At one time or another, we’ve all been faced with a task we just can’t get started on. For students, it’s often that end-of-year thesis they need to get a passing grade. For professionals, it might be a presentation or a proposal. It could even be something emotionally daunting, such as beginning a difficult conversation you know you must have, or getting up the nerve to speak during a meeting.
It isn’t necessarily that you don’t want to do the task. But actually sitting down to start can feel almost impossible. What are the things holding you back from that initial push to get started and how can you move past them and plunge right in?
What science says about procrastination
Experts define procrastination as the voluntary delay of some important task that we need to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result. In research settings, it’s been observed that people who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and lower well-being. Procrastination can negatively impact learning, achievement, and even quality of life.
“Procrastination is increasingly recognized as involving a failure in self-regulation such that procrastinators, relative to non-procrastinators, may have a reduced ability to resist social temptations, pleasurable activities, and immediate rewards when the . . . benefits of preparation are distant,” revealed one study of college students. The study examined nine different aspects of self-reported executive functioning associated with academic procrastination.
The authors of the study found that anything from impulsivity to self-monitoring, planning, activity shifting, task initiation, task monitoring, emotional control, working memory, or orderliness can keep you from getting started on a task.
That’s comforting in a way, because your particular challenges with getting started are very likely altogether different from someone else’s. for example, low conscientiousness might be the cause of procrastination for some people, but you might suffer from a surplus of perfectionism – which sounds rather good, but it still keeps you from getting started.
Strategies for overcoming procrastination
While understanding why our brains perpetually postpone things, it doesn’t cure the habit. The solution for procrastination is outsmarting it: You can trick yourself into productivity. Below are some clever strategies devised by specialists in the field. You don’t need to pick just one; you can make use of them all to handle whatever obstacle your procrastination-prone brain might toss in your path.
- Reframe the way you think of yourself: It’s easy to think of yourself as a procrastinator, especially in a moment when you’re deciding to put things off. But that sort of thinking is self-fulfilling. You’re more likely to accept your tendencies to procrastinate, and continue to follow that pattern. Instead, try using cognitive reframing to rethink or “reframe” negative assumptions, and shift your perception of yourself to someone who gets things done.
- Do the worst thing first: Attack the hardest task when your energy is fresh and you give yourself the strongest chance of success. Doing otherwise can have a damaging domino effect, says Eva Wisnik, a time-management expert in New York City. “Putting off the dreaded item on your list saps your strength… Checking it off will make you feel super-productive,” says Wisnik.
- 3. Start your day over at 2 p.m.: Give yourself a second morning in the middle of the day (complete with a cup of coffee). That way, if a new project has become high priority, you still have the time and the energy to start it at 2 p.m. instead of feeling burnt out and procrastinating on that project until there’s no time to complete it.
- Trick your mind into making a task tiny: If you have a huge task, tell yourself “I’m not really going to do this task; I’m just going to do this tiny part of it.” And make the tiny part so small and trivial that it seems ridiculous. By doing this, you trick yourself into taking tiny steps that help you build up to your bigger goal. Before you know it, you’ll have started that thing you’ve been dreading.
- Don’t interrupt yourself: If you get pulled away from tasks by every ding, buzz, and ring from your digital devices, you won’t get much accomplished. Remember: it isn’t other people who are interrupting you; you’re interrupting yourself. Disable your email and phone notifications. Log out of your social media accounts. Your brain will thank you.
The good news is, once you do get started on a task, your perceptions of it will change dramatically, in the best way possible. You’ll view the task as less stressful, difficult, and unpleasant than you did at the start. Not only that, you’ll also shift your perceptions of yourself. Because once you get started on something, even if you don’t finish it, you’ll have made some progress and perhaps even established a bit of momentum. You’ll have gained confidence, exercised control, and maybe even effected lasting change in the way you approach all your tasks.