I Was a Chronic Procrastinator… Until I Began Relying on These 6 Easy Habits
As a college student, I’d often wait until the last minute to study for finals or write a research paper I’d known about for months. This worked temporarily, but not without consequences: I’d meet the deadline, but the exhaustion drowned me the next day. I’d pull several all-nighters, convincing myself I was smart enough to wait until the last minute. What I failed to realize in my procrastination stupor was that I just wasn’t doing things to my fullest potential. I didn’t have time to double-check my work or research additional supporting material to bolster a point in my paper.
Unfortunately, I continued procrastinating into my 20s. If I had a deadline looming, whether it was professional or personal, I’d find ways to wait to the last minute. I’d continue to cycle through the same emotions — fear I wouldn’t finish in time, panic when the deadline approached, frenzy as I worked, and a mind-numbing exhaustion once I completed my task.
Procrastination, I learned, wasn’t caused by a time management problem — in fact, experts say (and some research shows) it is often related to emotions such as insecurity, low self-esteem, or feelings of enormous inadequacy in tackling whatever task presents a challenge. “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task,” Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, told the New York Times. That’s why you might be drawn to start a task that doesn’t raise negative emotions instead of the one you really need to do. If you’ve ever put off that deadline in favor of doing the laundry, you know what I mean.
As my responsibilities grew professionally and personally, being a procrastinator proved increasingly tiresome. I call myself a reformed procrastinator, and am constantly working to avoid letting my old ways creep back into my busy day-to-day life. These are the six habits that actually helped me stop procrastinating.
Make a to-do list with pen and paper.
I love making lists. Because they work. Some experts say that the act of writing things down rather than tapping them into your phone or computer is better for cognition and memory. With this objective support, I always pen my list on paper, and I love crossing tasks off my list and feeling a sense of accomplishment as the red pen grazes across the words I’ve written. The reaction is immediate and I don’t necessarily have that feeling when I’ve typed a list on my computer. The other benefit? When I review my to-do list at night, I immediately visualize what I’ve accomplished and transfer the other tasks to the next day. It keeps my procrastination in check because each of my tasks has a “to be completed” by date in the column next to the task. The simple exercise of writing down a to-do list has kept me on track with any deadlines or errands.
When I wake in the morning, I always make my bed.
What is the connection between making my bed in the morning and preventing procrastination? I like to keep a mindset of forward momentum. The first task of the day (although I don’t necessarily write it down) is to make my bed. By straightening the sheets, fluffing pillows, and draping the comforter over my bed, I leave the bedroom knowing I’ve already completed at least one household task for the day. I don’t push it off to later because it is an accessible task to keep me on track with my other goals. If I am reluctant to complete a simple task, I’m less likely to work on the more complicated to-dos on my list.
Break down tasks with small steps.
In my 20s, I often felt an overwhelm when I needed to tackle a large project. I’d think about how much I had to accomplish and kept pushing off starting until the “next” day. The deadline would arrive and then I’d break into a harried rush to start and finish the project within several hours. This approach wasn’t sustainable. I learned to break the project into small steps and work day-by-day to complete it a few days before the deadline. By working diligently every single day before the project is due, I could be present with the project and give my complete attention to the tasks.
Work on what is important first.
- At the end of the day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
- Prioritize those six items in order of true importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process each day.
With this method, I don’t cloud my list with empty tasks that prevent me from working on what’s important.
Disconnect from distractions.
When I work on a project, I make it a point to turn off my text and social media notifications. For some people, the presence of the phone, even if you’re not using it, can diminish your productivity. Sometimes I put my phone in another room to keep my complete focus on the task at the hand. It is easy to give in to distraction, especially with apps like Instagram and Facebook competing for my mind’s attention. By working on the task in front of me and removing distractions, I am likely to finish what I start. If I am working on a writing project, I sometimes enable apps like Freedom to turn off my WiFi so I am not distracted by surfing on the Internet.
Make deadlines realistic.
In the past, I’d set unrealistic deadlines which would sabotage my efforts to complete a task on time. I’d set the deadline without considering how long a project would actually take and the deadline would arrive way too soon. Now I take a hard look at my past projects to determine the more realistic time commitment. With this more reasonable approach, the deadline I set will more accurately reflect how much time a given task will actually take.