It’s 4:30 PM on a Friday and the clock is ticking. You’re working furiously to complete a task before 5:00 PM, while recalling what you’ve gotten done for the entire day… Nothing.
While you’re silently cursing yourself for not starting it sooner, you’re wondering what has just happened. What went wrong? How did you lose the focus?
Well, everyone procrastinates.
If you’ve been putting things off until the last minute, giving in to distractions again and again, and finding yourself with nothing done at the end of the day, you’re not alone.
Even many of the world’s most famous geniuses were once serious procrastinators.
- Victor Hugo. Like many writers, he was doing anything else except focusing on his work: write. At one point when the book deadline was near, he stripped himself naked in his study until he completed his work at the appointed hour.
- Leonardo Da Vinci, over the course of his life, completed some of the world’s most renowned works of art. However, he was also famous for an inability to focus—which is why it took him 16 years to complete one of his most famous paintings—the Mona Lisa.
- The Dalai Lama, despite being the voice of the Tibetan people, was well known for his inability to get things done at one point in his life. The Dalai Lama even admitted that when he was young, the only time he studied and worked without laziness was when the deadline was upon him.
Fighting procrastination is like fighting a monster within you that never dies—and this beast lives in every single one of us. The truth is, overcoming procrastination is not curing procrastination. Instead, it’s about working with your psychology and behavior, so that you can get important things done.
In this article, I’m going to show you why you procrastinate, a comprehensive system for overcoming procrastination, and how to finally getting yourself to accomplish the very things you desire. Here’s a quick overview of what this article will cover:
Part I: Primary Causes of Procrastination
- 1.1 Perfectionism
- 1.2 Fear of the Unknown
- 1.3 Lack of Motivation
- 1.4 Distractions
- 1.5 Resistance of the Task
Part II: A Complete System for Breaking Procrastination
- 2.1 Develop an Intense Obsession Towards Your Goals
- 2.2 Rewrite Your Invisible Scripts
- 2.3 Master Your Psychology and Physiology
- 2.4 Create a Distraction-Free Environment
- 2.5 Build Supporting Habits
- 2.6 Drills and Practices
Part III: Tools and Other Resources
Part I: Primary Causes of Procrastination
As mentioned above, procrastination is a very common condition of being human. Everyone procrastinates at some point in their lives. We delay our work until the very last minute, we are easily distracted by things around us, and we busily move in circles without ever moving forward.
We then feel terrible for not getting the important stuff done. Looking at other, better performers, we start to believe that we’re just the average human who will never accomplish anything great. When you’re in this position, you feel helpless and lonely because speaking up to another person only further shatters your self-esteem.
The truth is, everyone feels the same way. Procrastination is not easy to overcome because it’s not a math problem that can be calculated with formulas. People procrastinate in different ways for different reasons. So before diving into methods and strategies to break procrastination, we first need to learn why we procrastinate.
One of the most common reasons why people procrastinate—in this case, an inability to start—is that they want things to be perfect. Instead of focusing on getting started, they fantasize about ideal results.
- Writers think about reading a book all day but never start writing.
- Entrepreneurs keep their ideas in their head, believing that these ideas are the best, and not wanting to share or execute them.
- Artists who start many masterpieces but never complete any of them.
For perfectionists, it’s safer to keep the goal in their mind, on paper, beside their mouth, but never make it a reality. Because when it does become a reality, it may not be the same as what they fantasize. So, they wait for the perfect moment to start, and if they start, they drag their project out, never actually finish and ship it.
There is no perfect time or circumstance to do something meaningful. When we constrain and attach ourselves to only one version of the result (something we can’t directly control), we become less flexible. We can no longer adjust and optimize the process. We either get caught up day-dreaming, or we get paralyzed by the amount of work we need to put in.
1.2 FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN
Aiming for great things and doing something you have never done before is scary. What if you don’t accomplish what you said you wanted? What if you get nothing in return after all the time and energy investment? What if you change your mind halfway along the path?
There are thousands of “what ifs” in our minds every time we want to start doing something, especially something big and meaningful to us. It’s not your fault. We’re all hardwired to fear the unknown. Backing off and fleeing from uncertainty is the best self-defense mechanism humans have ever developed throughout the course of evolution.
Fear of the unknown is not a bad thing; it protects us from taking unnecessary risks and harming ourselves. However, it’s not very helpful when we want to make that one leap to get important things done.
1.3 LACK OF MOTIVATION
The next cause of procrastination is this: we just don’t feel like doing what we should do. Yes, you promised yourself to hit the gym tonight. But after a full day of work, you simply don’t have the motivation to push yourself to the gym.
