3 Tricks to Outsmart Procrastination and Stay Focused

If you struggle with chronic procrastination, the long-term solution likely involves understanding the core psychology behind procrastination, including which of the 4 causes of procrastination applies most to you and your situation.

But if you aren’t quite ready for that kind of a major undertaking, here are a handful of quick tricks you can use to outwit your procrastination and stay focused.

1. Use the 2-minute drill

It’s a cliche that the hardest part of doing difficult work is just getting started. But a surprising amount of the time, that cliche is actually true.

Our resistance to doing work is very often all on the “front-end,” meaning that if you can even get started doing just a little bit of work, the resistance will fade and your momentum will keep you focused and moving forward.

One effective little trick to get yourself over the initial hump of procrastination is what I call the 2-Minute Drill.

Here’s how it goes…

When you feel first notice the urge to procrastinate, pause, take a breath, and then repeat this to yourself:

I really don’t feel like doing X, but I’m pretty sure I can do just 2 minutes of X. If after two minutes I’m miserable, I give myself permission to work on something else instead.

The first trick here is that you’re validating your urge to procrastinate, which actually has the effect of lessening its intensity.

You’re also boosting your self-efficacy by making the task smaller. Instead of “I need to write the report” (which is big and daunting) your task is “I need to write for 2 minutes” (which is far less intimidating).

Once you’ve given yourself that little pep talk, set a timer on your phone and dive in, confident that if your resistance is still terrible after two minutes you can switch to something else.

2. Procrastinate compassionately

There are two types of procrastination:

  1. Little procrastination. You know you need to finish working on your presentation but you hop on Instagram and browse photos for 5-10 minutes and then you get started. You are procrastinating but the consequences are pretty minor.
  2. Big-time procrastination. You know you need to finish working on your presentation but you decide to meet up with a buddy for coffee instead. By the time you get back to the office, you only have 30 minutes to finish it, you rush it, and the end result is a very sub-par presentation.

Obviously, big-time procrastination is the one that’s really a problem. But here’s what most people don’t realize:

If you’re too hard on yourself about little procrastination you make it more likely that you’ll fall into big-time procrastination.

The reason for this comes down to negative self-talk: When you start criticizing yourself and getting judgmental about feeling small urges to procrastinate, you add shame and frustration on top of your initial urge to procrastinate. Now you really feel bad and the pressure to procrastinate in a big way grows.

On the other hand, if you can be gentle and compassionate about your initial urge to procrastinate—and even indulge it briefly—you won’t add all that shame and guilt onto yourself, which means you’ll be less likely to procrastinate in a major way.

3. Switch your environment

If you procrastinate often enough in a certain location, that location itself literally becomes a cue for procrastination.

Solution: Try doing work you typically procrastinate on in a dramatically different location.

For example:

  • If you tend to procrastinate on sending a weekly report email to your manager, grab your laptop, walk across the street to the park, and draft the email from a park bench.
  • Do you tend to procrastinate on paying your bills? Instead of paying them from your home office, take your tablet to the coffee shop and pay them there.
  • Maybe you frequently procrastinate going to the grocery store… Try shopping at Albertsons instead of Safeway for a month.

What if the things I procrastinate on are location-specific?

Good question! If you can’t change the physical environment, try changing another environmental variable like time of day.

Let’s say you procrastinate on pulling weeds in your garden. If you normally pull weeds on Saturday mornings, try scheduling your weed pulling for Thursday evenings.

Learn More

These are meant to be quick tricks you can use in a pinch when you find yourself struggling with procrastination.

But if you struggle with chronic procrastination, it’s worth the time and effort to really dig in and understand the mechanics of how procrastination actually works.

Here are a couple resources to get you started:

The other point I’d like to make here at the end is that serious issues with procrastination are almost always about values. Specifically, we (very understandably) tend to procrastinate on tasks and activities that don’t align with what really matters to us.

So while it’s tempting to approach procrastination from the inside out (How can I get myself to do the work?) it’s worth asking a much scarier but often more important question:

Maybe I need to deeply rethink the kind of work I’m doing?

I say this is a scarier question because it often requires questioning major life choices and direction like the kind of profession you’re in.

If this resonates at all with you, I’d recommend taking some time to explore and reflect on your personal values and then ask yourself how well they do or do not align with the kind of work you consistently procrastinate on.


Add Yours

One of the best solutions to procrastination that I know is the ‘I’ll just get the file out’ technique suggested by Mark Forster. It has a lot of psychological insight and has always worked for me.

My little procrastination method:
1) Get out everything I need to do the project at hand.
2) Go for coffee.
3) Work on the project.
Somehow, getting out what I need for a project, then a break, works well to prep my brain for the task at hand.

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