Procrastination & Motivation
You got goals and dreams and a ginormous to-do list that terrifies you to even look at. You have ideas of what needs to be done, but you don't know how to start or even where to start and everything is so much and so big and stressful that you just rather put blinders on and play videogames or watch Netflix. But the stuff is always there and your dreams are still waiting for you and even though you spent all those other days not doing anything, you have the rest of today, tomorrow, and forever to start fresh.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
It might start with a fear of failure, then we start being all harsh and critical of ourselves when we don't do as well as we wanted and we feel like we failed again, then we start setting really perfectionistic goals because what we do should be that good, but those goals are impossible, so we feel bad and start putting off doing stuff because we don't think we'll ever be able to do them well enough and not doing them good enough will just make us feel even more awful and so we avoid stuff more and things pile up and so your to-do list is a mile-long and even thinking about getting stuff done fills you with dread and and and...
There are a ton of reasons we might find ourselves avoiding the things we want to accomplish: not knowing how to start, perfectionism, fear of failure or criticism (from others or even yourself), feeling overwhelmed or nervous, limited organizational skills, not sure how to manage or structure our time, negative self-talk, ignoring our emotions that could help us become more motivated, and so on. If you have depression, anxiety, ADHD, or other mental health disorders, you often know how hard it is to get anything done. That's because some of the core features of many disorders is that they destroy our ability to have motivation, energy, set goals, plan, and take steps to accomplish our goals.
Knowing what, in particular, is making things difficult for us is helpful because we know where to focus our efforts and where to make changes. Most of the time, there are a few different problems that lead us to procrastinate, but that's actually alright because this just means we have a lot of different angles we can take to improve your productivity and motivation.
So practice mindfulness, notice when you're procrastinating, notice the thoughts and feelings that go through your mind when you are having trouble doing something or when you tell yourself you can do that tomorrow. Notice if there were any things that made it harder for you to want to start and notice the kinds of things you say to yourself when you're thinking about doing things. Do you call yourself names or lazy? Is your self-talk like a drill sergeant or an encouraging teacher? How do you feel when you talk to yourself like that?
No matter what the challenge is, no matter how big of a problem you have with procrastination and motivation - there are always options and there is always help. If you notice where you struggle, you can start picking tools and strategies to work on that, but even if you don't know why yet, pick a strategy or two below and just try them out. Trial and error, being open to seeing what helps and what doesn't, is the process required for any growth process!
Set Smart Goals
How many times do you have a million things you want to get done and then you're overwhelmed so you do none of them? Have you ever set the bar for success so high that you don't even bother trying because you don't think you can do it good enough? Attainable goals are smart goals.
There is a difference between aiming high and motivating yourself to do your best so you can hit new heights and having unrealistic demands of yourself. Instead of inspiring us, unrealistic demands and perfectionistic goals usually demoralize and demotivate people. If you try to achieve those perfectionistic goals, you will 100% fail because no one is perfect, nothing you do is perfect. Constantly failing to meet perfectionistic goals can strip you of your self-confidence, wreck your self-esteem, and you lose faith that you can accomplish your goals.
Leave some room to grow!
So how do you set smart goals?
- If you struggle with perfectionistic goals, change them. "Get it done, not perfect" is your new mantra. When you're making goals, ask yourself what target might be "good enough" instead of perfect. If you think the only "good enough" is perfect, then aim for decent, average, unexciting, mediocre, or ask yourself what would be reasonable goals to set for someone else. Realize that your expectations are distorted and what seems mediocre to you might actually be a pretty solid, fair, and reasonable goal. Would you demand that your loved one have to be perfect? Consider what would be a reasonable goal for them in this situation?
- Pick 1 – 3 things to do today and make sure they’re things you have time for or they’re things that aren’t too overwhelming to tackle. Don’t pick the big scary monster you’ve been avoiding.
- Pick even seemingly insignificantly small, easy tasks to take on – your #1 goal is to say “I actually got something done today”
- Don’t compare yourself to other people – your goals are your own, your path is your own, the only person you need to focus on is who you are and what you want to do
- Ask for help and delegate tasks when needed – being perfectionistic about being independent and self-sufficient can lead to failure, exhaustion, burnout, and avoidance.
