Overcoming Procrastination

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

JustDoItConcept description

This page provides sources of advice on overcoming procrastination, the act of putting off or delaying.

Overcoming procrastination is one of the most common subjects of career and self-help advice (see selection of websites below). An example of sensible-sounding advice comes from PsyBlog, created by UK psychologist Jeremy Dean (reference below), who provides the following “10 Foolproof Tips for Overcoming Procrastination”:

  1. Start easy – The first tip is simply to start with whatever is easy, manageable and doesn’t fill your mind with a nameless dread. Have a look at your project, whatever it is, and decide to do the easy bit first. The great thing is that after getting going, you start to build momentum and the harder bits are more likely to flow. The tip relies partly on the Zeigarnik effect (http://www.spring.org.uk/2011/02/the-zeigarnik-effect.php, accessed 6 March 2016): the finding that unfinished tasks get stuck in the memory.
  2. Start anywhere – The trouble with ‘starting easy’ is that it can be difficult to know where to start: there might be several easy bits, or it might be difficult to tell what should be done and what shouldn’t. Planning can help with this, but planning is also a trap. Too much planning and not enough actual doing is another form of procrastination. Take a tip from writers, artists and creatives down the ages: just start anywhere! You may chuck away the stuff you start with, but at least it gets you into the project.
  3. Beware excuses – OK, now all sorts of excuses are crowding into your mind. Be aware that these will come, and they’ll come big. Here are a few of the excuses that psychologists have found people express to themselves: Not feeling in the mood to do it; Believing that you work better under pressure;Thinking that you can finish it at the last minute; Blaming sickness or poor health;Waiting for the right moment. Recognise some of these? You’re not alone. This tip is all about developing an awareness that these are excuses. Be mindful of anything that’s expressed like an excuse and label it as such. It’s natural, but it will also stop you getting anywhere.
  4. Up the value – A massive cause of procrastination is simply not valuing the goal enough. If we don’t care that much, we’re not going to be that motivated. Other times the goal is unpleasant or aversive and we need to be super-motivated to do it. Cleaning is a great example of something people often procrastinate on. The value of this task could be increased by making a game out of it or setting time limits or unusual conditions. For any task, though, thinking about why it’s important and trying to up its value in our minds will help fight demotivation. Another way of cognitively increasing value is to think about the costs of not getting the task done. Does that make the task seem more valuable.
  5. Procrastination personality – Some people are just born procrastinators. You know who you are. These people are easily distracted, impulsive and have low self-control (have you even read down to number 5?). The bad news is that you can’t change your personality (well, not much anyway). The good news is that you can change your environment. You can put yourself in an environment in which there are fewer distractions, temptations and all the right reinforcing signals. Procrastination tends to strike when you have to stop and think, so have everything you need to hand and then lock yourself away.
  6. Turn up – So far, so easy. Here things get a little tricky. That’s because when you expect a project to be difficult or hard to complete, then you are more likely to procrastinate. But, there’s only one reliable way to increase expectations of success and that is by experiencing success. But, without starting, you can’t experience success. It’s a Catch-22. Hmm. This tip is more of a warning about this Catch-22 and a reminder of that Woody Allen quote: “80 percent of success is showing up.” You’ve got to at least show up to find out whether you can do it.
  7. Think concrete – Here are two ways of thinking about a task a) Abstract: Wouldn’t it be great to write a song expressing how I feel about the state of the world right now? b) Concrete: What’s the first line? When you are getting started on a task, it’s much better to think about the concrete steps you are going to take, rather than abstract aims and ideas. Thinking concrete helps you get started.
  8. Don’t rely on memory – Sometimes procrastination is less an intentional thing and more about memory failures. Most solutions to this problem are some variant of: write it down. It may not matter that much how you make a list, or where you record the reminder – carve it into a tree if you like, as long as it’s a tree you walk past every day. Just don’t rely on your memory. Not, at least, until you have formed a habit which doesn’t rely on memory and you start doing it automatically.
  9. Avoid overthinking – Doubts will arise for even the most confident of people. Unfortunately, doubts cause procrastination. Here’s a little tip for side-stepping doubts: try doubting your doubts. One easy way to do that is by shaking your head while thinking those negative thoughts. It may sound childish, but according to a study it can help the chronically uncertain. There are other kinds of over-thinking which are also dangerous: all-or-nothing thinking, impossibly high standards, catastrophising (thinking everything will be a catastrophe). Being mindful of when we’re wasting mental energy rather than getting on with the task at hand can be useful.
  10. Forgive yourself – Yup, sometimes it’s just too hard, it will take too long, you really didn’t have the time, or it wasn’t worth it. Forgive yourself. Here’s a wonderful effect of forgiving yourself: one study has found that it can actually break you out of the cycle of procrastination. As the authors say: “…forgiving oneself for procrastinating has the beneficial effect of reducing subsequent procrastination by reducing negative affect associated with the outcome of an examination.” In other words: forgiving yourself for procrastination makes you feel better about the task, and so more likely to attempt it again in the future.
Advice on overcoming procrastination

The McGraw Center for Teach and Learning, Understanding and Overcoming Procrastination, at https://www.princeton.edu/mcgraw/library/for-students/avoiding-procrastination/procrastination.pdf, accessed 6 March 2016.

MindTools, Overcoming Procrastination – Manage Your Time, Get It All Done, at https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_96.htm, accessed 6 March 2016.

Dries Cronje, The Nike Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, at http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/the-nike-guide-to-overcoming-procrastination.html, accessed 6 March 2016.

KeepInspiringMe, 5 Techniques For Overcoming Procrastination, at http://www.keepinspiring.me/how-to-stop-procrastinating/, accessed 6 March 2016.

Jocelyn K Glei, Can’t Start, Won’t Start: Tricks for Overcoming Procrastination, 99u, http://99u.com/articles/7051/cant-start-wont-start-tricks-for-overcoming-procrastination, accessed 6 March 2016.

Steve Pavlina, Overcoming Procrastination, at http://www.stevepavlina.com/articles/overcoming-procrastination.htm, accessed 6 March 2016.


Jeremy Dean, 10 Foolproof Tips for Overcoming Procrastination, at MindTools, Prioritization – Making Best Use of Your Time and Resources, at http://www.spring.org.uk/2014/03/10-foolproof-tips-for-overcoming-procrastination.php, accessed 6 March 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Managing Oneself (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 6 March 2016.

Image: Life Hack, http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/the-nike-guide-to-overcoming-procrastination.html, accessed 6 March 2016.