3 Proven Strategies To Stop Procrastinating For Good

The Challenge: We procrastinate, put things off, and don’t get things done!
The Science: Our willpower is limited. But there is another way!
The Solution: 3 science-backed ways to end procrastination for good!

Did you ever find yourself facing an important assignment, but somehow, you just couldn’t get yourself motivated to start working on it?  Time goes by, days turn into weeks, but you don’t seem to be any closer to getting the job done.  You are hardly alone.   We all know what it’s like to procrastinate –  and for some of us, it’s become something of a way of life.  But procrastination comes at a great cost: it leads to poor performance, inefficiency, anxiety, and regret.  So, if you find yourself having trouble getting started, try using these scientifically proven strategies to give yourself a much-needed kick in the pants.

Stop Relying On Willpower

Too often, we try to tackle the problem of procrastinating through sheer will:  Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner.  Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never have procrastinated in the first place. Studies show that people routinely overestimate their capacity for self-control and rely on it too often to keep them out of hot water.

Make peace with the fact that your willpower is limited and that it may not always be up to the challenge of getting you to do things you find difficult, tedious, or anxiety-provoking.  Instead, use if-then planning to get the job done.

Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take to complete a project – it’s also deciding where and when you will take them.

If I have not heard back from HR by the end of the day, then I will call them at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning.

If it is 2 p.m., then I will stop what I’m doing and start work on the report Bob asked for.

If my boss doesn’t mention my request for a raise at our meeting, then I will bring it up again before the meeting ends.

By deciding in advance exactly what you’re going to do and when and where you’re going to do it, using these plans dramatically reduces the demands placed on your willpower.  If-then planning has been shown in over 100 studies to be uniquely useful when it comes to resisting temptation and building good habits, increasing rates of goal attainment by 200%-300% on average.

Scare Your Pants Off

There is more than one way to look at the same goal.  For some people, doing their jobs well is about achievement and accomplishment – they have what psychologists call a promotion focus.  In the language of economics, promotion focuses on maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities.

For others, doing a job well is about security, about not losing the positions they have worked so hard for.  This prevention focus places the emphasis on avoiding danger, fulfilling responsibilities, and doing what you feel you ought to do.  In economic terms, it’s about minimizing losses and trying to hang on to what you’ve got.

It turns out another great way to avoid procrastination is to adopt a prevention focus on the project you are working on.  Studies show that prevention-minded people almost never procrastinate – it keeps them awake at night, terrified of the consequences of slacking off.  When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action.

I know this won’t sound like a lot of fun, particularly if you are usually more the promotion-minded type, but there is probably no better way to stop dawdling than to give some serious thought to all the dire consequences of potential failure.  If procrastination is your problem, try thinking about everything you will lose if you don’t succeed.  I realize that’s an unpleasant thing to do, but great achievement does come with a price.

Don’t Label Yourself “Procrastinator”

Never underestimate the power of labeling.  Countless studies have shown that once a person is given a trait label like “generous,” “shy” or “creative,” they begin behaving in a manner consistent with that label – even if they have rarely done so in the past.  Tell a typically reserved person that a test has scored them high on “extroversion,” and just watch them start talking up a storm without even realizing that their behavior has changed.  When we are given a label, we tend to believe it.

So once you’ve decided you are “a procrastinator,” your brain, on an unconscious level, will believe you.  And unconsciously, you will act accordingly.  Like any other self-fulfilling prophecy, you will keep procrastinating to conform to the identity you’ve given yourself.

So stop buying into the idea that you are “a procrastinator” and there’s nothing you can do about it. Procrastinating is something you do, not something you are. Rejecting the label is the first step to ridding yourself of the behavior once and for all.

Heidi Grant Halvorson
Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is an experimental social psychologist, and Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. She received her B.A. in psychology, summa cum laude, from the University of Pennsylvania, and earned her doctorate at Columbia University, specializing in goal pursuit and motivation. Her research has focused on understanding how people respond to setbacks and challenges, and how these responses are shaped by the kinds of goals they pursue. She has published papers on topics ranging from achievement and self-regulation, to person perception, persuasion, and well-being. She also co-edited (with Gordon Moskowitz) the academic handbook The Psychology of Goals (Guilford, 2009). Dr. Grant Halvorson is the author Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press) and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently (Harvard Business Press).
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