Organization for Productivity
It isn't enough to have goals, having a plan for how you go about achieving those goals is also crucial. Organization and structure will make your projects much more maneagable! Here are some organization tips to boost your productivity and beat procrastination:
- Make a list - Have a to-do list that you update, prioritize the list, if you’re overwhelmed keep a master list and a today list so you can focus on the things you need to do now.
- Set aside productivity time – there might be times of the day that are easier for you to get stuff done. Experiment. Does waking up earlier and getting stuff done help? Are you too sleepy after dinner or lunch? Pick a time, try it out for a while, and see what works. Your goal is finding the best productivity time for you so you can make this your new habit, your new time to get stuff done!
- Work before play - I know it is tempting to dive into something fun for a while and then get to work, but sometimes it is hard to redirect yourself. Prioritize even a small amount of productivity before you have play time.
- Make it a part of a routine, like when you first get home – forming productivity habits where it is second nature helps you thoughtlessly begin to get things done.
- Set up your workspace – make sure your productivity space isn’t interfering with your ability to get things done. Minimize distractions like people, sounds, or phone alerts. Straighten up your work area because cleaner spaces help you focus and feel comfortable while you’re working. Go to the library or somewhere else if finding that space at home is difficult.
- Break up bigger tasks into much smaller subtasks that feel like things you can tackle. "Work on my paper" might be a huge project, but breaking it into smaller chunks makes it more manageable and less daunting. Smaller steps for a paper could include, getting background research, taking notes, organizing your notes, writing an outline, write the intro, and so on.
- Set yourself up for success – If you procrastinate it is hard enough to get started without having to go out of your way to find your to-do list or figure out the first steps of doing something. Make it easier to start by setting things up to be more visual, accessible, and easy to use.
- Lay your schoolwork out on the desk so you can start on it as soon as you get home
- Put your to-do list widget at the front and top of your phone’s home screen
- Have a weekly calendar out on your desk or your to-do list on a post-it on your computer screen where you can easily see it
- Set alarms on your phone for when it is time to focus on productivity or get something done, especially important to make sure any breaks don't run too long
- Set out your running shoes and workout clothes right next to your bed so when you get up you can put them on right away
- If you’re worried about potential pitfalls or problems that can arise. Sometimes fear of failure or problems keeps us avoidant, so having a plan in place to have some sense of control and efficacy is crucial.
- Determine what you can and cannot control in this situation
- List your options for dealing with the pitfalls, even options that aren’t ideal (these are your plan B - of course it would be nice if everything worked out perfectly, but we can't guarantee that and we need a back up plan)
- Review your options and develop your plan for how you’re going to handle problems if they come up. Once you have that plan in place, you can start to worry less and take steps for action and moving forward.
How to Start Working
Setting goals and making sure the right organization is in place to facilitate efficiency, motivation, and productivity are the first steps. But once you have set everything up, how do you actually start working?
- Use the Pomodoro technique - set a timer for 20 minutes, then take a 5 or 10 minute break. Set a timer for your break too! If you find that the work time is too short or too long, you can play with the time divisions, but try to keep the break shorter than the work time. Some people might find that 20 minutes then a break is too disruptive because they have a hard time shifting their attention so frequently, so experiment with what works for you.
- If you're really really struggling with procrastination, try doing the 5 minute technique. Pick the top thing on your to-do list and commit to working on it for only 5 minutes. You're going to set a timer for 5 minutes and at the end of 5 minutes, you are totally allowed to stop being productive and stop working. If you want to keep going, you can keep working, but you have the choice to stop if you want. You can commit to 5 minutes of work, even if you only get a bit done because that is better than getting zero work done. This technique is great especially if you have a ton of anxiety around getting started.
- Do one tiny thing toward your goal – put one shoe away in the closet, take your text book out of your bag and put it on your desk, open your email account. Give yourself permission to stop there if you get overwhelmed easily.
Try the see it/think it/do it approach - You can try this approach even when you're not organized or have a good plan. The second you either see or think of something that you need to do, try to do something toward getting it done. You might want to get your supplies out for the project, you might want to write down the things you need to do for the rest of the project, you might want to start the first part of the project, but just do some even small thing to start the ball rolling.
Why are we talking about motivation AFTER we discuss how to start working? Because one of the little known secrets is that we don't have to be motivated in order to work. Motivation is nice. Feeling energized and driven is fantastic when we're diving into a project, but we do things all the time that we aren't exactly pumped to do. Few people feel totally hyped to clean the bathroom or do their taxes. But we do those things. How?
Your emotions, thoughts, and behavior are connected, but can function somewhat independently of one another. We can feel scared and still do the behavior and activity that makes us anxious. We can feel disappointed and still choose to think positively about how we can do better next time. We can feel avoidance, want to put something off, think the activity sounds tedious or overwhelming and still do the behavior called "getting it done." We don't have to feel like doing something in order to actually do it. Remind yourself of that the next time you're struggling with motivation.
Now, just because we know motivation and drive aren't required for productivity doesn't mean they aren't fantastic to have! There are many ways we can boost motivation to get that forward-oriented energy that helps push us toward our goals.
Care for Your Essential Needs
- Check and make sure: are you tired, have you eaten, have you had water, have you had some form of exercise, are you lonely?
- Make sure any mental health disorders are treated because they can destroy productivity when not managed. It can be impossible to work on productivity when depression or anxiety is running rampant because lack of interest in activities, not enjoying things you do, not caring, loss of motivation, fear, fatigue, and apathy are often central features of many mental health disorders.
Emotions as Motivation
- Focus on how bad it feels to not do things - No one likes to pay attention to bad feelings. No one wants to really focus on how crappy something feels, however our emotions are information. "Emotions are motivation" - remember that. By paying attention to unpleasant emotions that come from procrastinating we become less likely to do them again, "I remember how much it sucked to put that off, I think I'm going to do it so I don't feel so awful again today."
- Focus on how good it would feel to have the things done, even a tiny accomplishment: when you do something, no matter how small, take time to enjoy how great it feels to have done it. Notice how your stress level goes down, notice your sense of relief in not having that hanging over your head. Notice if your freetime and play activities feel more enjoyable, rewarding or relaxing when you've actually gotten things done.
- Take time to think about your values and your long term goals – connect to WHY you want these things, how good it would feel, why they are important to you. What are the long term goals these tasks are connected to? What emotions would you feel if you had accomplished those long term goals?
- Remind yourself that you can take actions even if your feelings are not great – Our behavior and emotions are connected, but your feelings do not dictate your behavior. You do things all the time when you don’t feel like it or when you’re scared or unsure.
- Think of productivity as self-care activities – This is you tending to the garden of your life, this is you being kind and good to yourself. You are taking steps to do something nice to care for your future self. Being encouraging of your productivity and taking care of things that are important to you can also be like you being a good parent to your own self. Whatever idea helps you think more positively about productivity, use it.
- Find ways of enjoying the process of working – Put on good music, work with friends, go somewhere enjoyable like a library or coffee shop, put on your favorite movie in the background (as long as it isn’t too distracting).
- Have an accountability buddy – Using a buddy system for productivity can be great! Sometimes we're way more comfortable letting down ourselves than another person, so gym buddies or study partners can help improve your motivation because you don’t want to let the other person down. You can also think of your future self like some other person that you don't want to let down too. You're being good to your future self by taking steps today to make their experience better and easier.
Mind your Thoughts
- Avoid shaming, blaming, being harsh, critical, overly negative, or calling yourself names - "lazy" is not a helpful word, lazy doesn't help you figure out why you aren't getting things done, it just makes you feel worse about who you are as a person. "You always put things off," "I'll never get this done," "I always procrastinate," "I never do the things I need to do." These things just make you feel worse about yourself, feel like more crap when you're thinking about productivity, and start to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Avoid making negative value judgments about yourself and focus on the logistics of problem-solving what you can do better.
- Avoid using statements like, "I should," "I have to," "I need to," "I must," and so on - These set up that naggy school teacher dynamic. What should you say instead? "I want to." See the Coco's #1 Tip section below for more info.
- Minimize time spent focusing on the difficulties you’ve had, the problems, the challenges, how long it has been, all that you have to do – Again, focus on what you can be doing better or differently to have more effective productivity. When you examine your mistakes, do it only so you can come up with a solution. Looking at your errors is not time to start kicking yourself in the shins.
- Keep your thoughts adaptive and helpful - Even if things didn't go perfectly (they never do), take time to acknowledge what part went better or went well. Notice even the smallest improvements and express appreciation for growth in the right direction. If you notice a problem, consider it an opportunity to grow and make changes because you can't fix a problem you don't know exists.
Remind yourself of your personal strengths, past accomplishments, and of past times that things worked out okay - Taking account of positive things about yourself and your past can help create hope, a sense of self-efficacy, and improve your confidence.
