11 Ways to Reduce Procrastination and Become More Productive
I like to think of myself as a diligent worker; my to-do list is precise. I'm free of distractions, and the lo-fi hip-hop beats are bumping. I feel energetic and productive; today is my day.
But then my boss asks me to work on a new presentation; nothing too complicated, but essential for operations. The deadline is next Monday, but I already feel the dread of completing this task. Instead of jumping on the opportunity to get started, I wait on it.
Friday rolls around, and I've barely started. I've traded in productivity for tidying my desk. Oh, if I clean my area, then I need to organize my desktop. I mean, how am I supposed to focus with all these tabs open. Now my back feels sore, I stretch a bit, and realize, maybe I need to start working out more. After an hour or two of planning out next week's exercise regimen, I'm hungry as hell. I go to the fridge to grab a snack, and wow, it's disgusting. I should clean it. As I'm wiping away, bam, I look at the clock: it's 5:00 PM. I have wasted the entire day, and not a single moment used to work on this presentation.
I am the master of procrastination. It's something I've always been. I've needed the high of a deadline to complete my work. For years, I thought I was naturally lazy, but that's not the case. In the previous example, I had plenty of energy to clean, organize, and plan, but seemingly no energy to work on the required task.
That's the truth about procrastination: it has nothing to do with laziness, but everything to do with the evocation of an unwanted emotional response. Cleaning doesn't make me feel stressed, but working on that presentation - unsure of how my boss will like it, hence, like me - is the root cause of my procrastination.
There's hope, though, since the root of procrastination is an emotional problem. We can utilize mindfulness and time-management techniques to reduce our procrastination and become more productive. That's why we've put together eleven methods to overcome procrastination so that you can start being more productive.
1. Don't Remove Distractions
Whoa, that sounds counterintuitive. Please hear me out. As mentioned, procrastination evolves from our foreseen negative feelings that may arise from a task. Since it's scientifically proven that our brains have a limited capacity to focus, these distractions allow us to shift our mindset to a more positive perspective. They are a good thing.
Research has shown that distractions may act to control urges as sort of an incentivized reward system for the brain. The cognitive demands of a task begin to shift, allowing our minds to reset. But, the key is to understand that the distraction is a mere tool, and not to be self-hating about it. What happens when we procrastinate with Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, or ridiculous Youtube videos is that we blame ourselves for wasting time. The time-wasters breed more negative self-talk, which spills over onto the already emotionally-burdened task. By understanding that we need distractions to refocus our cognition like a reward system, we are better able to understand the root cause of our emotional stress. Thus, alleviating the stress that comes with the actual task.
Distractions are not counterproductive (in moderation, of course), but essential to better attack our tasks, so don't beat yourself up over a few extra minutes on Instagram now and again.
2. Become Psychologically Flexible
Procrastination is a fear of negative emotions. The fear itself is not always warranted, which is the basis for anxiety. It's your body entering fight-or-flight mode, and procrastination is the "flight." But the reason we choose "flight" isn't always by choice.
Imagine your brain like a stimuli-specific maze; for any perception, there is a neural pathway designed for it. Just like a maze, the stimuli will take the path of least resistance, which is usually the most weathered path. Your brain sends signals down these pathways to get a result. The issue is that our established neural channels don't always lead to success, which is where the concept of becoming psychologically flexible - also known as neuroplasticity - comes into play.
When you procrastinate, it's like doing campaign-mode all over again on the same difficulty: it's familiar, and you've already done it all before. But when you have to think and face certain emotions, the brain has to form new neural networks which takes time and uses up mental energy. Therefore, to be productive, we need to become psychologically flexible and strive to create new neural pathways to drown out the old ones.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an example of how we can remold our brain. By focusing on new and positive activities, the mind will create new, flexible neural pathways, rendering the old channels obsolete. You may not fully understand the whole concept now, and that's alright. If you'd like to learn more about psychological flexibility or CBT, I suggest trying out the apps Happify and Moodkit.
3. Change Your Setting
Most of you are probably stuck in a cubicle and don't have many choices when it comes to changing your setting. Still, you could grow a pair and tell your boss this: "I need the ability to change environments while I'm working so that I'm at peak productivity for this company." After he or she laughs in your face - you've got to stay positive - and then present them with the facts.
According to the Applied Cognitive Psychology Journal, changing your environment can improve memory retention. Or you could provide the research about how workers who get more natural light during the workday have better moods and overall well-being. Or maybe you can use me as an example, someone who needs background noise to shut off the chatterbox that's living in my head. Either way, changing your environment leads to productivity. But the real question is: why?
Well, it goes back to our old friend neuroplasticity. Mythbusters - you know the guys who blow shit up - have shown that students who take tests in the same location of their exam tend to recall more information and achieve higher scores. The location recollection phenomena is because neural pathways form not only from studying, but environmental cues. The same goes for procrastination. If you are stuck in the same spot, your body picks up the indirect signals forming subconscious neural pathways for you to procrastinate.
