Hey there, Dean here. I run content and SEO at AppSumo. Here, I write and share about productivity, leadership, money, psychology, marketing, and more.
It's 4:30 PM on a Friday and the clock is ticking. You're working furiously to complete a task before 5:00 PM, while recalling what you've gotten done for the entire day... Nothing.
While you're silently cursing yourself for not starting it sooner, you're wondering what has just happened. What went wrong? How did you lose the focus?
Well, everyone procrastinates.If you’ve been putting things off until the last minute, giving in to distractions again and again, and finding yourself with nothing done at the end of the day, you’re not alone.
Even many of the world’s most famous geniuses were once serious procrastinators.
Fighting procrastination is like fighting a monster within you that never dies—and this beast lives in every single one of us. The truth is, overcoming procrastination is not curing procrastination. Instead, it’s about working with your psychology and behavior, so that you can get important things done.
In this article, I’m going to show you why you procrastinate, a comprehensive system for overcoming procrastination, and how to finally getting yourself to accomplish the very things you desire. Here’s a quick overview of what this article will cover:
As mentioned above, procrastination is a very common condition of being human.
Everyone procrastinates at some point in their lives. We delay our work until the very last minute, we are easily distracted by things around us, and we busily move in circles without ever moving forward.
We then feel terrible for not getting the important stuff done. Looking at other, better performers, we start to believe that we’re just the average human who will never accomplish anything great. When you’re in this position, you feel helpless and lonely because speaking up to another person only further shatters your self-esteem.
The truth is, everyone feels the same way. Procrastination is not easy to overcome because it’s not a math problem that can be calculated with formulas. People procrastinate in different ways for different reasons. So before diving into methods and strategies to break procrastination, we first need to learn why we procrastinate.
One of the most common reasons why people procrastinate—in this case, an inability to start—is that they want things to be perfect. Instead of focusing on getting started, they fantasize about ideal results.
For perfectionists, it’s safer to keep the goal in their mind, on paper, beside their mouth, but never make it a reality. Because when it does become a reality, it may not be the same as what they fantasize. So, they wait for the perfect moment to start, and if they start, they drag their project out, never actually finish and ship it.
There is no perfect time or circumstance to do something meaningful. When we constrain and attach ourselves to only one version of the result (something we can’t directly control), we become less flexible. We can no longer adjust and optimize the process. We either get caught up day-dreaming, or we get paralyzed by the amount of work we need to put in.
Aiming for great things and doing something you have never done before is scary. What if you don’t accomplish what you said you wanted? What if you get nothing in return after all the time and energy investment? What if you change your mind halfway along the path?
There are thousands of “what ifs” in our minds every time we want to start doing something, especially something big and meaningful to us. It’s not your fault. We’re all hardwired to fear the unknown. Backing off and fleeing from uncertainty is the best self-defense mechanism humans have ever developed throughout the course of evolution.
Fear of the unknown is not a bad thing; it protects us from taking unnecessary risks and harming ourselves. However, it’s not very helpful when we want to make that one leap to get important things done.
The next cause of procrastination is this: we just don’t feel like doing what we should do. Yes, you promised yourself to hit the gym tonight. But after a full day of work, you simply don’t have the motivation to push yourself to the gym.
Motivation is twofold: psychology and physiology. Your beliefs, self-awareness, and mental models are going to impact your level of motivation directly. But at the same time, how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally is also going to affect your level of motivation from time to time.
Learning how to motivate yourself is a critical starting point, but it’s not a sustainable strategy for the long term. We’re going to cover more on learning how to free ourselves from procrastination even when our motivation is low.
Since the rise of the Internet, attention-grabbing distractions are increasing at a rapid pace. With the ease of creating and delivering information, we’re living in a far more distracting environment today compared to decades ago.
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means the dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. —Herbert Simon, social scientist
Even when we make it past the initial resistance of getting started, we still face the enormous challenge of sticking to our work. Countless things are trying to grab your attention in numerous directions every second of the day.
Phones ringing, people yelling, babies crying. To truly get away from distraction, you need to learn the exact strategy for creating a distraction-free environment.
The final cause of procrastination lies in the task itself. Think about it. What is something you know you should do but can’t get yourself to do?
You’re not doing it—not because you want it to be perfect, not because you’re afraid, not because you’re unmotivated or distracted. Your procrastinating because you just don’t feel like doing it.
