6 Step Plan to Train Your Brain to Stop Procrastinating

6 Step Plan to Train Your Brain to Stop Procrastinating
by Dan

We all have days where our brains are simply too full. On those days, even the thought of adding another item to the daily to-do list can seem overwhelming, so we put it off for another day. Unfortunately, it is very easy for one day to turn into two and for two days to turn into more. Before you know it, you realize you’ve been pushing off that unwanted task for so long that the deadline is fast approaching, and you have to rush to get it done.

Procrastination is normal, and we all do it from time to time. What you may not realize is that procrastination is more than just avoiding or delaying a task – there is also a needless, irrational, or counterproductive aspect to it.

The effects of procrastination are obvious. By putting off an urgent task to do something less urgent, you put yourself in the position of having to rush later which may impact your ability to complete the task well or on-time.

Though it can seem difficult to train your brain to stop procrastinating it can be done, and, in this article, you’ll learn how.

Let’s get started…

What is Procrastination, Really?

People who procrastinate are often viewed as lazy or disorganized. The truth of the matter is, however, that most people who procrastinate are actually quite intelligent, hardworking people. Furthermore, procrastination is not the same as “laziness” – procrastinating is an action in which you choose to do something other than the thing you know you should be doing.

Let’s take a closer look at the definition of procrastination and review it in its many forms.

Merriam-Webster defines the word procrastinate as, “to put off intentionally and habitually” or “to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done.” The Oxford English Dictionary may hit closest to the mark with its definition of procrastination as a means of postponement, “often with the sense of deferring through indecision, when early action would have been preferable.”

These definitions pinpoint what makes procrastination different from ordinary delay – the needlessness and counter-productivity of it. In most cases when you procrastinate, it is with the knowledge that doing so will have future consequences. In fact, procrastinating can cause severe anxiety in some individuals.

So, why do we procrastinate even when we know it will only make things more difficult later?

The above definitions are how most people understand the meaning of the word procrastinate, but psychologists suggest that there is something deeper and darker to it.

Why Do We Procrastinate and What Are the Effects?

According to Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, procrastination is a lifestyle and, in some, an innate personality trait. About massive 20% of people self-identify as chronic procrastinators, and it ekes its ways into all aspects of their lives. From making late payments on bills to buying Christmas gifts at the last minute, some people seem to procrastinate on just about everything.

Dr. Ferrari suggests that there are three types of procrastinators:

  1. People who wait until the last minute for the euphoric rush of having to complete the task at the very last moment.
  2. People who avoid certain tasks out of a fear of failure or success as well as concern about how others will view them.
  3. People who have trouble making decisions – by not making a decision, they absolve themselves of responsibility for the outcome.

Many people who procrastinate end up getting the delayed task done, but not always on time or to the best of their ability. In cases where your performance is evaluated by others, procrastination can lead to disapproval and a loss of respect – it could even cost you your job. On a more personal level, procrastination can result in physical symptoms such as stress, a sense of guilt, and even chronic anxiety.

When you procrastinate, you may find yourself justifying the action – you make an excuse about why you are putting off the more urgent task to complete something less urgent. Here are some of the ways you might actively delay completing a task or justify your procrastination:

  • Avoidance: You avoid the location or situation where the delayed task takes place.
  • Trivialization: You convince yourself that the task is not important, or that it is less important than another task.
  • Distraction: You engage yourself in a behavior or activity that distracts you from the task.
  • Humor: You make your procrastination itself a joke.
  • Comparisons: You compare your situation to something that is worse.
  • Blaming: You suggest that the cause of your procrastination is something beyond your control.
  • Reframing: You suggest that getting an earlier start is actually harmful, that procrastination yields better results.
  • Denial: You pretend that you are not procrastinating, that the chosen task is actually more important than the delayed task.
  • Laziness: You avoid the urgent task simply because you do not want to or feel like doing it.

The more you procrastinate, the more things can seem to spiral out of control. By delaying an urgent task in favor of a less urgent task, you put yourself in a position of having to complete that task in a rush later which may also force you to delay other tasks that come up in the meantime.

Now that you have a deeper understanding of how procrastination rears its ugly head, let’s review how we can overcome it.

How to Train Your Brain to Stop Procrastinating

The most dangerous thing about procrastination is that you may not even realize you’re doing it.

According to psychologist Piers Steel, there are key personality traits of people who do not procrastinate. They are high in conscientiousness, persistence, self-discipline, and personal responsibility. Chronic procrastinators, on the other hand, are more concerned about social esteem – how others view them – than self-esteem or how they view themselves.