Motivation is twofold: psychology and physiology. Your beliefs, self-awareness, and mental models are going to impact your level of motivation directly. But at the same time, how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally is also going to affect your level of motivation from time to time.
Learning how to motivate yourself is a critical starting point, but it’s not a sustainable strategy for the long term. We’re going to cover more on learning how to free ourselves from procrastination even when our motivation is low.
Since the rise of the Internet, attention-grabbing distractions are increasing at a rapid pace. With the ease of creating and delivering information, we’re living in a far more distracting environment today compared to decades ago.
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means the dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. —Herbert Simon, Social Scientist
Even when we make it past the initial resistance of getting started, we still face the enormous challenge of sticking to our work. Countless things are trying to grab your attention in numerous directions every second of the day.
Phones ringing, people yelling, babies crying. To truly get away from distraction, you need to learn the exact strategy for creating a distraction-free environment.
1.5 RESISTANCE OF THE TASK
The final cause of procrastination lies in the task itself. Think about it. What is something you know you should do but can’t get yourself to do? You’re not doing it—not because you want it to be perfect, not because you’re afraid, not because you’re unmotivated or distracted. Your procrastinating because you just don’t feel like doing it.
- Making your bed immediately after you wake up.
- Doing the laundry every week.
- Making a budget for yourself after getting paid.
Every task—big or small—comes with a certain level of resistance. Little things that can be done easily feel unimportant and boring and eventually your ignore them. Important things that you should do make you feel dreadful, so you can never get started.
The first key you need to realize is this: you don’t need to do them all yourself. You can “get them done” without your own effort with effective delegation and automation. Then for the remaining tasks, you will need to identify some of their characteristics, schedule them in advance, and implement the two-minute hack to get them done quickly.
Part II: A Complete System for Breaking Procrastination
Now you’ve learned the top five causes of why we—and you—procrastinate, it’s time to uncover some proven strategies you can implement to break procrastination. Before you do, there are three points I want you to know or act upon:
- Comment below: what is the primary cause of your procrastination?
- Know that breaking procrastination is not curing procrastination. No one gets to cure procrastination, they just work around it. And everyone can overcome it with proven methods and time.
- Be aware that the process requires work. If you expect to read this today and become the most productive person the next day—without work, this is not for you. The good news is, these strategies aren’t impossible feats. Some of them take less than two minutes to complete.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
2.1 DEVELOP AN INTENSE OBSESSION TOWARDS YOUR GOALS
Elon Musk gets exhausted too, but he can’t stop working on his mission to make renewable energy mainstream and send a man to Mars. He’s seriously obsessed with his goals. The same goes for Steve Jobs. He preferred to be a jerk rather than to compromise his vision for the perfect computer.
The list goes on and on. In fact, top performers and high achievers are not immune to procrastination and distraction. Instead, they are obsessed with what they want to accomplish and what they do. This obsession fuels their mind and body. They will not stop at anything before they achieve what they intended to.
To develop this obsession towards your desire. you must set goals the right way. (You can read about the wrong way here)
Set Goals that are Aligned with Your Vision and Values
Most people start out thinking about what they want to buy or own when going through the goal-setting process. It’s an excellent place to start if you never actually set goals. But dig a little deeper. Are these goals really what you want or are they delusional pictures painted by others’ influences?
It’s impossible to develop an intense obsession toward your goals if they don’t resonate with you directly. Instead of thinking about what you want, start your goal-setting process by thinking about who you want to be. This helps you to align your goals with your vision and values. And only in this way can you stick with it for the long haul.
Develop Sharp Focus Using the 25/5 Rule
Warren Buffett is known for his wealth and as one of the most successful investors in the world. One of the many elements that contribute to his success is how he sees and spends his time and energy, known as the 25/5 rule.
The 25/5 rule works like this. Write down 25 goals you want to accomplish. Then, circle the top five goals that are the most important to you. Now you have two lists: the top five priorities and the remaining 20 less important goals.
Start working on your top five immediately and make the other 20 as your avoid-at-all-cost list. This technique is a great way to create laser-sharp focus and clarity.
Break Goals Down into Milestones and Action
The 25/5 rule is a strategy that stems from the Pareto Principle, which is to focus all your time and energy on the top 20% priorities. But even after narrowing down your goals, it could still be hard to get started. The best way is to break the goals into smaller chunks as milestones.
After you break these top goals into smaller milestones, set a process goal for each one of them. Think about what you need to do every day, week, or month to accomplish your milestones. Then make these actions your habits.
