5 Research-Based Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination

Chances are that at this very moment you’re procrastinating on something. Maybe you’re even reading this article to do so.

A while back, I took a year to experiment with every piece of personal productivity advice I could find. In becoming hyperaware of how I spent my time, I noticed something: I procrastinated a lot more often than I had originally thought. In one time log I kept, I found that over the course of one week, I spent six hours putting off tasks — and that’s just the procrastination that was apparent from my time log.

This got me thinking: why do we procrastinate, even though we know it’s against our best interests? How can we overcome it, preferably without hating ourselves or the techniques we use in the process?

To answer these questions, I spoke to researchers, and spent time digging through dozens of academic journal articles. The advice I gathered became the foundation for part of my book and, fortunately, I discovered that a lot of it works.

Why we procrastinate
One of the first things I learned was that procrastination is a human condition. About 95% of people admit to putting off work, according to Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation. And I’d argue the remaining 5% are lying.

As for the phenomenon of putting stuff off, it’s “a purely visceral, emotional reaction to something we don’t want to do,” says Tim Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. The more averse you find a task, the more likely you are to procrastinate.

In his research, Pychyl identifies a set of seven triggers that make a task seem more averse. Bring to mind something you’re putting off right now — you’ll probably find that task has many, if not all, of the characteristics that Pychyl discovered makes a task procrastination-worthy:

Boring
Frustrating
Difficult
Ambiguous
Unstructured
Not intrinsically rewarding (i.e., you don’t find the process fun)
Lacking in personal meaning

On a neurological level, procrastination is not the slightest bit logical — it’s the result of the emotional part of your brain, your limbic system, strong-arming the reasonable, rational part of your brain, your prefrontal cortex. The logical part of your brain surrenders the moment you choose Facebook over work, or decide to binge another episode of House of Cards when you get home.

But there’s a way you can give the logical side of your brain the upper hand. When you notice an approaching showdown between logic and emotion, resist the impulse to procrastinate. Here are the best ways I’ve discovered in my research to do that.

Reverse the procrastination triggers. Consider which of Pychyl’s seven procrastination triggers are set off by an activity you’re dreading. Then try to think differently about the task, making the idea of completing it more attractive.

Take writing a quarterly report. If you find this boring, you can turn it into a game: see how many words you can crank out in a 20-minute time period. Or if you find a work task ambiguous and unstructured, create a workflow that lays out the exact steps you and your team should follow each month to get it done.

Work within your resistance level. When a task sets off procrastination triggers, we resist doing it. But just how resistant are we?

Let’s say you have to wade through a dense piece of research for an upcoming project. To find your resistance level, consider the effort you commit to that task along a sliding scale. For example, could you focus on reading for an hour? No, that period of time still seems unpleasant. What about 30 minutes? Shorten the amount of time until you find a period with which you’re no longer resistant to the task — and then do it.

Do something — anything — to get started. It’s easier to keep going with a task after you’ve overcome the initial hump of starting it in the first place. That’s because the tasks that induce procrastination are rarely as bad as we think. Getting started on something forces a subconscious reappraisal of that work, where we might find that the actual task sets off fewer triggers than we originally anticipated.

Research suggests that we remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than projects we’ve finished. It’s like listening to a catchy song, only to have it unexpectedly cut off in the middle and then have it stuck in your head the rest of the day. Starting a task means you’ll continue to process it — and this makes you more likely to resume the work later on.

List the costs of procrastination. This tactic works best when you’re putting off larger tasks. While it’s not worth spending 20 minutes listing the costs of not going for your evening run, listing the costs will significantly help for a task such as saving for retirement. Add to your list all the ways procrastinating on retirement saving could affect your social life, finances, stress, happiness, health, and so on.

It’s also worth making a list of the things you put off personally and professionally, large and small, while calculating the costs of procrastination for each.

Disconnect. Our devices offer a cornucopia of distractions, whether it’s email, social media, or texting with friends and family. This is especially difficult as our work becomes more ambiguous and unstructured (two triggers of procrastination).

When you notice yourself using your device to procrastinate, disconnect. Sometimes when I’m writing, I go as far as to put my phone in another room, and shut off the WiFi on my computer. Other times, I turn to an app like Freedom or Self Control, which blocks access to distracting sites, and require me to physically restart my computer to restore access.

This may sound drastic, and it is. Disabling digital distractions ahead of time gives you no choice but to work on what’s really important.