The first step in retraining your brain to stop procrastinating, then, is to become more aware of the fact that you are procrastinating and to ask yourself why. Here is a quick overview of the 6 steps you can take to train your brain to stop procrastinating:

  1. Recognize that you are procrastinating.
  2. Find out why you are procrastinating.
  3. Reframe your thinking and move forward.
  4. Break the task into smaller steps.
  5. Find the right source of motivation.
  6. Identify and account for distractions.

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these six steps in greater detail.

Step 1: Recognize that you are procrastinating.

Recognizing that you are procrastinating can be difficult, especially if it is a habit you’ve adopted. Here are some of the signs that you might be procrastinating:

  • You tend to fill your day with low-priority tasks.
  • The same couple of items have been on your to-do list all week.
  • You read emails several times without replying.
  • You postpone calling people back.
  • You start working on an urgent task then quickly switch to something else.
  • You work on new tasks before tasks that have already been assigned.
  • You wait until you are “in the right mood” to start a task.

Chronic procrastinators often have trouble with self-regulation, so you might not even be aware that you are putting off a more urgent task to complete a simpler one. The key to retraining your brain to stop procrastination is to know what procrastination looks like and to identify it in yourself. Review the delaying strategies from the previous section and keep them in your mind so you will learn to recognize procrastination behaviors sooner.

Step 2: Find out why you are procrastinating.

Once you realize that you are procrastinating, the next step is to find out why. Even if procrastination has become a habit or a lifestyle for you, there is probably some underlying reason why you tend to put things off. That reason might be different for each task, or it could all have a similar undercurrent. Here are some of the reasons you might be delaying a task:

  • You find the task unpleasant or boring.
  • You are afraid that you won’t do it correctly.
  • You’re afraid that doing it well will lead to more work.
  • You don’t feel like you have the skills to complete the task.
  • You can’t make a decision about how to do it.
  • You aren’t motivated or don’t feel like doing the task.
  • You’re worried that someone else might do it better.
  • You don’t like being told what to do.

Unfortunately, if procrastination has become a habit for you, it may take some time to dig deep enough to determine the true underlying reason for your behavior. Our minds are constantly running, often without our awareness, and it is only by focusing in on those unconscious thoughts that we can get to the true heart of our deepest fears and worries.

When you find yourself procrastinating, sit back and really think about the reason why. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this task relevant to my position and do I enjoy the work?
  • What worries me about this task in particular?
  • Have I completed a similar task before? Did I do it well?
  • What are the future implications of completing this task poorly/well?
  • Do I have the skills and knowledge to complete this task properly?

By asking these questions, you can start to get a feel for why you are putting off a certain task. Realizing that you are procrastinating is the first step, identifying the underlying cause of your procrastination is the next step, and the third step is to reframe your thinking and move forward.

In some people, procrastination is more than just a bad habit. Certain mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are also associated with procrastination. If you find that you procrastinate frequently, but your reasons do not quite fit the list above, you may want to talk to your doctor about your concerns.

Step 3: Reframe your thinking and move forward.

Procrastination is a deeply ingrained pattern of thought and behavior, so you’ll need to work at changing your thinking if you want to change your behavior. Once you recognize that you are procrastinating, and you’ve determined the underlying reason why, your next step is to reframe your thoughts about the task and your completion of it, so you can move forward.

One place you might start is to forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past. Many chronic procrastinators are perfectionists – people who would prefer not to do something at all than to do it poorly. If you’re going to get over your habit of procrastination, however, you’re going to have to change your priorities and come to accept that your best, at the current point in time you choose to complete the task, is good enough.

It may also help for you to work on changing your internal monologue. If the thought that certain tasks are necessary makes you nervous and you start thinking of them with terms like “have to” or “need to,” it can make you feel disempowered. If you instead reframe your thinking with terms like “want to” and “choose to,” it might help you feel like you are in control. By choosing to complete a task, you are taking ownership of it, and that is a step in the right direction.

Whatever unhealthy patterns of thought are contributing to your procrastination, those are the thoughts you need to target and change if you want to move forward. Keep in mind that this will take time to do, and it’s okay if you don’t get it right each and every time. As you’re working on these first three steps to reframing your thoughts, putting the next three into action will help you start changing your behavior.

Step 4: Break the task into smaller steps.

