How to finally stop procrastinating

Graphic: United Plankton Pictures, Nickelodeon Animation Studios,

Imagine this: It’s 11pm; there’s an assignment you delayed from last week which you have not started, but it’s due in the morning. You rush to switch on your computer, only to realize that it won’t turn on; After spending 5 minutes fixing the issue, you find out that your WiFi isn’t working. Problem after problem arises, and your deadline is trashed. Murphy’s Law is working overtime – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Panic sets in as you scurry to do whatever you can to beat the ticking clock, and maybe you’re regretting how you’ve left it so late. It was your choice, anyway, to get it done with time to spare, but instead, you decided to procrastinate, and now you pay the price.

It’s not a pleasant situation to be in, rushing like that, knowing that our work will never be at its very best. Yet, we put ourselves through it all the time. We don’t want to, but it happens. While we know that we are procrastinating while we are procrastinating, putting a stop to this self-destructive habit is quite the monster. Regardless, for the sake of our sanity and peace of mind, we have to try.

To start, it is important to understand what procrastination is. Through experience, we know that it refers to delaying or postponing a task, promising to ‘do it later’.The choice to delay can be made either intentionally, or out of habit despite us knowing the consequences beforehand. It seems like irrational behaviour, but if we’re going to deal with procrastination, we should be aware that there are certain factors that predispose us towards procrastination, and that these factors are within our scope of control. So take heart. We can beat it!

Firstly, we may lack a sense of urgency. Rather than getting on with our task, we convince ourselves that there is ‘still lots of time’ to get it done. That deadline is ages away, so there’s little point in rushing  it now. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, was it, now? So let the book report get some backburner time, which it probably needs, anyway, and meanwhile, let’s await the arrival of Madame Inspiration. As time dwindles to nothing, we finally acknowledge that she’s never gonna show up, and leap into action when Sir Desperation ignites the flame under our backsides. We may be a walking mass of third-degree burns right now, but we still believe that time is on our side. Until it’s not. Again.

Secondly, there are evil distractions that hold us back from starting work. It’s akin to a pesky mosquito that constantly pokes around, and drains any energy that we need to start work. If we lack a sense of urgency, it’s been stolen by all these distractions offering us more pleasurable options to pass the time, than the drudgery of doing work. They make us question our priorities, making us choose between the now, or the later; the short-term enjoyments, or the long-term objectives. Do you really need to do your work now? At this ‘decision intersection’, we are forced to reevaluate our choices, though its not usually a tough decision. We tend to opt for the path of least resistance.

Distractions come in many forms, whether physical or mental (or emotional), and divert our attention to do anything other than work. The biggest and most versatile distraction is our cellphone, which most of us possess. It connects us to social media: WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram, Snapchat, and so on. These platforms notify us of any activity on social media, and on social media, there is lots of activity — sometimes not even related to us. Every time the phone lights up with a notification, it grabs our attention. We pick it up to check (in case it’s urgent) and one distraction leads to another. Work can wait.

Sometimes, even our immediate environment can be a distraction. For example, We might notice the mess on our workstation and become suddenly overwhelmed with OCD. Taking time to create the ‘perfect conducive work environment’ by tidying up and sorting materials in alphabetical and numerical order becomes the most important priority. We clearly never wanted a clean desk before, but now getting it clean again is less painful than work.

Other times, there is the desire to start work, but there is too much inertia to overcome. The amount of work to be done is overwhelming. We envision how difficult and arduous the task will be, while the end is too far over the horizon to see. The task will take forever, and for what? It just takes too much effort to commit and so, we just can’t take that first step but instead leave it for another time, and procrastinate.

All the above factors demotivate us from getting our work done. They make us devalue our work by biasing our cost-benefit analysis, causing us to seek short-term pleasure over long-term achievement. So we put aside the seemingly everlasting agony of work, and would rather engage in activities that provide small rewards for little effort, like playing mobile games on our smartphones. In this way, we almost always choose to settle for second, or even third best in life — the reward for a lifetime of procrastination.

With all that said, how do we stop procrastination? There are many easy ways to do so:

Firstly, completely remove ALL distractions, even potential ones. Remove them all; For example,

  • Put the cellphone far away from the desk, preferably in another room.This way, the phone is never a distraction to contend with while at work.
  • Turn off notification sounds, or silence the phone , and turn off vibration mode.
  • Have a desk designated only for work. Keep it clutter-free to avoid the urge to sort things that spark joy from those that don’t.
  • Disconnect WiFi if there is no urgent use for it. The Internet provides virtually endless amount of distraction — browsing through it will take forever.
  • Have a fixed music playlist. Decide on few songs that would improve concentration (preferably without lyrics or catchy melodies, and not music to sing along to). The last thing we want is to get distracted by the very thing meant to help us concentrate. A fixed playlist also means that there is no need to waste time choosing what music to play each session.
  • Similar to the smartphone, if there is no pressing need to use a computer, keep it switched off.
  • If computer use is necessary, install website blockers. Block distracting websites such as Youtube, Instagram, movie sites, etc. Eg. Chrome browser’s “Block Site” extension.

Secondly, break up tasks into small and manageable pieces. For example, break up an essay assignment by paragraphs. It lowers the difficulty of starting work, as we don’t see the task as a long hard journey, but as bite-sized pieces that we can handle easily. Also, it doesn’t take much to overcome inertia. Sometimes, all it takes is a commitment to start with writing three sentences, which looks much more do-able than a whole essay all at once. With just a little effort, we put ourselves in a state of mind to work, and we have begun to shift inertia to our side. After all, it’s easier to continue work rather than to start work.


Which appears less demanding? The above or below picture?

Thirdly, set aside breaks in between work time. Small rewards, like breaks, are important — remember our penchant for small rewards for little effort? Taking breaks helps lower the difficulty of starting the work, knowing that there’s something to look forward to, that isn’t too far away. Scheduled breaks help to make tasks less demanding, and tiring overall. Breaks could be a short walk, a coffee break, or just a small snack. Anything we reward ourselves with for the work we’ve done so far provides the motivation to continue doing work.

Also, setting up a routine is another way to get things started. Going through a routine helps to minimize ambiguity, providing a clear and well-practiced procedure that we can immediately apply to our work, thus avoiding the ‘who’s got priority’ argument that takes place before starting work. A routine prepares us for work at short notice, and when we actually get to work, we find that doing the work well gives us a stronger sense of achievement It’s an accumulation of such small milestone successes that keep us wanting more and thus being motivated to work more.

We hope you appreciate these simple tips on understanding and beating procrastination.

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