By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
We all procrastinate. And we all want to stop procrastinating. So why is it so hard?
Before we learn how to stop procrastinating, we have to understand why we procrastinate. There are scientific (psychological) reasons that we keep putting our projects off. There are reasons why we think it will be easier or better to do “the thing” tomorrow. And there are reasons why when tomorrow comes, we think we’ll just do it tomorrow. So why do we procrastinate? Why do we, as us special education teachers call it, engage in such non-productive ‘task avoidance’?
Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, has identified 3 different types of chronic procrastinators:
- Thrill-seekers (want the rush of last-minute tasks)
- Avoiders (avoid tasks out of fear)
- Decision Procrastinators (feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of making and owning a decision)
I’m going to focus on the second type of procrastinator – the Avoiders. In most cases, students who chronically put off homework assignments and projects tend to be Avoiders. If you think you’re a different type of procrastinator, these strategies will still help you, as Thrill-Seekers and Decision Procrastinators often have Avoider tendencies.
So why does an Avoider procrastinate?
Fear! Yes, fear.
If we feel excited about a task, and we know how to go about completing it, we will complete it on time. This is because we don’t tend to procrastinate on tasks that we feel confident and enthusiastic about. On the other hand, if we feel even the slightest bit of fear around the task – fear based on anything, really – then we will procrastinate like mad. It’s a survival technique: we want to avoid what we are fearful of.
So if you want to stop procrastinating, you have to figure out what you’re afraid of.
It could be something obvious like “failure,” or something less obvious like “being judged.” Once you determine what you’re really afraid of, you can take steps to get over it.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say that you have a history project due in two days. You were given the assignment a week ago. You keep telling yourself that you’ll “do it tomorrow,” but you can never find the motivation once tomorrow comes. Sound familiar?
This is where you dig in DEEPER to discover what the real issue is. Why are you not motivated? What are you afraid of? What are you really avoiding?
Here are 7 possible sources of fear — in other words, 7 reasons you might be procrastinating:
- Are you afraid of doing the project wrong and getting a bad grade?
- Are you afraid that you don’t know how to begin the project?
- Are you afraid that you won’t have enough time to finish it even if you start right now?
- Are you afraid that someone won’t like your work?
- Are you afraid that you won’t like your work?
- Are you afraid that you won’t be able to handle the amount of work involved?
- Are you afraid it won’t be perfect?
So we now know that the first step to stop procrastinating is to figure out what you’re afraid of, yes? So the next step is to do everything you can to address that particular fear.
How to stop procrastinating
Going back to our example, let’s work through all 7 possible reasons for your fear. Working through this process is the key to ending and overcoming task avoidance.
1. Fear: You’re afraid of doing the project wrong and getting a bad grade.
Solution: Ask your teacher to clarify the directions to be sure you’re doing it correctly. Be certain that you understand exactly what you’re supposed to do. Then think about all the other times that you felt insecure about your work – did any of it really result in an end-of-the-world situation? Of course not! Remind yourself that fear is not fact.
2. Fear: You’re afraid that you don’t know how to begin the project.
Solution: Same as in the previous step, ask your teacher to clarify the directions before you get started. But then break the project down into bite-sized pieces. Make every step a series of smaller steps that you list out on paper. So break down a large task like “Pick an essay topic” into smaller tasks like 1) look through notes and texts to see topic options, 2) narrow options down to 3, 3) run them by the teacher, 4) pick one topic.
3. Fear: You’re afraid that you won’t have enough time to finish your project even if you start right now.
Solution: Start now! The longer you wait, the less time you’ll have to work – proving your fear right. I just mentioned the importance of reducing every big step to a series of smaller steps that you list out on paper. Do this! When you see all the little steps written out, you’ll be able to bang them out more efficiently and effectively than if you just stayed paralyzed by the one large step.
4. Fear: You’re afraid someone won’t like your work.
Solution: Not everyone is going to like everything we do at all times. As we get older, our skin gets thicker and we learn to place more value on how we feel about ourselves than on how other people feel about us. (But that comes in time, and is still even quite difficult!) If you’re afraid that your teacher won’t like your work, then make sure you check in with him/her throughout the process to see if you’re going in the right direction. If you’re afraid that classmates or friends won’t like your work, first try to value your own opinion, but then see if you can make arrangements with your teacher to keep your work private. If you have a fear of presenting in front of the class, for example, let your teacher know.
5. Fear: You’re afraid that you won’t like your work.
Solution: This is a tough one, as self-confidence is difficult to grow on demand. But try to be proud of all your little accomplishments along the way, such as finally committing to starting, picking a topic, doing the research, writing the first draft, etc. If you feel little bursts of pride along the way, you’ll have more confidence in your final product.
6. Fear: You’re afraid of the amount of work involved.
Solution: Same solution here as in a couple steps back – break the larger tasks down into smaller, manageable tasks that are less overwhelming. What you originally perceived as a huge step might not seem so huge after all if it’s actually just comprised of 5 teeny steps. Also, yes it might take a lot of work. But all good things take work. And not all work is bad. Whoever said that work is bad?!
7. Fear: You’re afraid it won’t be perfect.
Solution: Accept that it won’t be. (Ha! Anyone reading this who knows me well is probably laughing at me, as I’m a true perfectionist and I know how hard it is to accept imperfection! But I’m flawed like anyone else is.) Seriously, nobody and nothing is perfect. But done is better than perfect. So do your 100% as always, and you’ll end up with something to be proud of. I don’t personally struggle with procrastination anymore (because I’m addicted to the feeling of being done with a task!), but I do struggle with perfectionist tendencies – both the good and the bad.
Procrastination and ADHD
Procrastination is a hallmark of ADHD. If you have ADHD or executive function deficits, then in addition to the strategies in this post, you should read my ADHD and Procrastination Tutorial here.
Another perspective that can help us learn how to stop procrastinating
Tim Pychyl, a Carelton University professor, has identified 6 attributes of procrastination. He said that we procrastinate when a task is one of the following:
- Lacks personal meaning / intrinsic reward
Tim’s idea is that all of the above characteristics produce negative feelings. So to avoid or reduce negative feelings, we avoid the task. But doing so only temporarily solves the problem.
Let’s break down Tim’s 6 negative attributes of a task (above) and turn each one on its head. I have also created individual tutorials for each of the topics below, which I have linked accordingly.
To make a task less boring, make a game out of it, perhaps going as fast as you can or competing with someone else. Try the Pomodoro Technique.
To make a task less frustrating, break it down into smaller tasks.
To make a task less difficult, be clear about the directions and also break down those steps again.
To give a task more personal meaning, think about how the experience of completing the project could enrich you or even someone else. Every little thing we do changes us. Fact.
To make a task less ambiguous, ask your teacher to clarify the instructions.
To give a task more structure, make a to-do list and schedule of all the steps you need to take and when you are going to take them.
Final notes on procrastination
Before I finish – I just have to address the other huge reason why people procrastinate: Laziness! Ugh. We are all guilty of it – I’m not standing on a pedestal here as I write about this one. But as “human” as laziness is, it totally sucks. If you deliberately avoid an assignment because you “don’t feel like doing it,” I challenge you to be better! Procrastination feels good in the moment, but completely backfires later. If you’re lazy, get unlazy. Or … or… dig deeper and figure out what you’re really afraid of.
Hopefully, these tips help you understand your procrastination tendencies a little bit more, and as a result can help you learn how to stop procrastinating. And perhaps you’ve been inspired enough to get off YouTube and start your project … like right now.