There are proven ways to combat procrastination so that it doesn’t get in the way of accomplishing your most important tasks. The next time you resist a task, consider whether it sets off any of the procrastination triggers, work within your resistance level, force yourself to get started on it, list the costs of putting the task off, or disconnect from the internet.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself procrastinating a lot less often.

Chris Bailey is a productivity expert, and the international bestselling author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy, which has been translated into eight languages. He writes about productivity at A Life of Productivity, and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive, without hating the process.

How to Make Mindfulness Part of Your Daily Routine

How to Make Mindfulness Part of Your Daily Routine
Four simple, straightforward steps to develop the essential skill of self-awareness
Matt Tenney May 23, 2016

Have you ever taken a moment to calculate how much time you spend each day engaged in simple, mundane activities like washing your hands, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, commuting to work, standing in lines, preparing food, washing dishes, taking a shower… ?

If you haven’t, don’t worry. I’ve done it for you. The estimate that I’ve come up with—which I consider pretty conservative—is 85 minutes per day.

This means that over a 30-year career, you’ll spend 646 days (roughly 21 months) engaged in activities that are non-productive at best (from a professional perspective) and often thought of as obstacles to being productive. In some cases, these activities cause frustration and anxiety, such as when you’re running late for work, an appointment, and stuck in traffic or standing in a line that isn’t moving.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could transform all of the simple, mundane daily activities from time-sucks to highly productive time? A growing body of neuroscience research suggests you can do just that. By making a subtle inner shift during those activities, and operating from the perspective of mindfulness, you can actually change both the function and structure of your brain in ways that improve your performance in the workplace, especially as a leader.

The Simple Shift That Trains the Brain
Being mindful means that instead of running on autopilot, caught up in our thinking or our emotional state, we have an objective awareness of the thoughts that are running through our mind and of the emotional state of the body. More simply, we are self-aware.

Self-awareness might be the most important leadership skill we can develop. In 2013, when 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council were surveyed regarding the most important competency leaders should develop, the answer was almost unanimous: self-awareness. Although self-awareness influences nearly every aspect of our lives, it impacts our careers in the following three ways:

Self-awareness is the key to understanding our strengths and weaknesses, which is essential for deciding where to focus our energy and which team members we need to have around us to be most successful.
Self-awareness is the key to making sound decisions. It is what allows us to know what types of biases we have, know how those biases affect our decisions and see how those biases creep into decision-making.
Self-awareness is the foundational competency of emotional intelligence. The well-known research of Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis suggests that emotional intelligence accounts for as much as 90 percent of what sets stellar leaders apart from average leaders.
By making the effort to practice mindfulness during daily activities, we are able to systematically improve our self-awareness. In fact, research suggests that mindfulness training changes both the function and the structure of the brain in ways related to improved self-awareness. One of the first studies to show this was conducted by Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard University in 2005. The team discovered that in practitioners of mindfulness regions of the brain associated with self-awareness are measurably thicker. Other studies, like this one conducted at the University of California at Berkley, suggest that mindfulness training results in highly refined levels of self-awareness, which allows us to detect subtle aspects of ourselves that untrained people can’t.

Although it’s certainly not easy, transforming all the mundane moments of the day into opportunities to develop the essential skill of self-awareness is a simple, straightforward process, outlined below in four steps.

Make a list of all the activities that you engage in every day that don’t require you to be actively planning, analyzing or otherwise thinking.
Commit to practicing mindfulness (described below) during one—just one—of those mundane activities for a week.
At the start of week two, continue practicing during the activity from week one, but add a second activity.
Continue adding one activity each week until you’re making the effort to practice mindfulness during every activity on your list.
Practicing mindfulness during daily activities can become a simple habit. Before beginning an activity—such as brushing your teeth—it can be helpful to pause for a moment, take a breath and remind yourself that you’re going to practice being mindful during that activity. Then, simply let go of intentionally thinking and make the effort to be curious about what you’re feeling and experiencing in that moment.

Think, What’s happening now? Notice whatever sensations arise. This is your foundation. Thoughts will surely arise during those few minutes and that’s OK. This is an important part of the training. By making the effort to notice those thoughts and not be pulled into them, you are gradually rewiring your brain for better self-awareness.

8 Reasons Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

8 Reasons Self-Care Isn’t Selfish
Tammy Danan May 18, 2017

I’ve spent 10 long years telling myself I cannot afford to slow down. To have even 10 minutes of me time, I have to hustle and work and hustle some more.

