How to stop procrastinating

Carefully polished paperclips, an unprecedented interest in the art of ‘cucumber-carving’: the telltale signs of procrastination vary but they are easy to spot. Faced with an intimidating task, many of us resort to delay or distraction, putting the work off until tomorrow (or ‘cras’ in Latin).

As an academic, many of your responsibilities will be scheduled around recurring timetables: teaching classes, attending meetings or speaking at conferences.

But other commitments, such as developing a journal article, involve a more iterative process. Making progress against goals like these can be a challenge – and procrastination an all-too-common pitfall.

Few of us are immune, but for some procrastination can become a chronic block. Its causes range from perfectionism and a fear of failure (‘I need perfect conditions to achieve a perfect result, so I can’t start yet’) to, conversely, a fear of success (‘If I attract attention by doing this well people will realise I don’t belong here’).

Whatever may be behind it, procrastination saps time, energy and confidence, creates misery – and may even sabotage your career.

But the good news is that there are a number of effective ways to overcome it and to build increasing momentum towards your goals. Here’s how:

Firstly, draw inspiration from productivity expert David Allen’s two-minute rule. Practise doing the two-minute job in front of you – sending the ‘yes/no’ email, filing the document – rather than automatically adding it to an ever-growing list or pile. This way, you can train yourself to get small jobs done, even when you don’t feel like it. The sense of achievement gained from small victories will help you tackle much bigger tasks.

Simply getting started on a task can change your attitude towards it. Procrastinators often overestimate the unpleasantness of a task. But if you break your task down into steps and make a start on the first one, there is a strong likelihood you will find it more interesting and manageable than you thought. Your energy and adrenaline levels rise, and you benefit from an empowering sense of accomplishment. Replace the existing vicious circle with a virtuous one: progress against your aims will make you feel more positive and proactive, and therefore able to make more progress against your aims.

Try implementation intentions. These are simple ‘If X, then Y’ plans that provide a predetermined way to respond to a particular situation. Examples include:

  • ‘If it’s 10am, then I’ll switch off my email and begin my task.’
  • ‘If I feel overwhelmed by the size of the task, I’ll break it down into steps and begin the first one immediately.’
  • ‘If I start thinking “I’ll do this later”, then I’ll do it now.’

Peter Gollwitzer, who developed the concept, calls them ‘instant habits’. They are powerful – your brain unconsciously scans for the situation you set and responds with the action you identified as the response, reducing the need for a battle of willpower. Learn more here.

Downsize, declutter and delete. It’s all too tempting to delay a task when you feel swamped or out of control. To optimise your ability to focus:

  • Downsize unattainably high expectations. Opt for smaller, more manageable goals, then set out to achieve them. The Pomodoro technique can be a great way to do this on a micro-level. 
  • Declutter your physical workspace. Find a place to work where you can focus with minimal interruption.
  • Do the same for your digital world. Remove unnecessary phone apps, silence notifications and consider using blocking software like Cold Turkey to disable online distractions.

Remember that you are hardwired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Cancel out the fleeting pleasure of postponing a task by making a mental audit of the true cost – and pain – of procrastination. Then make your tasks more appealing by connecting them to a reward or goal. How can you celebrate reaching a specific milestone? In what way does completing this task contribute to your next career goal?

Proactively tackling procrastination in this way will save you significant time and energy – and help accelerate your progress towards your next academic post.

Further reading:

15 Tips for Postponing Writing Procrastination’ from Dr Meggin McIntosh

Princeton University’s guide to ‘Understanding and overcoming procrastination

The Importance, Benefits, and Value of Goal Setting‘ by Professor of Psychology at Northwood University Leslie Riopel

5 tips to fight procrastination in grad school’

3 steps to better time management for overstretched researchers

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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