Changing your behavior is not something that you can do overnight – at least not with lasting results. If you want to retrain your brain to stop procrastinating, it may help to break up larger tasks into smaller pieces. This is a process often referred to as “chunking“.

Here’s how to put it into practice… Take a minute to sit down and think about the task and all of the different pieces of the bigger picture that it will take to complete it. Write down each of those steps in a numbered list and then start at the top. Each time you complete one of the steps, cross it off the list and move on to the next.

If you are a person who is motivated by deadlines, you may also want to assign a time limit to each step on the list. The deadline for the completion of total task should be your final deadline, so work backward from there and assign a specific deadline or time limit for each of the individual tasks. Make sure you give yourself enough time to complete each step properly, but not so much time that you start to lose focus or start to procrastinate again. Knowing that each task has an assigned time limit should help you stay on track because if you fall behind on one step, it will affect all the steps thereafter.

The power of chunking comes from the same psychological influence behind the classic to do list. Your brain loves ordered tasks and is much more willing to cooperate with completing an unknown task if it is further broken down into actionable steps.

Step 5: Find the right source of motivation.

Often in life, we find ourselves forced to do things we don’t want to do. If this is the underlying cause for your procrastination, you may need to find something else to motivate yourself. Motivation can come from anywhere, and it can be either a small-scale or a large-scale thing.

For example, if you hate writing status reports at work, but you are required to for your position, you might procrastinate simply because you dislike the work. The completion of the task itself is not enough to motivate you, so you’ll need to find something else that will. As a small-scale motivation, you might choose a reward to give yourself when you finish writing the reports – maybe a candy bar from the vending machine or a trip to your favorite coffee shop during your lunch break. If large-scale motivations work better, maybe focus on the fact that completing the status reports will allow you to move on to work that you enjoy more.

Step 6: Identify and account for distractions.

As you work at training your brain to stop procrastinating, you’re going to encounter some stumbling blocks along the way. Chronic procrastinators are easily distracted by things like email, coffee breaks, even conversations happening in the office. If you really want to change your habits to become more productive, you’re going to need to learn how to work around distractions and keep your focus honed in.

The first step in learning how to work through distractions is to identify what those distractions might be. Take some time to think about your typical day and all of the things you do besides work – you might even want to make a list. Be sure to include things like checking email, checking social media, reading and replying to text messages, taking coffee and bathroom breaks, walking around the office, and more. Once you have those potential distractions in mind, you’ll be more conscious of them when they arise and, when they do, you can make the effort to refocus your mind on the task at hand.

For example, if you are distracted by your phone during work you might put in on airplane more and tuck it away in your desk until you’ve finished the task at hand.

You can also find productivity apps that will prevent you from opening certain websites or using your phone until a certain time period has passed. Freedom is a personal favorite of mine because it works on desktop and mobile devices (Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS).

Get Started with the Two-Minute Rule

The steps above will help you retrain your brain to bring your habit of procrastination to an end. Unfortunately, getting started is the hardest part for many procrastinators, and if you never get started, you’ll never make any progress.

That is where the two-minute rule comes into play.

The two-minute rule is based on the idea that most complex tasks can be scaled down into a quick, two-minute version. Smaller tasks are easier to handle and, once you’ve gotten started with the task, it is much easier to keep going and to make a lasting change to your habits. Here’s what that might look like:

  • “Catch up on emails and clean out your inbox” becomes “read, reply to (if necessary), and delete three emails.”
  • “Develop a plan for a complex presentation at the end of the week” becomes “gather the supplies and documentation you need to plan the presentation.”
  • “Write performance reviews for the entire department” becomes “write down a list of staff members to be reviewed and gather their files.”
  • “Plan the company’s anniversary party for the end of the month” becomes “write a list of tasks that need to be completed for the party to be a success.”

By breaking down complex tasks into smaller pieces, they suddenly seem more manageable. From there, simply choose a task to start with and follow the six steps from the previous section to stay focused. You may find that once you get past the hurdle of getting started that you gain momentum and it becomes easier to stay on task. Before you know it, you’ll be checking every box on your to-do list, and you’ll have to start a new one!

Final Thoughts

For many people, procrastination is a state of mind, and that’s what makes it so difficult to overcome. If you follow the advice in this article and put those six steps into play, however, you can actually train your brain to stop procrastinating, and you’ll be a happier, healthier, and more productive person for it.

Did you find this article helpful? I’d love to know! Leave a comment below…

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