I'm Procrastinating!

Evidence-based strategies categorised by the reason(s) you are procrastinating.

First thing's first: DON'T PANIC!

You are where you are. You don't have a time machine. Your job now is to limit further damage.

Remove your distractions, go to the bathroom, get a drink, and let's do this!


I'm not sure how to do the thing I'm putting off...

  • ABZ framework. If A is where you are and Z is where you want to be, focus only on B as your next step, while ignoring C, D, E, F, etc. Focusing on only the next step can help manage what otherwise feels like an overwhelming number of steps.
  • Social proof. Like role-modelling, the process of gathering social proof is looking for others who have done what you want to do. That should give you some evidence not just hat it's possible (i.e., that it is not unreasonable to be able to expect some level of success), but also tell you a bit about what someone else has done, and therefore what you can do, to succeed.
  • Transferrable experience. You can be your own social proof. Sure, you may not have done this exact thing before, but have you done something like it? Or solved a complex problem in a way that might also work for this situation? We often over-look or devalue our own experience, but remembering that we've solved a similar problem before can give us the quick morale boost we've been missing.
  • SMART Goals. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time bound. There are a few variations of what each of the letter stand for, but the concept is always the same. If you have never heard of a SMART goal before, stop immediately and watch a ~3 minute YouTube video from Khan Academy explaining the concept.
  • Practice. You never know how to do something until you've already done it. This is so important I'm going to say it again: You won't know how to do something until you've already done it. If you expect yourself to, then you are setting yourself up to fail.
  • Rapid feedback. If you don't know how to do something, or even if you're on the right track with learning a new task, you don't have to wait until you completely finish to find out you might have gone     about it in an awkward way. Instead, you may be able to find ways to get rapid 'in vivo' feedback. Maybe by asking someone more skilled to watch you, or talk them through how you are thinking of approaching something, or show them an early draft.
  • Clear step-by-step instruction. Low expectancy is all about not being clear about how to do what you want to do. If it's relevant to you, try finding a YouTube tutorial or 'how to' blog about your goal. You might be surprised to find someone has created something just for your very problem.
  • Simulated experience. Vividly imagine yourself doing the thing. Every step. Therapists sometimes call this imaginal exposure. Top athletes use it as a form of training where they can mentally slow down the parts they are developing.
  • Journaling. To me, having low expectancy feels like my head is cloudy or that things are overwhelming. I can have too many thoughts about the complexities of what needs to be done that it almost paralysing. Getting those thoughts out and on paper or on the computer screen gets them out of my head, and often in a much more comprehensible order.

It's important, but there aways seems to be something more urgent...

  • Mental time travel (AKA visual contrasting). Hal Hershfield and colleagues asked research participants to look at a photo of themselves, and decide whether they were going to spend money, or save it. Most chose to spend. Then, Hershfield showed them artificially aged photos of themselves, and again asked them to either spend or save. This time, most chose to save. You can do this too. The trick is to imagine what your life would look like at some critical point down the track where you are likely to face the consequences of your inaction. Paint a vivid picture for yourself and consider the differences in your life if you do or do not do the thing you are avoiding. Visualising details can be immensely powerful (see here for a great example of the power of visualisation).
  • The 25 to 5 approach. Write down the 25 things you most want to do, then cross things off until you're left with only the top 5. Forget the 20. Life it too short.
  • Values blending. For example, if you don't really 'value' emptying the dishwasher, but you value efficiency and a challenge, you can set yourself a challenge of unloading the dishwasher in the fastest time while making the fewest number of trips between the dishwasher and the cupboards putting things away. Will it help you jump out of bed to empty the dishwasher every day? Probably not, but it might help you connect a little more value to the task that needs to be done.

I get easily distracted...

