Procrastination might seem like a silly little habit, but if you’re a chronic procrastinator, then you know how much damage and chaos can be caused by putting things off. “I’ll do it later. I’ll take care of it tomorrow. I’ll get to it when I have more time.” This waiting becomes a habit, and before you know it, this habit becomes a way of life. Procrastination is sneaky. It has major consequences. And I’ll be honest, it’s a hard habit to break.
It might surprise you, but I’m actually a recovering procrastinator! For most of my life, I waited until the last minute. I felt anxious and stressed, as I scrambled to get things done. I felt exhausted when it was all over. And then, just days later, I’d repeat the cycle all over again! If you’re a procrastinator, I know you can you can relate. You put things off until the last minute. You stress about how you’re going to get it all done. And then you exhaust yourself, swearing you’ll never procrastinate again. It’s a maddening habit. You know it’s not helpful. Yet you keep doing it. And you can’t understand why!
Several months ago, I shared the real reason you procrastinate. I explained the simple reason that you keep putting things off. (If you missed that video, you can watch it here.) The response to that video was overwhelming, with so many people having an a-ha moment, finally understanding the reason behind their chronic procrastination.
Knowing why you procrastinate is powerful. But knowing why you procrastinate and fixing your procrastination? Those are two, very different things. Several years ago, after a lifetime of procrastinating, I finally got fed up. I was done with my habit of putting things off, tired of the stress it caused me. And when I realized that my procrastination wasn’t a complicated habit, but rather, a simple avoidance of anxiety and distress, it clicked. After all, I’m a psychologist, one that specializes in anxiety. And I know a lot about the anxiety-avoidance cycle. It’s my bread and butter and something I talk about daily with clients. Yet I’d almost missed it, hidden away in my procrastination.
So, I started applying what I know about anxiety to procrastination, and within weeks, things started to change. By using a series of simple questions, I went from “I’ll do it later” to “I’ll do it now.” These questions are simple yet effective, challenging your habit of waiting. Wondering how to stop procrastinating? These questions will help you tackle your to do list and break your procrastination habit for good!
1.Am I going to or do I have to do this thing eventually? Start by asking yourself whether you will end up doing the task you’re procrastinating on at some point. Will you eventually write and turn in the paper, or will you not write it and take a zero? Will you eventually go to the grocery store, or will you eat out for the rest of your life? Will you eventually do laundry, or will you go and buy new, clean clothes to wear? This question is designed to help you identify whether or not you have to (or will) do this thing at some point. If the answer is yes, then move forward to question #2.
2. Will it get easier if I wait? Will the paper be easier to write in three days? Will the load of laundry be smaller in a week? Will grocery shopping take less time in another few days? It’s important to note that this question can be tricky. Because we’re not asking if it will feel easier. We’re asking if it will be easier. So to be clear, this question involves objectively looking at a task and then determining whether or not it will reduce, shrink, or be easier if you put if off. (Spoiler alert: less than one percent of tasks get easier if you wait. The laundry pile won’t magically shrink, and the words you have to write won’t come easier.) If the answer to this question is no, meaning that the task won’t get easier, then proceed to question #3.
3. What are the negative consequences if I continue to wait? This question prompts you to think through the potential consequences of procrastinating. This question asks you to be honest with yourself about how putting things off and waiting will really affect you. And here’s why this question is critical. When you’re about to procrastinate, the positive consequences of avoiding are tangible. They’re tempting. Perhaps procrastinating would give you more time in bed, more time with friends, or another episode on Netflix. Maybe procrastinating would reduce your anxiety for a moment or help you feel less stressed for a second. These positive consequences have immediate and tangible benefits. And they register with your brain, big-time.
Meanwhile, the negative consequences of avoiding feel far off. They’re less in the moment. They’re less tangible. So this question is about bringing those potential consequences to the front of your mind. It’s about helping your brain compare apples to apples, making a more informed decision about whether or not you want to procrastinate. For example, if you procrastinate, the negative consequences might include more stress, more anxiety, or reduced sleep. It might mean less time to ask for help, less confidence in the product you put out, or having to do a whole day of laundry, rather than just an hour. The more specific and detailed you can be about these negative consequences, the better.
4. And now the final question. Do I want to experience these negative consequences? Do you want to feel more stressed, frantic, and anxious? Do you want to lose sleep or risk getting a lower grade? Are you willing to experience all the negative consequences you just named in the question above? If the answer is no, then start now. Start the task immediately. No more delaying. No more waiting. And no more procrastinating. Take a step right where you are toward the task you’ve been avoiding.
Let’s pause for a second and recap what questions 1-3 have taught you. You’ve acknowledged that at some point, you have to do the task. You’ve acknowledged that it won’t get easier if you wait. And you’ve outlined several negative consequences of waiting. So, this thing you’re procrastinating on? It’s not going to get any easier than it is right this second. So start now. At this point, you might be thinking, “But Dr. Allison, I still don’t want to do the task I’ve been procrastinating. It doesn’t sound any more appealing. And I’m not any more motivated.” Of course it doesn’t! The thing you’ve been avoiding involves discomfort. We’re not going to trick your brain into thinking it’s a spa day!
One of the major things that fuels procrastination is the unconscious belief that the task you’re avoiding will get easier if you wait. That it’ll be easier to do later. This belief tricks you into waiting, procrastinating, and then waiting some more. This series of questions is designed to challenge your unconscious belief that it will get easier if you wait. Because that’s a huge part of what procrastination is. It’s a skewed and inaccurate belief that it’ll get easier “later.”
So much of my job as a psychologist is helping people challenge of their unconscious beliefs. Because as I tell my clients (and myself) often, “Your thoughts are not the truth.” Just because you think it, doesn’t make it true. If you want to know how to stop procrastinating, you’ve got to be honest about the little lies your brain is telling you. You’ve got to be vigilant about teasing apart the untruths about waiting till later. Because it won’t get easier. The discomfort won’t go away. And you won’t magically feel like doing it tomorrow.
In the video above, I share a recent, and super helpful example. I outline how I used these four questions, on the spot, to challenge my procrastination. One minute I was dreading preparing for presentation, tempted to tell myself I’d do it later. And then the next minute, I was hunkered down, typing away and getting it done.
If you’ve been wondering how to stop procrastinating, look no further. These four questions give you a concrete, sure-fire way to stop waiting and do things now. Enough avoiding, enough anxiety, and enough stress. Enough telling yourself you’ll do it later, then saying that again a week later. Take control of your procrastination, show it who’s boss, and use these four questions to regain control!
PS: Now that you know my secret for how to stop procrastinating, learn my best-kept secret about motivation. It’ll help you finally tackle some of those hard to stick with goals!