Every task—big or small—comes with a certain level of resistance. Little things that can be done easily feel unimportant and boring and eventually your ignore them. Important things that you should do make you feel dreadful, so you can never get started.
The first key you need to realize is this: you don’t need to do them all yourself. You can “get them done” without your own effort with effective delegation and automation. Then for the remaining tasks, you will need to identify some of their characteristics, schedule them in advance, and implement the two-minute hack to get them done quickly.
Now you’ve learned the top five causes of why we—and you—procrastinate, it’s time to uncover some proven strategies you can implement to break procrastination. Before you do, there are three points I want you to know or act upon:
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Elon Musk gets exhausted too, but he can’t stop working on his mission to make renewable energy mainstream and send a man to Mars. He’s seriously obsessed with his goals. The same goes for Steve Jobs. He preferred to be a jerk rather than to compromise his vision for the perfect computer.
The list goes on and on. In fact, top performers and high achievers are not immune to procrastination and distraction. Instead, they are obsessed with what they want to accomplish and what they do. This obsession fuels their mind and body. They will not stop at anything before they achieve what they intended to.
To develop this obsession towards your desire. you must set goals the right way. (You can read about the wrong way here)
Most people start out thinking about what they want to buy or own when going through the goal-setting process. It’s an excellent place to start if you never actually set goals. But dig a little deeper. Are these goals really what you want or are they delusional pictures painted by others’ influences?
It’s impossible to develop an intense obsession toward your goals if they don’t resonate with you directly. Instead of thinking about what you want, start your goal-setting process by thinking about who you want to be. This helps you to align your goals with your vision and values. And only in this way can you stick with it for the long haul.
Warren Buffett is known for his wealth and as one of the most successful investors in the world. One of the many elements that contribute to his success is how he sees and spends his time and energy, known as the 25/5 rule.
The 25/5 rule works like this. Write down 25 goals you want to accomplish. Then, circle the top five goals that are the most important to you. Now you have two lists: the top five priorities and the remaining 20 less important goals.
Start working on your top five immediately and make the other 20 as your avoid-at-all-cost list. This technique is a great way to create laser-sharp focus and clarity.
The 25/5 rule is a strategy that stems from the Pareto Principle, which is to focus all your time and energy on the top 20% priorities. But even after narrowing down your goals, it could still be hard to get started. The best way is to break the goals into smaller chunks as milestones.
After you break these top goals into smaller milestones, set a process goal for each one of them. Think about what you need to do every day, week, or month to accomplish your milestones. Then make these actions your habits.
Admit it, we all are forgetful. Our brain is not designed to remember what we want five to ten years down the road. To remind yourself of your goals, place them everywhere—in your car, your mobile home screen, your bathroom mirror, everywhere—so you can see and review them every day.
You can list your goals and read them every day but here is a better way: use photos and images to describe your goals and visualize them every day. Photos and visualizationS are more effective because our brains are designed to process images, not words.
Most people stop at the first step of goal setting, some people stop after creating a plan, but not you. To develop a strong obsession with your desire, you need to release yourself from self-sabotaging beliefs and inner voices.
Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You To Be Rich called it the invisible scripts (You can see me using it often because I love that term). If you want to overcome procrastination and become a top performer, you need to do what they do.
But before you do what they do, you must rewrite the invisible scripts in your head—inject the good ones and erase the ones that are holding you back.
This process is simple but not easy. And the only way to reprogram your mindset is to review and challenge it every single day. Every time you notice those inner voices get a pen and a piece of paper to write them down. Then, review these voices and ask yourself:
The more you challenge your beliefs, the more you will see them from a separate perspective. And the easier it will become to disregard them and act anyway.
Now, look at the last question above, “what can I do to test this belief?” In most cases, you will get pretty uncomfortable answers from this question because it’s about stepping outside of your comfort zone and doing something differently. Fear then creeps in from all directions to paralyze you and to keep you from taking action.
This is when fear-setting (by Tim Ferriss from his TED Talk 2017) comes in to play as a solution. Again, write down your fears one by one. Then, ask yourself:
Often, you will find that the worst case scenario isn’t really that bad and can be easily recovered from. At the same time, you start thinking about how to prevent that from happening with a more rational and systematic approach instead of delaying and procrastinating.
