How to stop procrastination

When you're up against it at work, here's six ways to break the deadlock and actually get something done

We’ve all been there. With a bulging to-do list and a tight timeframe at work, often the easiest thing to do is down tools and find something else – anything else – to do. This means any chance at productivity is quickly exchanged for alphabetising your bookcase, scrolling endlessly through social media or bingeing the latest Netflix series. To make it worse, all this procrastination is carried out with an increasing sense of underlying anxiety, as the clock ticks closer to crunch time. Sometimes it’s the small things that get put off – filing paperwork, say – and sometimes it’s the big things like changing your job. But the reasons for procrastination are much more complex than you might expect. 

‘Contrary to popular belief, procrastination is rarely down to being lazy,’ argues Abigail Ireland, a high performance and productivity consultant, who coaches people on how to function at their best in the office and in life. ‘The key challenges come down to lack of purpose or direction, fear of failure, or even success at times, or simply not knowing where to start. Sometimes, we are so anxious about starting or completing something, that we do the complete opposite, and hope that it will all go away.’

However, as much as we hate ourselves for it, there are some positives to procrastination, as Ireland explains. ‘Procrastination has its place and can be beneficial at times, for example for encouraging creative and divergent thinking.’ However, if it’s starting to affect your work and home life in a negative way, it’s crucial that you tackle it head on. ‘Taking action is the single most important thing that enables us to make progress, learn and achieve results,’ says Ireland. ‘If we are aware that procrastination is preventing or damaging our ability to succeed, we need to change this.’ Here’s her top six tips for how to stop procrastination.

1. Start small

‘As soon as you find yourself procrastinating, make a conscious effort to do just 10 – 15 minutes of focused activity – whether that means mapping something out, writing a task list or cracking on with a project you have on your to do list. Something is better than nothing, and small amounts of regular progress beat doing nothing at all. Get rid of that “all or nothing” mindset.’

2. Give yourself permission to procrastinate

‘If you’re procrastinating, don’t fight it as this may cause even more mental tension. Instead, give yourself permission to procrastinate for the next 10 minutes. Enjoy it, guilt-free, before getting on with your tasks.’

3. Planning is key

‘Often, we procrastinate because we don’t know where to start. It’s important to spend a sufficient amount of time planning and mapping out what we want to achieve. Once we have a clear path to follow, we can channel precious brain power towards getting things done rather than reactively trying to work out what comes next.’

4. Don’t hit snooze

‘Snoozing your alarm when it goes off is a sign that you’re procrastinating as soon as you open your eyes. For a more productive day and mindset, get out of bed as soon as your alarm sounds and start the day with intention.’

5. Break it down into easy steps

‘To avoid feeling overwhelmed, only think about the very next step you need to take. Rather than attempting to climb a mountain in one sitting, break it down and focus on one step at a time. Split up your work so that each step is achievable and within reach. If something seems too daunting, break it down into even smaller steps until you get to a point where you feel comfortable moving forward.’

6. Change it up

‘One of the easiest ways to avoid procrastination is to carve out dedicated time in your calendar to work on something and take yourself to a physical location where you can focus entirely on this task. For example, if working on a big assignment, carve out a decent amount of time to work on it. Then take your laptop to a local cafe or library, leave all other work at home or at the office, and get on with it. Reward yourself afterwards with something you enjoy – a nice lunch or energising gym class, say.’

Abigail Ireland is a productivity and high performance consultant for businesses, executives and individuals,