Procrastination is a pervasive human problem.
The more people I’ve talked to, the more I’ve realized that nearly every person struggles with it in certain areas or time periods of their life. There are very few exceptions.
For me, it’s been a problem that I’ve struggled with since high school. Depending on how you look at it, I was either fortunate (or unfortunate) to be the kind of student that could wait until the very last minute to study for a test or write a paper and still do well. The thrill I experienced and the relative success that followed cemented a pattern of behavior that stuck with me for years.
Without the adrenaline rush of a tight deadline or a pressing challenge, I couldn’t find the motivation to start.
This approach worked for a while, but as my responsibilities increased, I could feel stress mounting in my life. I also had a growing sense that procrastination was robbing me of becoming the person I wanted to be.
I was still getting the job done, but I became increasingly worried about what would happen if I messed it all up—or worse, what people would think if they knew that behind the scenes I was such a procrastinator.
Procrastination and Stress
I discovered that as I matured, procrastination had transitioned from a questionable time management strategy to the primary source of stress in my life.
Research supports what I was feeling: Procrastination contributes to both perceived stress and measurable increases in biomarkers that are prevalent under conditions of stress.
This happens for two powerful reasons:
Procrastination reduces your sense of personal autonomy. When you procrastinate, you’re delaying the start of something you know you should be doing. By definition, you’re fighting against yourself and losing the battle.
Do this enough times and slowly you begin to lose trust in yourself. Instead of having a strong, internal locus of control, you begin to feel that you are at the mercy of your emotions and impulses. Not feeling in control of a situation is a recipe for internal stress.
Procrastination pulls you away from the present moment. Being able to stay present in the moment you’re in and savor what you’re currently doing are two habits that are strongly correlated with positive day-to-day emotions.
Procrastination undermines these abilities by causing you to feel guilty when you aren’t working and then regretful when you finally do get started. This combination leaves you susceptible to stress.
Stress Consumes Our Health
There was a time in college when I was studying abroad, that I attempted to (and succeeded in) doing the vast majority of a semester’s assignments in a single week. It was hard, exhausting, and stressful work.
It was no surprise when I came down with a nasty head cold at the end of the week.
We’ve all been there, right? After a stressful period at work or a string of bad sleep, your immune system is suppressed and you become ill. But have you ever stopped to consider the implications? If stress can cause that degree of harm that quickly, what’s the impact of a lifetime of stress on other long-term health outcomes?
Well, the results aren’t pretty. It turns out that long-term stress can indeed damage your health and influence the course of chronic disease. And the effect isn’t just a small one. One particular meta-analysis of 228 studies shows that having a high-stress job raises the odds of having a physician-diagnosed illness by 35 percent.
I’m used to seeing this strong of a correlation in health studies about diet, exercise, and smoking cessation—lifestyle factors that have incredibly high evidence to back them up—but I had no idea stress could potentially be in the same league.
Turning Procrastination Into Motivation
Realizing that my health was at stake turned out to be just the motivator I needed to get serious about my procrastination problem.
Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours learning about the causes and cures for procrastination—often doing so while avoiding other more urgent work. I have come to the conclusion that there are many techniques that work in the short-term, but most don’t lead to sustainable change.
The reason so many of them fail is that they treat procrastination as a time management or laziness problem. While it may have components of those, it is at its heart a problem of emotional regulation. You don’t want to do something when you don’t feel like doing it.
The solution is clear: You need to get your emotions working for you by making progress. It turns out that when you sense you’re making progress, no matter how small, you feel empowered and motivated to continue. Even a small bit of progress increases your sense of control and brings you back to the present moment.
This is exactly the opposite of what happens when you procrastinate.
This might sound like circular reasoning: How can the solution to procrastination be as simple as making progress?
But the part that isn’t intuitive is realizing that it really doesn’t matter how small your progress is at first. Nearly any amount will begin the positive feedback loop that you need.
A wonderful book on this subject is “The Progress Principle” by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. The book is focused on how to increase engagement at work, but the lessons apply to any area of life.
3 Steps to Progress
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this idea. It works. In fact, it’s the only thing that has ever moved the needle for me in a sustainable way.
The key is in the execution of the idea, not in being more complicated or sophisticated than other ideas you may have heard. I’ll leave you with three pieces of advice that I’ve walked away with after many personal experiments:
Start smaller than you think. When you are feeling behind the ball after a bout of procrastination, there’s a temptation to go big and change your life all at once. Remember, the motivation you feel in this moment won’t last. The key is to develop the muscle memory of action, not to make huge progress in one week.
Make it visual. Don’t rely on your memory to do the thing you’ve committed to. Create a big, visual chart to track your progress. Best of all, you’ll get a boost of motivation from checking your progress off each day and seeing how far you’ve come. These positive emotions are reinforcing the behavior you want to continue and counteracting the years of procrastination.
Don’t have a ‘zero’ day. One of the most dangerous patterns of thought I see in procrastinators is one I call “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” Maybe you had a bad morning, and now you feel thrown off course or discouraged, and you tell yourself that today is wasted and you’ll just get started tomorrow. Avoid this line of thinking at all costs! Make progress today—no matter how small.
Don’t allow a single day to pass with zero progress toward your goal, and by the end of a week or month, you will have a track record of progress you can feel proud of.