After you create the urge to take action and weed out the self-sabotaging voices in your head, it’s time to get to the meat. Most people skip the first two steps. They start implementing the hacks and techniques below only to find themselves getting nowhere. Therefore, it’s wise to first go through the two steps above before you continue from here.
Procrastination has a lot to do with our psychology—how we think and behave—and our physiology—how our body reacts. Both areas are critical for effectively breaking procrastination long-term and to start performing at your best.
(The most common triggers for procrastination are stress and boredom. Having learned about these, assign yourself a constructive routine to replace procrastination when you’re feeling stressed or bored.)
There is a lot you can do to your body to maximize your performance. It’s a different niche known as biohacking, and that is a topic for another day. To overcome procrastination, you need to at least get your body to function optimally. And we will look into three things you can optimize to accomplish that.
Andre Agassi is a retired American professional tennis player and former World’s No 1 in competitive sports. Throughout his career, no one was allowed to touch his tennis bag during a match. Later, in his autobiography Open, he explained that when there is disorder in his bag, there were distractions in his mind.
Creating your environment is something you want to take seriously. Removing distraction doesn’t only help to overcome procrastination, it improves your focus so you can practice, learn, and perform at a peak mental and physical states.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it the flow, and some call it the zone. It’s a mental state in which a person performs an activity with immersed focus and loses the sense of space and time.
Besides creating a physical environment for your work and life, it’s crucial to design a distraction-free mental space. Often, this is more challenging than building a physical environment because distraction from inside our head comes from countless directions.
To transform our behavior, we need the motivation, the why behind what we do, to get us started. However, motivation is not a sustainable solution because our level of motivation is never consistent. That’s why people who depend solely on motivation start a thousand different projects but are never able to complete them and move on.
The best psychological mechanism to replace motivation is to build habits. Humans are animals of patterns. Instead of depending on the spike of motivation every time, designing a routine and building a habit are a more sustainable strategy for the long-term.
There are countless good habits you can implement in your life for good. In the context of breaking procrastination, here are the five most recommended habits:
If you want to learn more about how to build habits that last, read this.
Okay, there is a lot of information. I get it. You may be wondering: “Great! Now I know more, but where should I start?” This short section is the answer to your question.
As mentioned above, overcoming procrastination is not an overnight event, it’s a process. It means that you don’t need to do everything at once. Here are three suggestions for you to start the journey of breaking procrastination for good.
The first strategy I’ve mentioned in this article is crucial. You have to do it. There is no other way around it. And you need to start as soon as possible because developing an obsession with your goals takes time.
Start by going through the goal-setting and fear-setting technique I laid out above. Then, focus your energy on the process goals to get yourself started immediately.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. It basically means that the more time you give to a task, the more time it takes; and vice versa. A great method to boost productivity and break procrastination is to use deadlines in your favor.
Schedule three hours of time for a task that usually takes you five to complete. You’ll be surprised how much you get done in this time. Set a self-imposed deadline days or weeks in advance of the actual deadline and stick to it, you’ll eventually feel the urge to complete it as soon as possible.
The last tool I have for you is fun: challenge yourself to do what you’ve been procrastinating on immediately for the next 30 days.
Take a pen and a piece of paper, list 30 small things you’ve been delaying and avoiding for a long time. In the next 30 days, execute them —one by one. After you have completed one each day, cross them off from your life.
This 30-day challenge helps you break the initial resistance and create the momentum for you to move forward. Imagine how you would feel by the end of the 30 days when you've crossed off every single item on your procrastination list.
Now you have everything you need to overcome procrastination and take your productivity to the next level. Take a break, come back tomorrow, and pick one strategy to work on immediately.
Before I sign off on this article, I would like to recommend some tools and resources that I have found helpful in the process of overcoming procrastination and building the foundation for peak performance.
Technology is a double-edged sword. When utilizing technology ineffectively, it becomes the most attention-grabbing distraction you’ll ever encounter. However, technology can be helpful if you learn where and how to use it.
There are many tools available today that help us overcome procrastination, build better habits, and improve productivity. Here’s a list of my most recommended tools:
In case you want to dig deeper, improve productivity and achieve peak performance, below are lists of my top five recommended books, blogs, and podcasts. Most of what I shared here is not originated from me, but from the authors, bloggers, and entrepreneurs on these lists.Top five books to read:
Top five blogs to follow:
Top five podcasts to subscribe to: