“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow,” Mark Twain once quipped.
If this is your mantra, you’ve got a problem with procrastination. Your to-do list is a mile long, but instead of tackling it, you’re probably browsing social media or sending a non-crucial email.
What gives? Why can’t you get on task—and stay there?
No more excuses! We’ve rounded up some expert techniques to help you get the job done.
#1 Give yourself a countdown.
Technique: The five-second rule
How it works: Motivational speaker Mel Robbins pushes people to adopt a five-second trick to help them go from thought to action. When you have an instinct—start working on that project, send that email—give yourself a mental countdown: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go. On “Go,” you should be taking the first step to start that task or project.
Why does it work? It’s grounded in neuroscience: If you don’t act on an instinct within five seconds, your brain will kill it, Robbins says. “The counting will focus you on the goal or commitment and distract you from the worries, thoughts and excuses in your mind,” she says.
#2 Take baby steps.
Technique: Just start
How it works: Break big tasks into bite-size pieces so you don’t feel overwhelmed, suggests Timothy Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. “Keep that action as low-threshold as possible,” he says. “It might be, ‘Open my laptop,’ or ‘Open a blank document.’”
By finding the smallest step possible to advance your position on the task, you take the focus off your emotional state and put it on action instead. “We know, from all sorts of research, that when we make progress on a goal, no matter how small, it fuels our well-being,” Pychyl says.
#3 Try a timer.
How it works: Overwhelmed by all you have to do? This technique helps by attacking your to-do list in chunks. First, write down all the tasks you’d like to get done. Then, choose the top-priority task and set a timer for 25 minutes, pledging to commit your attention to only that task until the timer dings. If something else pops onto your radar during that time, write it down and return to your task.
When your time is up, take a five-minute break to do other things. Then start another timer.
“The gesture of setting the timer is kind of a promise,” says Francesco Cirillo, who created the technique. Because you know you only have to work for 25 minutes at a time, the internal interruptions that might derail you—emails, texts, co-workers—can be set aside until your Pomodoro is over.
Fun fact: Pomodoro is the Italian word for “tomato”—named for those tomato-shaped timers.
#4 Do the most difficult thing first.
Technique: Eat that frog!
How it works: When you’re dreading a task, you might procrastinate by doing all the less-important things on your list first, pushing this task to the last minute. Instead of worrying about it all day, tackle the most important item on your to-do list first thing in the morning, suggests Brian Tracy, author of Eat That Frog!
This ensures you’ll get the essential tasks out of the way. The more you do this, the more you’ll be encouraged by your progress and the endorphins you feel as a result of accomplishment, he says.
Fun fact: This technique comes from another famous quote: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.”
#5 Zen out.
Technique: Daily meditation
How it works: Mindfulness lays the foundation to deal with the anxiety that fuels procrastination, without being overly critical of your flaws. Start with simple breath meditation for five to 10 minutes a day: Focus on your breath, and when your thoughts stray, move your attention back to your breath. Do this daily for best results.
“When you’re in your regular day and starting to freak out because you don’t feel like doing the task ahead of you, you’ve developed a skill over time to move your attention over to where you want it,” Pychyl says.
#6 Organize your thoughts.
Technique: Getting things done (GTD)
How it works: David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, created a five-step GTD methodology that’s all the rage: First, collect everything that has your attention and write it down in one go-to notebook. Second, decide what’s actionable and what action could be taken next. Third, organize those tasks into lists and create action reminders. Fourth, review your lists frequently to decide what to do next. Fifth, use your system to take action. GTD is about getting all the swirling to-dos out of your head and into a format that will allow you to move forward.
“You have to lower the barrier of entry into engaging in whatever that thing is,” Allen says. “What’s the very next visible action you need to take to move on this thing? Probably the most common reason people procrastinate is they haven’t decided what to do.”
#7 Consider professional help.
Technique: Cognitive behavioral therapy
How it works: Procrastination is a psychological problem, says Joseph R. Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of Still Procrastinating: The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a question of being lazy or having poor time management. “You can’t manage time—you can only manage your own behavior,” he says.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might be helpful for the chronic procrastinator. CBT changes the way you think and act, Ferrari says. A clinical psychologist should help challenge your irrational thoughts about the task and suggest different strategies to change your way of operating. It’s not for everyone, but if procrastination derails your career or you suffer from anxiety or self-esteem issues, you might be a good candidate for CBT.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Although experts differ on the causes, most agree that procrastination is not a simple time-management problem. Instead, procrastinators experience fearful emotions when they think of completing daunting tasks, and they tend to be more impulsive and have trouble monitoring their own behavior.
Chronic procrastinators often have brain differences from non-procrastinators, according to the Association for Psychological Science. Specifically, their amygdala, which helps process emotions, is larger, while connections to areas of the brain associated with action control are weaker. In other words, procrastinators tend to experience more anxiety about tasks and be more prone to putting them off.
“It’s an emotion-management problem,” says Timothy Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. “You think you’re going to feel better if you avoid the task. But you’re going to feel worse.”