- Minimize cognitive distortions - You are going to feel anxiety, fear, worry, and other difficult emotions, but many times the way we think about difficult situations makes our emotions MUCH worse. Instead of making predictions about the future, mind reading, or predicting doom and gloom, just note your emotions and focus on what positive things you can do to self-soothe or attain your goal. Check out the Crap-O-Vision document on the Resources page for more cognitive distortion info.
- Minimize perfectionistic thoughts that keep you immobilized because you know you can’t achieve that inhuman standard. If you catch yourself setting perfectionistic goals or shaming yourself for not being up to those sky-high standards, take time to review the Set Smart Goals section above to create more affirming, fair goals.
- Adopt practical and encouraging self-talk statements - All bad habits need to be replaced with a more adaptive, positive habit - so find some more helpful, positive statements that help you get your work done. It doesn't have to be a grand or silly affirmation like, "I always get my work done on time." It can even be a really neutral statement, like "there are things that I have gotten done on time, but sometimes I get behind" or "I'm working to be better about my productivity."
- Get a productivity battle cry - Find a statement that captures your new, healthier approach to productivity, like “get it done, not perfect” or “just five minutes” or “just gotta put one foot in front of the other.”
- Be fair with failure and your fear of failure – Remind yourself that everyone has trouble sometimes and be compassionate to yourself, your vulnerabilities, and flaws. Remind yourself this is a learning process that everyone has to go through.
- VERY IMPORTANT: Be compassionate and encouraging when you don’t do the things you wanted to do - You might feel like this is counter-intuitive – “I’m already too forgiving of me NEVER doing anything! Being patient with myself when I don’t do things is the last thing I need!” But a lot of the times you’ve actually just been berating yourself for your every productivity failure, you put yourself down every time you don’t accomplish something or you put something off. You’re just teaching your mind to expect awful feelings every time you even start to think about doing stuff because productivity ALWAYS equals nasty criticism. That sucks so no wonder you avoid being productive! Practice talking to yourself like you're a loving supportive teacher or parent talking to a child. Try being kind and compassionate toward yourself for at least a few weeks and see how that helps.
Success Tracking and Rewards
Progress sometimes isn't clear, especially in longer or more complex projects. Having a way to see that you are making progress and finding ways to enjoy the journey are key to keep moving forward when the final end goal isn't so close.
- Use visual trackers of your successes – Having some visual cues that show how well you're doing or how much you have gotten done can be a huge motivator and help provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with your work. Consider habit tracker apps, a to-do list with crossed off items, large white board lists, or a chore/task chart with boxes for you to check off (or even use stickers or something fun). You can try to gamify your productivity by giving tasks XP points or XP progress bars that you fill in as you go along in your task (Habitica and Life RPG are two apps that do this well).
- Reward yourself for things accomplished - Have mini rewards as you hit milestones along the way and a larger reward when you complete the entire task.
- Earn points for making progress or task completion so you can spend your points on various rewards - You can spend your points on smaller items or save them up for bigger rewards.
- Give yourself a reward upon completion or hitting a certain milestone of a task - Milestones can be after an hour of work or when you get to a certain point in your project.
- If you are enjoying a reward as part of a breaktime or as a milestone reward and you plan to return to work afterward, make sure you either choose an activity with a natural end or set a timer with an alarm to make sure you actually return to work!
- Reward ideas can be free or cost money, they can be short or longer activities. Anything that is pleasant and enjoyable for you can be a reward. Examples can be: going on a hike, watching a stream, playing a game, hanging out with a friend, getting a snack or nice meal (don't use food rewards if you have any difficulties with emotional eating/bingeing/or disordered eating), small purchases or physical items (like stickers, fidget ring, a funco pop!, an Overwatch lootbox), listening to music, going to a yoga class, play a match in your favorite online videogame, and so on.
- Don't underestimate the importance of mini breaks! Even taking 5 minutes to get some fresh air, stretch, check your favorite subreddit, or play a little mobile puzzle game can be fantastic little rewards and mental breaks in the middle of longer productivity sessions. This can reward you for progress and let you recharge your energy and focus. Be sure to set a timer so you don’t have breaks go too long.
What About Punishments?