  • Reminders. Part of the problem with being impulsive is we lose track of time. You have to expect a level of impulsiveness and attraction of shiny objects and distractions. For the times they suck you in, make sure you have reminders or triggers in your environment that can bring your attention back to what you should be doing at the right times.
  • Remove distractions. One of the first and most important things you can do to get on top of your procrastination is to understand what you usually find yourself doing when you are procrastinating. Scrolling social media? Online shopping? Checking emails? Going down 'research' rabbit holes? Find out what distracts you, and find ways to limit your access. It sounds so simple, but it is one of the most common problems procrastinators face. When we are procrastinating, the thing we're putting off is rarely the thing we love doing most in the world. There is usually a little bit of discomfort involved. Usually because it's hard, or we're not 100% clear on what we're supposed to do (see Expectancy above).
  • Time boxing (e.g., the Pomodoro Technique). In a strict Pomodoro you work for 25 minutes and take a 5-minute break. After 4 cycles, you take a 20-minute break. If you are aiming specifically for peak productivity, there is some evidence to suggest the sweet-spot for deeper attention is 52-minute sprints with 17-minute breaks. Like all super-specific finding in psychology, that number represents the mean, not the mode. That is, 52 minutes is not perfect for anyone, and should be used as more of a starting-point or a guide for you to iterate on and refine until you find a sprint:rest ratio that works best for you.
  • Chunking. You have probably heard you should break large tasks down into smaller chunks before. But why? This can lead to what we call Success Spiralling, or Island Hopping: Where one small victory leads to the next, each time building momentum with your motivation.
  • Implementation intentions. Otherwise known as "IF-THEN" statements. There are a lot of people that fairly criticise SMART goals. Having worked with a lot of people on goals, I think one of the most important criticisms is people suck at creating good SMART goals. Some of the best modern evidence on following through on goals suggests you need to pre-plan your responses to situations or triggers. For example, IF I have had at least 20 minutes to deal with the most important emails in the morning and close out of them, THEN I will not open them again for at least 3 hours.
  • Habit trigger (AKA Hinging, AKA cues). A habit trigger is something that you can use for the IF part of an IF-THEN statement. They are also a core part of James Clear's very popular book on Atomic Habits. Clear would recommend if you are trying to build a habit around doing push-ups every day, use a trigger (orcue) to tell you when you need to engage in that new behaviour. Triggers can include: Time of day, Location, Preceding event, Emotional State, or Other People.
  • Work or be bored. This is a trick both Jim Carey and Niel Gaiman credit for their insane levels productivity. They remove distractions (see above), including any electronic devices, and set only one rule for themselves: Work, or be bored.
  • Ritual Prompts. E.g., Niel Gaiman's lined notebook and fountain pen. Niel Gaiman wouldn't just remove     distractions, but we would work consistently in the same environment with the same tools. Using a separate office, or specific notebook, or even a work water bottle that you can only associate with being productive. Personally, I have an ergonomic mouse at my desk that I have used for years. Its hard to say how well it helps with my productivity, but I certainly don't associate it with any leisure activities. If you work with the same equipment that you use for play (e.g., using your PC for both work and gaming), then Classical Conditioning may be making it harder for you to get into work mode.

There is no clear deadline, with no real hard consequences for procrastinating...

  • Externally imposed mile-stones / deadlines. If there is no real deadline (e.g., if you are trying to lose weight), then you may have to create one. Research by Dan Ariely and colleagues showed that setting our own deadlines is OK, but it is nowhere as good as having somebody else set meaningful deadlines for us. But you don't have to ask your Mum to nag you if you don't do something by a particular date. Maybe there is a real and meaningful deadline out there. Trying to lose weight? Do you have a wedding or a big birthday coming up? Trying to launch a business? Is there an industry event on the horizon that you can aim to launch in time for? If the event is too close to be achievable (see SMART goals), then think of it as more of a milestone that you can complete a smaller chunk of the task for. Look around. You might just find a deadline that if meaningful to you.
  • 30 day challenges are just one example of how you might be able to introduce a mile-stone or deadline in a meaningful way. Signing up to a structured challenge, ideally with a program that you can follow and a peer group for mutual support, can commit you to progress and help you stay accountable. There are peer support and 'challenge' groups all over the internet for things like study, weight loss, creative arts, and entrepreneural activities.
  • External obligators are minor annoyances that won't go away until you do the task. For example, set a quiet alarm that won't bother others but will get your attention. Then set the rule that you can not turn that alrm off until you have finished the task. You can snooze the alarm, you can't turn it off. This can be particularly hepful for those with ADHD that struggle to regulate their own prioritisation.
  • Create a timeline, and work your way backwards. We often procrastinate because we thing we have plenty of time, but we don’t really know how long things will take (this is often referred to the planning fallacy). If you map it out on a timeline, and work your way backwards based on when you need to have done by when, then you will have a much better handle of what can be done with the amount of time you have left (i.e., 'delay' in the language of TMT). We don't necessarily perceive time accurately, but this process can help us be more realistic. It might sound simplistic, but time-management strategies like this are effective.

Externally imposed deadlines help with giving you some objective deadline to reduce the concept of delay, but in doing so they also reduce the influence of your impulsivity. We become less impulsive (i.e., easily distracted by things that will give us short term gratification) as the remaining time to do something dwindles (TMT refers to this as Delay Sensitivity). Having a deadline will also tap into your sense of value ifmissing the deadline would mean letting down someone you care about, or harming your reputation. Just because I have listed a strategy under one of the four domains, doesn't mean it will only work for that domain.

Procrastination assessments

Revenge Bedtime Procrastination Scale (RBPS)
Revenge Bedtime Procrastination Scale (RBPS)
Unpack Psychology & Dr. Jason Wessel
Passive Procrastination Scale (PPS)
Passive Procrastination Scale (PPS)
Dr. Jason Wessel & Unpack Psychology
Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS-v1.1)
Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS-v1.1)
Adapted by Unpack Psychology