It's the same with any location, to be honest. For me, I have a little nook that I only sit at to be productive. I don't surf Reddit or watch Netflix in that space since that is my sacred get-shit-done area. When I sit down, it means I'm about to be productive. Take this tip and apply it everywhere in your life. True story, my psychology professor in college once said: "the best way to sleep better is to use your bed only for sleep, nothing else. Bang in the laundry room instead." She seemed like a freak, but hey, you get the point.
Just breathe. Meditation is one of the best ways to combat procrastination because it refocuses your brain. By looking within ourselves, we can understand our emotions and their causes better than looking outward. Again, procrastination is an emotional, not a motivational problem.
Meditation allows us to not only understand these emotions, but to separate from them. For me, I've always held a lot of anger toward my past self. I've seen the mistakes I made, and that anger was still present since I had no outlet to fix it. Of course, it was in the past, how could I do anything about it now? By meditating, I began to accept this anger, and realize that it wasn't a bad thing. Yes, I am still angry about the past, but I now use that anger to fuel my future. I have killed the self-talk by separating from that emotion and use it as a way to guide my future actions.
Sometimes though, meditation can be burdensome. You always have mind chatter, and just sitting and doing nothing may not sound appealing. It's still best if you have a guide to your meditation sessions - like the apps Headspace and Calm - so that you can fully achieve the most mental clarity. With this mental clarity, you'll be free of emotional blockage, which means you'll procrastinate less and have more energy to accomplish your goals.
5. Break Down Your Intentions
If Cruel Intentions taught me anything, it's that Sarah Michelle Gellar is a severely underappreciated actress. But, that has nothing to do with this topic. Still, I couldn't resist a Buffy reference.
What you think are your intentions aren't always are often too shallow. For example, if I eat a half-a-pint of ice cream before bed (which I do), my plans could be to eat, but it goes beyond that. I'm eating because I'm hungry, and why am I hungry, because I didn't eat dinner, and why didn't I eat dinner? Because I was too busy. And why was I too busy? Because I had been procrastinating all day. Why had I been procrastinating? Because I'm worried that I might lose my job and instead of dealing with it. I'm substituting my negative emotions by drowning myself with Ben & Jerry's.
Every action you take needs to have an intention, good or bad. Doing something only for the sake of doing it always breeds confusion and stress, which leads to more procrastination. If you can understand - and preferably vocalize your intention for the task at hand - you will be able to get it done. Vocalization also works great for when you feel distracted.
Still, these intentions can be twisted and misinterpreted, so it's always best to dig deep into your psyche to discover them. If you don't, then you will continue to feel the guilt and shame of procrastination, only dumping more crap on your future self. Know your "why," so you can do your "now."
6. Use Mindfulness Reminders
Mindfulness is more than just a buzzword in today's chaotic world; it's the key to living a fulfilling life and achieving your dreams. Living in the present allows you to engage the task-at-hand instead of those of the future. In essence, mindfulness is the key to reduce procrastination because you are existing and working in the moment apart from your emotional turmoil.
Unfortunately, mindfulness, like any good thing in life, does not come cheap. It takes tons of practice, and sometimes, it may feel like you're spending more time learning about it than actually utilizing it. Schedule mindfulness breaks during the day to refocus your brain on the present rather than the past or future.
What's worked best for me is to schedule my mindfulness reminders while I have a snack so I can utilize the guide to mindful eating. Other people may like to take a five-minute break to engage in mindfulness meditation. Another great technique is the five senses exercise. Whichever of these mindfulness techniques you choose, be sure to schedule them - even by using an alarm - so that your brain doesn't go haywire when you are churning through the difficult tasks of the day.
7. Try the Pomodoro Technique
If you're like me, your time management skills could use a little bit of work. It's not that you don't know what to do. Still, sometimes, five-minutes reading about Steve Buschemi on Wikipedia can turn into a two-hour-long wikihole - a procrastinator's favorite - about firefighters and 9/11. That's where the Pomodoro Technique comes into play.
Created by an Italian grad student, Francisco Cirillo in the 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique breaks work down into 25-minute intervals. One interval - a Pomodoro (tomato in Italian named after his tomato-style timer) - is used to focus on one specific task, and nothing else. If a Pomodoro gets interrupted, that interval must be recorded, and possibly even abandoned. The technique is as follows:
- Determine which task to perform.
- Set a 25-minute timer.
- Work on said task.
- End that task after 25-minutes and record a checkmark on a piece of paper.
- Take a 5-minute break if you have fewer than four checkmarks and go back to the beginning (doesn't always have to be the same task every Pomodoro), or take a 15-30 minute break if you have more than four checkmarks.
If you end up completing an assignment before the timer, it's best not to go to a new activity, but reflect on the task you just accomplished. You can plan out your next time interval or go back and edit your work.
I like to add an emotional component at the end with each checkmark: How did I feel during the task? This question helps me check-in with my mood and avoid any unnecessary emotional burnout. For example, if one Pomodoro made me uber-stressed, I may plan on the next task to be relatively simple, so I don't go crazy. Give it a shot if you have some time!
8. Cherish Your Break Time
As with the Pomodoro Technique, breaks are imperative to avoid dreaded procrastination. Not only does it provide your mind a chance to rest, but it will allow you to take an emotional audit of what the hell is going on. There is nothing worse than working productively on a task - stressed to the max - and rather than take a break, you grind through it. Then, your brain collapses like a dude who tried to deadlift too much. It would help if you always cherished your time off, and there is plenty of research to prove it.
Now, I have always used the Pomodoro Technique ever since my BBF (Best Bro Friend) and Bro Journal co-founder - Dan Castellano - introduced me to it. But, other time management studies have shown that the ideal productivity environment is to keep focused for 52-minutes of work, then a 17-minute break. Scientifically, the brain has two leading neural networks: the Default Mode Network (DMN) and Task Positive Network (TPN). The latter is what you need for work, but DMN issues can relate to every mental illness listed in the DSM-V, but that's for a whole other article. You can't lose sight of who you are within the task, but you also have to prevent your mind from wandering.
That's all good, but the content of your breaks is crucial as well: you must eliminate all aspects of work: no emails, phone calls, or anything. Get up from your desk, walk away, and turn off your phone, since the world won't burn down without you. Your break is your break, and if your boss tells you otherwise, ask him to email us. We got your back.
9. Set a Better Deadline
So, it's Monday, and you've got a ten-minute PowerPoint presentation due on Friday, but you've already got the structure laid out in your head. Big deal, right? A few bullets here, a subtle fly-in animation there, a pun or two to lighten the mood, you've got this! Well, again, it's Monday, and no matter what, the chaos of the workweek will be inevitable, so you don't have any time to lose.
That's where Parkinson's law comes in: "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". While this is the procrastinator's official slogan, it shouldn't be. Instead, if you give yourself your own time goals apart from the actual deadline, you'll probably do the same quality of work in less time, but will be free of the horrible emotional turmoils that go along with it.
For longer projects, you should make deadlines for specific portions of the project to stay on topic. When you look back at our presentation example, you could set an endpoint for Tuesday evening to lay out an outline. Wednesday could then be putting all the information in PowerPoint. Finally, Thursday could be used to pimp out your presentation, so you don't look like a Boomer navigating Microsoft Office for the first time.
10. Forget About Expectations
Productivity is the enemy of perfectionism. I mean, I've been known to dabble in the world of perfectionism in the past, but holy shit, it's a scary place. If one thing is out of line, then your reality crumbles to the ground. I will say this over and over again from the top of every mountain: "Perfectionists are the reason everyone is miserable." The reason is that it comes down to expectations.
Not only due perfectionists unnecessarily raise the bar for everyone else, but they cause horrible emotional damage to themselves in the process. Evolutionary Psychiatrist Randolph Nesse has said, "stress arises, ultimately, not from a mismatch between our abilities and the environment's demands, but from a mismatch between what we desire and what we can have." This reasoning is why perfectionists have anxiety: expectations so high that they only cause themselves stress and turmoil.
So, forget about the perfectionists of the world, and throw out any expectations. Do what you can do to the best of your ability, and at the end of the day, if you can say you put in the most effort possible, well, then you're successful. For anyone who thinks differently: screw them.
11. Journal More
If you have read any of our articles in the past, you know, with these listicles, we usually end up talking about journaling last. No, it's not because we are trying to promote our excellent Bro Journal, which incorporates mindfulness, gratitude, and humor with practical tips and daily activities. That's not the reason at all. I mean, I like to write 2,000-word articles - that get a handful of views barely - for fun, not because it will increase our Google search ranking.
All sarcasm aside, journaling does help stop procrastination and promote productivity by allowing you to spit out your thoughts on a piece of paper without them swirling in your head and snowballing out of control. By planning, then reflecting, you'll gain a sense of mental clarity and see more of a purpose within each day. You'll be able to keep track of your goals better, chart your progress, and pinpoint areas of improvement. Putting your emotions on paper will get them out of your head and leave you more space to accomplish what you've always wanted to achieve.
Let procrastination be a mere fourth-grade spelling word, and nothing more. Utilize these eleven tips to increase your productivity and achieve your dreams. Also, buy a Bro Journal. We're doing better than we expected since it's been helping out a lot of people. Still, I'd like to quit my day job soon, so if you could buy one, in the words of Bill Lumberg: