7 Habits That Are Scientifically Proven to Help You Beat Procrastination and Tackle Your To-Do List

published Jan 1, 2021
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No one is particularly proud to admit that they have a habit of putting off tasks that need to get done, but it’s human nature. You know how it goes: You’re sitting on the couch, thinking about cleaning the kitchen, finishing that work project, or organizing your closet, when suddenly you realize you’ve been scrolling through your phone for an hour and haven’t gotten anything done. Procrastination happens!

According to Psychology Today, people procrastinate for a variety of reasons, from anxiety to perfectionism to thinking in the moment, not of the future. Scientists and psychologists have studied procrastination for decades and have found certain methods to be quite effective in helping chronic procrastinators get things done, so if you’re tired of putting things off until the last minute or waiting weeks to check off a to-do that will take all of 15 minutes, these scientifically proven methods will help you be more productive and make procrastination a thing of the past. 

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Play some motivating music

Just like an uptempo club jam can help power you through the last mile of a run, turning up the tunes can help motivate you to get stuff done. Music has been shown to help relieve anxiety, boost creativity, and support learning, so when you’re feeling stuck, cue up your high-energy favorites—or find a “focus”-centric playlist on Spotify—and let the rhythm take you away to a more productive place. 

Work when you feel most productive

Our brains and bodies aren’t made to be productive 24/7, so when you’re really not feeling it, don’t force yourself into completing a task. If you tend to get more done in the morning, optimize for that. If you’re a night owl, save the must-dos for after the sun goes down if you can. While some research has shown our brains are most productive from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., others have shown marked differences in productivity levels for morning people versus night owls. Figure out the time of day that resonates best with you and schedule your tasks around that.

Set clear goals

You’re more likely to get things done when you have a concrete goal in mind, whether that’s “pay the credit card bill” or “clean out the pantry.” Give yourself firm parameters and set expectations of what you want to get done, even if it’s something simple like “wash the dishes.” Don’t overwhelm yourself with options; stick to a few things you know you can feasibly do in a day.

Remember the “why”

Yes, it seems wildly overwhelming to think of completing that multi-team work project or tackling that overflowing hall closet, but a 2018 study confirmed it’s easier to put the task at hand in perspective when you break it down and center your motivation on future benefits. 

Instead of worrying about the many touch points that must be done before you can send that presentation to your boss, think about how excited they’ll be to see your hard work and how that can positively affect your career. Don’t think about confronting your past fashion and interior decor styles of yore—think about how pleased you’ll be to open a clean, organized closet every day, and how much easier it will be to find the things you need. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Take a break

Think about pulling an all-nighter cramming for an important exam. How much of that information did you actually retain? Studies have shown there are major benefits to taking a break, including increased focus ability and better memory. It’s tempting to try and finish a project in record time, but it may be worth your while to step away and come back with a refreshed point of view. 

Need even more reason to stretch your legs? The Zeigarnik effect, which was identified in the 1920s, showed that our brains may remember interrupted tasks better than those that have been completed. Consider that permission to stop when you’re stymied! 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Embrace the “five-minute rule”

You can do almost anything for five minutes—including making progress on something you’ve been putting off. Set a timer and do what needs to be done for just five minutes. If you’re over it by the time the timer buzzes, great! You can stop. However, if you’re still feeling motivated after the five minutes are up, keep going. 

The Five-Minute Rule has been used in cognitive behavioral therapy as an easy, actionable way to accomplish tasks. It also works for everything from answering emails to cleaning the bathroom, so put it into practice and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish in such a short time!

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Reward yourself (within reason)

The human brain is wired to respond to treats and bribes, so if you truly can’t get something done without incentive, don’t be afraid to channel your inner child and reward yourself with a little treat, whether that’s a purchase, a snack, or a walk around the block. When you do something nice for yourself, your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes you feel good and gives you motivation to replicate the feeling. Be careful, though:  Since dopamine is also associated with addiction, try to use the reward system only as incentive to start new productivity habits.