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7 Counterintuitive Tips For Beating Procrastination

From taking more breaks to shifting your focus away from the task at hand, these tips can help you finally get started.

7 Counterintuitive Tips For Beating Procrastination
[Photo: Flickr user Allan Rotgers]

Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago and an expert on procrastination, estimates that 20% of Americans are chronic procrastinators. "They delay at home, work, school, and in relationships," he tells the American Psychological Association. "We are a nation of 'doers,' but we are also, like people from other industrialized nations, a people of 'waiters'."

But if the scientific evidence on that score is damning, it might also hold some surprising solutions for the most inveterate procrastinators. Here are seven counterintuitive strategies to finally stop procrastinating.

1. Tell Yourself You "Don’t" Procrastinate

Procrastination is what we call it when we give in to the temptation of being distracted. Simply saying "no" to that temptation is often too hard for many of us to do. But an experiment published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that how you say "no" has an impact on how successfully you resist temptation: if you're trying to diet, should you tell yourself "I can’t eat chocolate cake," or, "I don’t eat chocolate cake"?

In the study, 30 women were asked to think of a goal and work on it for 10 days. Whenever they felt the urge to cheat on their goals, 10 participants were instructed to reframe their temptations as "I can't," 10 were told to say "I don't," and 10 weren't given a specific strategy, but asked to "just say no."

Here’s what the results looked like 10 days later:

  • Three out of 10 in the "just say no" group persisted for all 10 days.
  • One out of 10 in the "can’t" group had persisted with her goal.
  • An incredible eight out of 10 in the "don’t" group had stuck with their goals for the entire 10 days.

2. Take More Breaks

We already know that it's impossible to stay productive for hours on end. But some researchers say they've cracked the optimal ratio of work to rest time for productivity: one 17-minute break for every 52 minutes of work.

Whether or not you choose to clock those exact intervals, it may turn out that taking smaller, measured breaks can help us sidestep much longer-term procrastination. The caveat, of course, is that we need to commit to beginning work in the first place. But then taking a few breaks in between can help you sustain that momentum. Instead of helping us to manage our time, this helps us to manage our energy or our capacity to work—and, consequently, our power to avoid putting things off altogether.

3. Don’t Focus On The Task At Hand

It’s natural to procrastinate on something you dislike. But chances are you'll enjoy getting it over and done with. So focus on the success you'll feel by completing something.

It turns out that can be a simple yet effective shift in mind-set. You'll be moving your attention away from the thing you hate doing and want to avoid, and toward the accomplishment and freedom you'll feel when you complete it. That may be just enough to remove the mental obstacles to actually getting started.

4. Commit To Just Two Minutes

Procrastination isn’t always about an unwillingness to get something over and done with. Sometime's it’s just about avoiding that initial push. You can jumpstart your engine with the "two-minute rule," which helps you break your most daunting undertakings into tiny bites: Identify the piece of your task that will only take two minutes to complete, then do it right away. Next, identify the next two-minute task, and so on. If you have a big assignment pending, just tell yourself to work on it for two minutes. You may be surprised to find yourself still plugging away after an hour. The key here is just getting going.

5. Punish Yourself

There's a learning behavior long known to psychologists as "operant conditioning." Every time you resist procrastinating part of your work, give yourself a small reward. But for every time you fail, punish yourself by taking something away, like trimming time off of your next break.

Studies show that in certain cases, negative stimuli are more powerful and effective than positive ones. By pulling the two levers of positive and negative reinforcement, you may be able to tap into your brain's reward system. If you're only giving yourself positive incentives, then failure to perform a certain action merely means not getting the reward. But what a punishment does is introduce a consequence. (Just remember to go easy on yourself.)

6. Embrace Imperfection

It sounds perfectly reasonable to want to wait for the right time to do the right things and do them well. We tell ourselves that we aren't putting things off, we’re just biding our time.

Researchers have learned, though, that procrastination is partly driven by a fear of evaluation and failure. The reality is that no one is perfect, and expecting your own performance to be is the surest way to avoid having to perform at all.

So forget about waiting for the perfect timing—there’s no better time than now.

7. Stop Trying To Figure Out Why You Procrastinate

Don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis. Chances are that on some level, reading this article on procrastination is itself a form of procrastination. The longer you try to get to the bottom of shaking the habit, the more your efforts remain in the realm of theory rather than practice.

There’s a reason why Nike hasn't changed its slogan for decades. There comes a time when you've just got to tell yourself, "Just Do It."

Janet Miller is a serial entrepreneur, reformed workaholic, and co-founder of Jen Reviews. She was previously a senior project manager at a Fortune 100 company.

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