Do that for too long and you will find yourself incredibly exhausted. It’s time for things to change.

Self-care can be as simple as spending a few minutes each day doing nothing. No thinking, no social media, nothing. Just you, sitting and breathing, being in touch with your body and your inner self. It starts from there.

Here are eight reasons you shouldn’t feel selfish for taking care of yourself.

Related: 13 Ways to Take Care of Yourself Every Day

1. It molds authenticity.
The moment you decide to give yourself a few minutes of the day, you’re also allowing yourself to be more authentic. It’s a way to get to know yourself better. If you think you already do, think again. There is so much more in us than what we see on the surface.

Try it for a month. Don’t wait for the weekends; put in a little extra effort and commit to doing something every day for yourself. It won’t take long before you see some parts of yourself you never thought existed. It allows you to determine which parts are authentically yours and which aren’t—we all have aspects in us that are copied from someone else: a celebrity idol, someone from the internet or a reality TV show, a friend we look up to.

2. It’s the only way we can take care of others.
Keep in mind that you can only help others if you’re helping yourself first, physically, mentally and spiritually. As much as we want to think desire and passion are enough, they’re not. You need a healthy body and an open mind to function, which aren’t present if you’re filled with self-doubt. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely worth it.

Acknowledge that the road to self-care is a winding one. But it’s also necessary. Pretending to be strong 24/7 doesn’t last long. That strength must come from within.

3. It helps you move from existing to living.
Existing is simply being on this tiny blue dot called Earth. Living is experiencing everything this tiny blue dot has to offer. Which are you doing? Many people are OK with just existing. They wake up, go to work, go home, eat dinner and sleep. Tomorrow they’ll do it all over again.

Are you going to wait for your retirement before you decide to enjoy life? Before you decide to allot time for yourself? Although we have responsibilities—paying bills, raising children, etc.—we’re also responsible for taking care of ourselves.

4. It helps you find your purpose.
What is your purpose? You’ve probably asked that question countless times. You might have days, weeks or months where you feel down, unsatisfied, feeling like there should be something more. It’s your body signaling you to take a leap into the unknown, because your purpose is out there, waiting.

How do you know when you find it? You just do. Self-care means trusting yourself. It means being willing to go out in the wild or dig deep. It might be scary, but there’s really no other way to figure out what you’re supposed to do in this world. Practicing self-care and building trust between you and your inner self will help you find purpose in life.

5. Self-care is as empowering as it can be.
It takes a lot of courage to actually show up to me time every day. Clearly, it’s easier to fall into the traps of emails and notifications. But when you start getting used to setting those things aside and to just focus on you, it becomes easier to connect with your inner self.

Listen to your guts… because we all know what happens when one knows how to listen to his guts—he does wonders. And you will, too. Stop chasing work-life balance and start empowering yourself to achieve your greatest desires.

6. Motivation roots from it.
How does one stay motivated? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that. No one can stay motivated forever, and we all have different needs and desires. But some people know how to bounce back from a slump, and others struggle to get unstuck.

The key is self-care. Accepting that you’ll never be perfect makes a huge difference. If you acknowledge that you’re not perfect, you’re allowing mistakes to be your friend. You become motivated to try again or to experience something new because you’re not pressuring yourself. You’re not expecting perfection.

7. It’s the best road to a physically healthier you.
Self-care is not just about your guts, nerves and inner self. It’s also about your physical self, meaning healthy diet, exercise and sleep.

One misconception about achieving good physical health is that it’s hard. Well, it can be. But not always. You eat, sleep, drink and walk around. Those are enough. You just have to tweak it a little, one day at a time. Start by adding one new serving of fruit every day. Then add a 15-minute brisk walk. These might seem small, but they’re enough to get you going.

8. It is the perfect reminder that you are worthy.
Acknowledging that you are allowed to be sad, to be happy, to be uncomfortable, can change your outlook on life. The world isn’t going to stop if you get fired. But it’s also not going to laugh at you for crying about it.

Many people don’t think validation matters much. Being acquainted with your emotions and giving them space in this world is as important as earning a big paycheck and having good credit. By taking care of yourself, you’re building a safer space for these emotions. You’re reminding yourself that you are worthy of respect, and most certainly, you (including your strength and weaknesses) are worthy of a spot in this world.