Place Your Goals Everywhere
Admit it, we all are forgetful. Our brain is not designed to remember what we want five to ten years down the road. To remind yourself of your goals, place them everywhere—in your car, your mobile home screen, your bathroom mirror, everywhere—so you can see and review them every day.
You can list your goals and read them every day but here is a better way: use photos and images to describe your goals and visualize them every day. Photos and visualizationS are more effective because our brains are designed to process images, not words.
2.2 REWRITE YOUR INVISIBLE SCRIPTS
Most people stop at the first step of goal setting, some people stop after creating a plan, but not you. To develop a strong obsession with your desire, you need to release yourself from self-sabotaging beliefs and inner voices.
Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You To Be Rich called it the invisible scripts (You can see me using it often because I love that term). If you want to overcome procrastination and become a top performer, you need to do what they do. But before you do what they do, you must rewrite the invisible scripts in your head—inject the good ones and erase the ones that are holding you back.
Review and Challenge Your Existing Beliefs
This process is simple but not easy. And the only way to reprogram your mindset is to review and challenge it every single day. Every time you notice those inner voices get a pen and a piece of paper to write them down. Then, review these voices and ask yourself:
- Are these true? Do these represent the reality or are they just illusion of my own emotions and fears?
- When did I start to believe in these thoughts? Do I know someone else who has defied this belief?
- What can I do to test this belief?
The more you challenge your beliefs, the more you will see them from a separate perspective. And the easier it will become to disregard them and act anyway.
Face Your Fear Head On
Now, look at the last question above, “what can I do to test this belief?” In most cases, you will get pretty uncomfortable answers from this question because it’s about stepping outside of your comfort zone and doing something differently. Fear then creeps in from all directions to paralyze you and to keep you from taking action.
This is when fear-setting (by Tim Ferriss from his TED Talk 2017) comes in to play as a solution. Again, write down your fears one by one. Then, ask yourself:
- What would the worst case scenario be if this happens?
- How can I recover from this if it happens?
- How can I prevent this from happening?
Often, you will find that the worst case scenario isn’t really that bad and can be easily recovered from. At the same time, you start thinking about how to prevent that from happening with a more rational and systematic approach instead of delaying and procrastinating.
2.3 MASTER YOUR PSYCHOLOGY AND PHYSIOLOGY
After you create the urge to take action and weed out the self-sabotaging voices in your head, it’s time to get to the meat. Most people skip the first two steps. They start implementing the hacks and techniques below only to find themselves getting nowhere. Therefore, it’s wise to first go through the two steps above before you continue from here.
Procrastination has a lot to do with our psychology—how we think and behave—and our physiology—how our body reacts. Both areas are critical for effectively breaking procrastination long-term and to start performing at your best.
Psychology Hacks to Beat Procrastination
- Drop the perfectionism. As mentioned, one of the most common causes of procrastination is perfectionism start embracing failures. Instead of expecting things to happen as desired, focus on taking action. Most successes are created by stacking the marginal gain through the process of consistent actions.
- List the cost of non-action. In both economy and decision-making, we have the tendency to avoid losses rather than acquiring equivalent gains. Psychologists called it loss aversion. We procrastinate because we don’t want to lose the comfort we have right now. Interestingly, we can utilize this in our favor by listing down the cost of non-action. Think about what you’re going to lose—opportunities, wealth, time—if you don’t take action. This can become a stimulus, pushing you forward and getting you out of the misery of stagnation.
- The 2-minute hack. Our mind craves instant gratification. We want fast, good results and pleasure without putting in the effort. It becomes difficult to take the first step when what we have in front of us is dreadful, two hours of work. At this juncture, stop focusing on completing a task. Instead, focus on doing the task for just two minutes. And that two minutes will make the next two minutes easier and eventually, you’re done with what you need to do.
- Reserve procrastinating triggers. Often, procrastination is a habit. Every habit has its trigger: when the trigger appears, we go into an automatic routine—in this case, delaying work or getting distracted, then we get a reward—usually relaxation or the illusion of being productive. One of the best ways to beat procrastination is to identify these triggers, and then, change the routine. So instead of getting distracted, read a book or go for a walk when you can’t concentrate on your work.
(The most common triggers for procrastination are stress and boredom. Having learned about these, assign yourself a constructive routine to replace procrastination when you’re feeling stressed or bored.)
- Reward Good Behavior. Our behavior is shaped by repeated feedback. If the feedback—after an action is taken—is positive, our brain will remember it and do it again; if it’s negative, our brains will avoid it when the stimulus appears again. Whenever you find yourself actually doing the work instead of procrastinating, reward yourself with something—a massage session or a nice meal—so you will want to do more of it automatically in the future.