Notice how punishments aren't talked about here? A lot of times procrastinators are already punishing themselves with hard self-criticism, calling themselves names, and making themselves feel awful, shame, guilt, anger toward themselves and more. Those are definitely punitive tactics (they're also unhealthy, damaging, harmful tactics) and they're definitely not working for you or else you wouldn't be reading about how to fix your procrastination.
Focusing on adding MORE punishments can further escalate this spiral of shame and avoidance so try switching gears and focusing on healthier, more adaptive, encouraging techniques. There's no reason not to try something different when what you're doing isn't working.
If You Have Depression, ADHD, Anxiety, or other Disorders
There are countless mental health disorders that can create major procrastination issues because they cause you to lose interest in doing things, make you unable to enjoy activities or accomplishments, interfere with your ability to think, plan, or execute your strategies for change, can cause fatigue, and other issues that prohibit productivity. That's why they're called disorders - they cause you to have trouble functioning.
Imagine being in a wooden rowboat out on the ocean and it is filling up with water. Just focusing on bailing the water out without trying to find the leak is going to be an issue. You can't improve motivation and beat procrastination without trying to fix major mental health disorders that are wreaking havoc with your functioning.
Get treatment, get the symptoms of your mental health managed, and then you'll be in a position to improve your motivation and tackle procrastination issues. Many times when people treat their mental health problems, like depression, they naturally begin to be more active, productive, and procrastinate less.
Coco's #1 Tip
100% stop saying "I have to," "I must," "I need to," "I should," or any variation on these obligation-type statements when you have something you want to get done. No one loved when they had that nagging, pushy, critical teacher or parent who was wagging their finger in their face. It sets you up to feel obligated, resentful, even oppositional; it makes that task start to feel like complete annoying suck; it causes this knee-jerk "BUT I DONT WANNAAAAAA" reaction in us. Do not EVER say those obligation statements and instead say one thing and one thing only:
"I want to."
"But I don't want to!" Very, very rarely is there something in our life that we 1000% want to do with no hesitation, limitations, mixed feelings, no down sides, no cost, no negatives, just all pure 100% yes. Even the things you procrastinate on, you aren't 100% on board with the procrastinating, because otherwise you wouldn't be reading this article on procrastination, wishing you could stop procrastinating - part of you actually wants to do the things. No one says, "gee, I really need to stop procrastinating on rolling around naked in a sewer." No. Because no one wants to do that so it isn't a problem that you haven't done it yet.
Procrastination is literally "putting off something that you want to get done."
So, if you say you're procrastinating on something, you're literally saying "I'm not doing this thing that part of me wants to do." And that's the crucial part: part of you wants to do this. Maybe not all of you, but someone inside you, some part of you would like to do this thing Therefore, you can honestly say, "I want to do this" because part of you really, truly does.
"But I'm not 100% wanting to do it!" It doesn't matter. We say things like, "I like this videogame" and it doesn't mean that it is 100% perfect and we have no criticism of it. "I want to get home" doesn't mean "I really want to sit in rush hour traffic for 2 hours and THEN get home." "I want to do my taxes this weekend" doesn't mean "I love taxes and this sounds like a super chill way to spend my weekend." "I want to do my taxes this weekend" just means "I'm tired of my taxes hanging over my head and as much as I want to chill this weekend, it would feel good to get my taxes over with."
So focus your statements, thoughts, and attention on that feeling inside of you that WANTS to accomplish that goal and speak from the part of you that wants to do it and wants it done, "I want to do this." Because some part of you really, honestly does. You might be amazed at how mobilizing this can be, how it can dissolve some of that "NO!" resistance we feel sometimes about unfun tasks, turns obligations into acts of self-care, and makes being responsible for tending to important things in our life feel better and more affirming rather than feeling like we're just trying to desperately escape the nasty clutches of some hypothetical critical authority figure. You can do this.
The Bottom Line
- Take steps to make your productivity tasks manageable and well-organized with schedules and breaking things into smaller bits.
- Practice compassionate, fair, and helpful thoughts toward yourself regarding your mistakes and struggles.
- Use your emotions as motivation by harnessing your desire for accomplishment and frustration with procrastination to drive you forward.
- Celebrate and reward successes, even the smallest accomplishments.
- Say "I want to," not "I have to," "I should," "I need to."
- Try different strategies and see what helps you and what doesn't. Growth requires trial and error experimentation. It might take many different approaches until you find the combo of strategies that work for you!