. These factors may result in higher stress levels, struggling finances, and reduced opportunities. However, these feelings are the things that can lead to people arriving at that commitment to change. They may be tired of letting themselves and others down, sick of constantly apologizing and feeling guilty.

The fact that procrastination is learned means that it can be unlearned. But this unlearning involves a serious commitment to change. This commitment is challenging as many people get by through procrastination. How to stop procrastinating involves:

  1. Lowering the commitment to start
  2. Knowing your procrastination triggers and changing your conclusion to them with implementation intentions.
  3. Connect the procrastinated task to the bigger picture to develop a strong 'why'.
  4. Extending intention plans by timeboxing and taking advantage of willpower
  5. Managing technology so that it does not derail your chances of getting stuff done.

1. How to Stop Procrastinating by lowering the commitment barrier to start

The Nike Slogan 'Just Do It' can be changed to 'Just Start It' for the procrastinator.

As Mark Twain wrote: "The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one." 

Research supports Mark Twain's assertion.

Getting started does wonder for the procrastinator.


Well, getting started overcomes the perception of the task. In my experience, once started, the task is not as bad as initially thought. The other benefit of getting started is that it switches you from a non-doing mindset to a doing mindset. And importantly, this fuels confidence and creates momentum break the procrastination cycle.

The hardest part is to get moving from scratch. It is almost like you must push yourself from dead-stop into a sluggish first gear. But once you get some momentum going, it's easier to keep rolling.

This can bring deep satisfaction and trigger an endorphin release in your brain. 

What can you do?

What can you do now?

  1. Identify the task you are procrastinating on.
  2. Break these into a number of small steps. The smaller the better.  As a general rule if the task is long then look to another sub-task. Why? Because the prefrontal cortex gets tired is looking to switch tasks. So keep your bites small – 'don't bite off more than you can chew.'
  3. Order your tasks. Be careful here, as once you have created a bunch of sub-tasks, you may feel the urge to stop and procrastinate! 
  4. Identify the next step/action for this task. Make sure this following action is no longer than 10 minutes.
  5. Well done. Now identify when you will start the next action

What you are doing here is committing to yourself about when, where and what you will start. Remember to forget your worries about how long the task will take. Just commit to starting for 10 minutes. Good things happen when you start.

Consider the 3D approach to overcome procrastination by lowering commitment barrier and reward good behavior.

2. How to Stop Procrastinating with Intention Plans

Peter Gollwitzer, an expert on intention plans, says that you double the chances that you will follow through with almost any activity when you make an intention plan. This has been scientifically confirmed from tasks like writing a report over break to getting medical screenings for life-threatening illnesses.

Now procrastinators can be pretty persuasive with their arguments to not do things. My favourite argument (and probably one I use often) is "I work better under pressure – I am just a last-minute person". This saying was was my trigger to procrastinate.

So I developed a procrastination intention plan that created a new response to this trigger.

  • IF I say to myself things like, "I work better under pressure", THEN I will take the first step right now - just for 30 minutes.

I talk more about building intention plans to overcome procrastination here.

4. How to stop procrastinating by connecting to the bigger picture

Connect your tasks to goals and make them more attractive

Often, the tasks you procrastinate on are perceived as boring, irrelevant, and challenging. Doing the tasks may generate resentment and frustration. One way to make the task less aversive (or more attractive) is to connect your tasks to your values and future goals.

Oddly, goals are apparent when people start building a house or thinking about holidays. In these circumstances, people put a lot of effort into setting goals and planning to achieve them.

Do people do the same about their lives? Very often, no!

I guess it's because a lot of money is involved in building a house or even going on holiday. But, still, aren't there many more costs (financial, emotional, relationship-related…) at risk in how you lead your life?

Goals are fundamental as they give you direction and the best chance to achieve your potential, but they are often neglected.

Goal-setting is crucial for procrastinators – and there are at least 5 reasons why. 

First, goals tell you where to concentrate your efforts. 

Second, goals keep you doing what you should be doing. 

Third, having goals makes it easier to quickly spot distractions and deal with them before they take hold. 

Fourth, it is hard to do stuff that doesn't mean anything to you, so goals connect your effort to something important to you, which makes you want to do it more. Research suggests that this kind of self-reinforcement which helps achieve a result that you really care about, is critical in beating procrastination.

Fifth, goals, especially the smaller steps to achieve them, give you confidence when you complete them. 

Just as there are 5 reasons why goals are essential for the procrastinator, there are also 5 steps to achieve personal goal-setting success. These include:

  1. Set the right long-term goals
  2. Set short-term goals
  3. Set SMARTI goals with a new take for the procrastinator
  4. Frame your goals positively, and
  5. Mix your goals up with process, outcome, and performance goals.

7 ways to connect your procrastinated task to your goals and bigger picture can be found here.

3. Extend intention plans by timeboxing

Productivity guru Peter Drucker said that "what gets measured gets done." An adaptation of this for procrastinators and a peal of wisdom for ensuring you get your priorities done is "what doesn't get scheduled, doesn't get done."

In the implementation intentions above, you may have constructed if-then statements. These implementation intentions focus on when, where, and how you will do something. Building on this work, an essential step to stop procrastinating is to put that specific action into the calendar. By putting time bounds on the specific task and creating a space in the calendar, you are committing more to yourself to do it.

5. How to stop procrastinating with temptation bundling

Sometimes you procrastinate because you "don't wanna do it." This is something that Professor Katy Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania experienced first-hand.

In a podcast entitled "When Willpower isn't enough," she remarked, "I struggle at the end of a long day to get myself to the gym even though I know that I should go. And at the end of a long day, I also struggle with the desire to watch my favorite TV shows instead of getting work done. And so I actually realized that those two temptations, those two struggles I faced, could be combined to solve both problems."

With this realization, an experiment was conducted that looked at the impact of bundling instantly gratifying but guilt-inducing "want" experiences with valuable "should" behaviours.

In other words, you can plan to simultaneously do something you should do and something that you would normally feel a little guilty about. For example,

  • watching a favourite TV show while you exercise, or
  • listening to an audio novel while cleaning the house.

On the subject of audio novels, an experiment was conducted where, cleverly, the group of participants were given gym-only access to tempting audio novels to see whether this would change their commitment to exercise. Another group were given access to the audiobook but encouraged to restrict their audiobook listening to the gym. 

The results proved to be interesting indeed. Those with gym-only access visited the gym 51% more frequently than the control group. Those who simply were encouraged to restrict their listening attended 29% more frequently than the control group.

This suggests that for many people, their motivation lies with the immortal words of Mary Poppins "A little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down."


Can you combine an aversive task (something you're procrastinating on) with a behavior that feels good

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