Optimize Your Physiology
There is a lot you can do to your body to maximize your performance. It’s a different niche known as biohacking, and that is a topic for another day. To overcome procrastination, you need to at least get your body to function optimally. And we will look into three things you can optimize to accomplish that.
- Exercise. Our bodies are designed to move. Research has shown that exercise is one of the best activities you can do, not just to strengthen your body, but also to further develop your brain. When you exercise, your body produces hormones to regulate the body’s function and mood. It’s one of the top productivity and peak performance tools among many top performers and high achievers.
- Manage your energy. Your energy level doesn’t progress linearly throughout the day. Instead, it follows an ebb-and-flow pattern. Pushing yourself to do something with a greater resistance when your energy is dipping is an unproductive move—if not impossible. That said, schedule your day according to your energy level and take regular breaks in between your work. This is also why the Pomodoro Technique that follows a sprint-rest-sprint model works.
- Sleep. Sleep plays a critical role in our body. When we sleep, our bodies get to repair damaged cells, at the same time, our brains get to cleanse the accumulated waste produced during the day effectively. A good night sleep replenishes your energy and restores your willpower for the next day.
2.4 CREATE A DISTRACTION-FREE ENVIRONMENT
Andre Agassi is a retired American professional tennis player and former World’s No 1 in competitive sports. Throughout his career, no one was allowed to touch his tennis bag during a match. Later, in his autobiography Open, he explained that when there is disorder in his bag, there were distractions in his mind.
Creating your environment is something you want to take seriously. Removing distraction doesn’t only help to overcome procrastination, it improves your focus so you can practice, learn, and perform at a peak mental and physical states.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it the flow, and some call it the zone. It’s a mental state in which a person performs an activity with immersed focus and loses the sense of space and time.
How to Create a Distraction-Free Environment
- Separating workspace from other spaces. Create purposeful spaces for different activities in your life. Use your bedroom for rest and sleep. Design your living room for relaxation and bonding, and create a working space for work. Never mix them up.
- Keep things organized. Keep spaces neat and organized, so it’s easier and more comfortable to work in.
- Inform people not to disturb you. Before you start working, inform your colleagues, family members, or roommates not to interrupt you for a set period. Tell them that you need full focus on what you’re doing right now.
- Switch off your phone notifications. If it’s possible, get away from your phone when you need to focus on an enormous task. A slight distraction can pull you away from the state of focus and it can take as long as 20 to 40 minutes to get back to the zone again.
- Have a start and end point in mind. Distraction can quickly creep in when you’re exhausted—both from your surroundings or from the lizard brain. Schedule a break in between if you’re working on tasks that take a long time and a lot of energy.
Design and Guard Your Mental Space
Besides creating a physical environment for your work and life, it’s crucial to design a distraction-free mental space. Often, this is more challenging than building a physical environment because distraction from inside our head comes from countless directions.
- Choose your friends. You’re the average of the five people around you. If you’re constantly associating with procrastinators, you can never break procrastination. Remove one lazy friend at a time, and add one disciplined and productive person to your circle.
- Get an accountability partner. Overcoming procrastination is challenging. To make sure you stick to the plan, ask a friend or family member to keep you accountable. If you can’t get one, hiring a coach is another excellent option.
- Limit your information consumption. The more information you consume, the muddier your thoughts. Consuming new information is great as a form of learning, but don’t learn mindlessly. Create a plan for learning that is aligned with your current goals, so it doesn’t become another excuse for you to procrastinate. Just-on-time knowledge that you get to implement immediately is better than just-in-case knowledge that you never get to utilize.
2.5 BUILD SUPPORTING HABITS
To transform our behavior, we need the motivation, the why behind what we do, to get us started. However, motivation is not a sustainable solution because our level of motivation is never consistent. That’s why people who depend solely on motivation start a thousand different projects but are never able to complete them and move on.
The best psychological mechanism to replace motivation is to build habits. Humans are animals of patterns. Instead of depending on the spike of motivation every time, designing a routine and building a habit are a more sustainable strategy for the long-term.
There are countless good habits you can implement in your life for good. In the context of breaking procrastination, here are the five most recommended habits:
- Keeping a daily journal. Daily journaling helps to declutter our thoughts. It records and tracks our progress, so we can review and reflect on our process, and then readjust it to achieve our goals.
- Complete small quick task immediately. Make it a habit not to put small things off. Make your bed immediately after you wake up, wash the plates immediately after dinner, reply to an email immediately after you read it (if you don’t plan to reply, don’t read it). Every task—however petty—takes up mental space, complete them immediately so you don’t add them to your to-do list helps free up these spaces for something more important.
