What would be possible if we didn’t get hung up by procrastination? How much more could we accomplish? How many more people could we impact? How much more of our potential would be released?
The answer in every case is…a whole lot.
So why do we get so stuck by it? Procrastination seems to be a powerful force, holding what can feel like an unbreakable grip on us.
Procrastination is the name we give for a damaging spiral of inaction and self-criticism that builds on itself over time. It shows up when we have a task to complete or goal to reach, yet we don’t seem able to take action towards it. One reason it’s so difficult to stop is that it feels increasingly challenging the longer we allow it to paralyze us. The more we stay stuck, the more we beat ourselves up about it, depleting our ability to draw on our own natural resourcefulness, energy and creativity.
Here are 11 strategies for busting out of a state of procrastination:
1. Clarify Whose Agenda is at Play: Is the desired task or goal in front of you something that you’ve personally embraced and owned? Or, has this task been “put upon” you by someone else? Another way to think about it is: Whose agenda is this serving? Is it truly your agenda, or someone else’s? If it didn’t come from within you, then you’ll have to figure out whether it’s something you can authentically own. Because if it’s not, then there’s a good chance you’ll keep delaying action around it. Too often in life, we try to fulfill someone else’s expectations or agenda for us (or more broadly, ones from our culture or world). And then we wonder why we can’t accomplish it!
2. Reconnect with the Why: Even if a goal is indeed grounded in an authentic personal desire, combatting procrastination might require a clarification of the deeper “why” or purpose behind it. You may have had a good sense at one point for the reasons behind your goal, but things inevitably morph or get cloudy as change happens in ourselves and in the situations around us. It can be helpful to get re-centered in the deeper rationale behind your tasks or goals. How are your goals linked to your values or greater calling? Why are they important? What will be the positive ripple effects of achieving a certain task or goal?
3. Remember the Bigger Picture: In addition to reconnecting with the why, it can be powerful to remind yourself of the role of your current task plays in stepping you towards a greater vision for the future. How is a current goal a key prerequisite? Why is it important for the next steps you need to take? Imagine yourself being able to bring that future vision to fruition – how will it feel to be there? What will it bring to your life, and to how you can impact others? And if that future vision doesn’t get you all fired up, that might be part of your problem.
4. Pinpoint the Fear: More often than not, there’s some sort of fear or self-doubt that accompanies procrastination. We freeze because there’s a voice telling us that taking that next step will subject us to possible vulnerability, rejection and failure. If you can pinpoint the specific fear narrative that’s going through your head, it will help you take a harder look at what it’s saying. Then, you can decide what might be valid about it, or what might be bogus. Learn from the valid, and ignore the bogus. Easier said than done, I know. Clarifying fears also helps you reflect back to the “why.” In other words, if the purpose behind your task or goal is important enough, then how could you let it get hijacked by fear?
5. Take One Next Step: Other than fear, another close friend of procrastination is overwhelm. It’s that feeling of stress you get when, all at once, you think about the many steps you have to take. One of the most practical remedies for procrastination is to commit to taking a single next step. Break the cycle by forcing yourself to choose just one next action, and doing it with laser focus and determination. Release the worry about whether it’s the “right” first step, and just do something. This will naturally generate some initial momentum, which will help fuel additional action. Repeat this practice and you’ll be on your way.
6. Prioritize: If it helps you to choose which actions to take first, you can attempt to rank your next steps based on priority. The trick about prioritizing is that there are multiple ways you could go about it. However, I think the most useful ways to establish priority are based on the following dimensions: a) Which actions are deadline-bound and have to be done first regardless?, b) Which actions are connected to important decisions that need to be made?, c) Which actions will have most impact if done earlier in the process?, and d) Which actions can you discard that have minimal impact on your goals?
7. Set Intermediate Goals: Sometimes we procrastinate because the task on which we’re focused is still too big or amorphous. You may need to drill down a couple of steps further in order to create a more specific and/or attainable goal. Or, it might help you to create a series of smaller intermediate goals that feel more achievable in the short term. You can think of this as a roadmap of milestones or deadlines. This will give you a bite-sized way to get into action, experience some quick wins, and become motivated by successes along the way towards achieving your greater goal.
8. Get Real on Time: It’s easy to procrastinate when you have a deadline that’s farther into the future. “Farther into the future” is a bit relative, though. Sometimes we tell ourselves that something is farther off in order to not have to deal with it now. When, in reality, it may not be. Whether your perception of the time you have is distorted or accurate, procrastination sets in when you don’t yet feel forced to complete a task. One strategy for combatting this is to intentionally think ahead. Bring your attention to the time that you realistically have to complete a task, especially in consideration of the other activities and demands that take up space in your life. This might help create more urgency for getting into action in the present.
9. Experiment with Different Ways of Working: Another way to bust procrastination loose is to experiment with different ways of working. You’ll likely not find your way out of stuckness without shaking something up. This could entail changing the setting in which you typically do work or accomplish tasks. Go outside. Stand up instead of sitting down. Work with others instead of individually. You could also experiment with different ways of organizing the work. Throw away the never-ending daily to-do list and focus on only one to three tasks each day. Or, move your to-do list from the computer to a sheet of paper. You might also try-out various ways of using your time. Work for 50 minutes and take a 10-minute break. Or, work for three hours without a break. Which worked better? This type of experimentation and creativity in approach can shift you out of paralysis into an energetic and dynamic process.
10. Create Accountability: Since deadlines can often feel far off, it helps to create other types of accountability that stimulate action. This can include the practice of voicing your tasks or goals to a friend or colleague who can help hold you to them. You can also start a weekly or bi-weekly practice of self-reflection, to stop and examine your progress against goals, and determine what other support you need. Another strategy involves getting your goals (and even your greater “why” statements) more visible so that they stay on your radar. This might include posting them on a bulletin board, computer desktop or mobile device.
11. Push Through Failure: Procrastination can hit after you’ve recently experienced failure. The risk-averse part of you is telling you not to take the next steps or additional action in order to keep you “safe.” In this case, it can help to shift your perspective and choose a different story. One alternate perspective might be that failure is a natural and important part of the process of learning, growing and succeeding. Remind yourself of the great leaders throughout history who have pushed past extreme failure to accomplish amazing things. It’s a simple thing, but sometimes tapping into an inspiring quote about failure can help open up a different way of looking at it, and thus change your response.