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A Guide to Preventing and Overcoming Procrastination: Part 2

This post is Part 2 of The Curiosity Concept’s procrastination mini-series. I highly recommend you read Part 1 first so that you can make the most effective use of the following points.

Now that we have a better understanding of what procrastination is, its causes and how it links with akrasia, let’s go through some methods of preventing and overcoming the failure in self-regulation.

How to prevent procrastination

You’ve probably come across the phrase “prevention is better than a cure” in other contexts and you might find it useful to also take this approach to procrastination. Preventing procrastination can be done by understanding yourself – knowing how you work – and then organising yourself accordingly. Here are some ways you can do this:

1.Track your energy levels: There’s no point telling yourself that you’ll start working at 7AM when you know you aren’t a functioning human being until midday. Attempting a task when your energy is at its lowest is likely to increase the task aversiveness, and we know from Part 1 that this a causal factor of procrastination. Take the time to understand your energy levels throughout the day so you can rest when you need to and work when you actually can.

2. Pre-set a stopping time: The Pomodoro technique is incredibly useful for this. If you’ve said that you will definitely give yourself a break after 30 mins, after a page or even after a paragraph, then you’ve given yourself an out ahead of time. 

In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport says,

“I am going to work on this for one hour” I would tell myself. “I don’t care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world” But of course I wouldn’t faint and eventually I would make progress.

The purpose of setting a stopping point is to encourage your concentration and focus during the time you have dedicated to working. As soon as you reach your pre-set stopping point/time, you can stop working, guilt-free.

3. Prepare your environment: In Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy gives some incredibly practical productivity advice, including the point of ‘setting the table’. This means priming the environment you want to work in by getting everything you will need ready before you. This creates what is often called the path of least resistance because it makes it easier, more natural or more intuitive to just get started. An example of this is tidying your workspace after a session and organising it so that when you come back to it the next time, you don’t have to begin by making a bunch of decisions, such as whether or not to clean your desk, what task to work on first or what materials you’ll need. Everything will already be set up for you to get straight into work. 

On the other hand, as James Clear explains, create a path of most resistance for activities that are distracting. Make it harder to give in to impulsiveness based on your environment. Clear your space of anything that could be distracting, or take it a step further and actually change the environment you work in. For instance, if you’re on campus, go to the library and leave your phone in your room. If you’re not, give it to another person to hold. You could also use website blockers such as StayFocusd to restrict your access to sites you know are detrimental to your productivity. 

Personally, when I’m writing, I use software that makes it impossible to leave the window before writing a set number of words, or I use The Most Dangerous Writing App:

This way, I literally can’t do anything other than write.

4. Decide and write down the specific thing(s) you want to achieve: the key is to create actionable objectives for yourself. You can use the SMART goals method, or you can take David Allen’s approach whereby you set outcomes and assign yourself actions to take to bring about those outcomes. Doing this can also help with task prioritisation. I find I procrastinate on tasks because I can’t decide where to start when I have a whole list of important things to do and I feel overwhelmed. To help, earlier this year, I created an Eisenhower Matrix template (free to download!) which sorts out tasks according to their urgency and importance. Using this template, I’ve found it helpful to break down large tasks into their smallest, most doable form and place these in the appropriate category. 

Preventing procrastination means being aware of your triggers, planning how you’ll prime yourself to be productive beforehand and how to mitigate distractions in the moment. As Piers Steel says in his 2007 study, “those who are organised tend not to procrastinate”.

How to overcome procrastination

When you have procrastinated repeatedly and consistently enough, it can actually become a habit. From Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habitand basically any relevant study into this aspect of cognitive psychology, it is clear that breaking a habit is difficult. It’s essentially an unproductive pattern of behaviour that has become so ingrained and programmed in your mind that it is an automatic response to a trigger/cue. But, you can start to reprogram your behaviour (to an extent) to change your habit by taking an intentional and systematic approach. 

Adopt the “if-then” strategy:

  • Notice what happens to cue your procrastination routine
  • Label and address the cue 
  • Change the routine. Solve the situation ahead of time by stating:

IF [trigger occurs] THEN I WILL [take this action instead of procrastination].

Here’s an example: you notice that every time a friend comes into your room your work-flow is disrupted or you stop working altogether. You label the situation like it is – your friends are a distraction. You decide that if a friend comes knocking at your door then you will kindly turn them away and instead of stopping work the moment you hear they’ve come for you, you tell them you’ll socialise after the time you have pre-set to stop. 

The point of the if-then strategy is that it gets you thinking about, and intentionally planning, your behaviour, realising that there is a difference between your cue and what your behaviour has to be in response to it. The cue can still occur but you can gradually change the pattern of self-regulatory failure. A notification might pop-up on your phone, but you will have already decided that if that happens then you will not look at it until your Pomodoro session is complete. And if your phone is already on the other side of the room, the effort it would take to get it creates some delay and resistance. 

Research has found that there is a gap between our intentions and our behaviour – the intention-behaviour gap. It’s the typical “I say I’ll do something, but then I don’t”. It is suggested that adopting implementation intention strategies, like if-then planning, can help to bridge this gap. In ‘Planning promotes goal striving‘, Peter Gollwitzer and Gabrielle Oettingen state that,

“Implementation intentions have been found to help people close the gap between setting goals and actually realizing these goals”

So, how can you overcome procrastination? Well, a new years’ resolution to “stop procrastinating” won’t be enough. What’s needed is a plan. Prepare in advance for situations you know that trigger a response of procrastination and determine now what action you will take to overcome the difficulty.

Here’s to 2019 being the last year procrastination has a featured spot on your resolutions list.


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