- Use the Eisenhower Matrix to make quick decisions. The Eisenhower Matrix puts tasks into four different quadrants (read more here). Use the matrix to identify which quadrants your task is in, and eliminate it if it falls under “not urgent and not important.”
- Keep a to-do list. But not just any to-do list. Limit it to five to eight items a day and organize them in the order of priority. Only start the second to-do item when you completed the one with the highest priority and slowly work down the list. We tend to work on easy things first, only to find ourselves running out of time and energy for the big and hairy—and usually important—task at the end of the day. Eat the frog. Work on your top priority first.
- Meditation. Research has shown that meditation can rewire our brains to become calmer and less prone to distractions. If you’ve read the procrastination post by Tim Urban (if you have not, read it now!), meditation is an excellent way to shut off the monkey in your brain.
If you want to learn more about how to build habits that last, read this.
2.6 DRILLS AND PRACTICES
Okay, there is a lot of information. I get it. You may be wondering: “Great! Now I know more, but where should I start?” This short section is the answer to your question.
As mentioned above, overcoming procrastination is not an overnight event, it’s a process. It means that you don’t need to do everything at once. Here are three suggestions for you to start the journey of breaking procrastination for good.
Set Goals—Focus on Starting Instead of Finishing
The first strategy I’ve mentioned in this article is crucial. You have to do it. There is no other way around it. And you need to start as soon as possible because developing an obsession with your goals takes time.
Start by going through the goal-setting and fear-setting technique I laid out above. Then, focus your energy on the process goals to get yourself started immediately.
Utilize the Parkinson’s Law
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. It basically means that the more time you give to a task, the more time it takes; and vice versa. A great method to boost productivity and break procrastination is to use deadlines in your favor.
Schedule three hours of time for a task that usually takes you five to complete. You’ll be surprised how much you get done in this time. Set a self-imposed deadline days or weeks in advance of the actual deadline and stick to it, you’ll eventually feel the urge to complete it as soon as possible.
30-Day Procrastination Diet
The last tool I have for you is fun: challenge yourself to do what you’ve been procrastinating on immediately for the next 30 days.
Take a pen and a piece of paper, list 30 small things you’ve been delaying and avoiding for a long time. In the next 30 days, execute them —one by one. After you have completed one each day, cross them off from your life.
This 30-day challenge helps you break the initial resistance and create the momentum for you to move forward. Imagine how you would feel by the end of the 30 days when you’ve crossed off every single item on your procrastination list.
Part III: Tools and Other Resources
Now you have everything you need to overcome procrastination and take your productivity to the next level. Take a break, come back tomorrow, and pick one strategy to work on immediately.
Before I sign off on this article, I would like to recommend some tools and resources that I have found helpful in the process of overcoming procrastination and building the foundation for peak performance.
3.1 RECOMMENDED TOOLS TO OVERCOME PROCRASTINATION
Technology is a double-edged sword. When utilizing technology ineffectively, it becomes the most attention-grabbing distraction you’ll ever encounter. However, technology can be helpful if you learn where and how to use it.
There are many tools available today that help us overcome procrastination, build better habits, and improve productivity. Here’s a list of my most recommended tools:
- RescueTime. Track how you spend your time in the background and send a weekly and monthly report to your inbox.
- Notion.so. The best place to dump everything out of your brain.
- Google calendar. Best cloud-based calendar ever.
- Headspace. Simple and effective guided meditation app.
- Workflowy. Make simple lists for anything.
- Toggl time tracking. Track the time you spend on a task (manually, which means you need to hit start and stop) with Pomodoro timer built in.
- 1Password. Remember all your passwords, so you don’t waste your precious mental power. Plus, you get to login fast—in one single click.
- Noisli. White noise that boosts focus and productivity at work.
- Facebook Feed Eradicator, DF Youtube, and Block Site. Replace your Facebook newsfeed with quotes, hide YouTube sidebar recommendation, and block distracting sites.
- F.lux. Blue light blocker for your computer to help improve sleep.
- Coach.me. Free habit tracking app with a community of coaches for hire.
3.2 OTHER RESOURCES
In case you want to dig deeper, improve productivity and achieve peak performance, below are lists of my top five recommended books, blogs, and podcasts. Most of what I shared here is not originated from me, but from the authors, bloggers, and entrepreneurs on these lists.
Top five books to read:
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- Manage Your Day-to-Day by Jocelyn K. Glei
Top five blogs to follow:
Top five podcasts to subscribe to: