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How to Overcome Procrastination and Unlock Your Potential

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You’ve got a mounting list of tasks you have to do by Friday, but for some reason you just can’t bring yourself to do them. You tell yourself you’ll do it later, there’s no rush, there are better things to do after all. Suddenly, you miss your deadline and ruin your weekend.

What happened? It’s probably procrastination, not laziness.

Procrastination is the act of putting something off until later and delaying it. You could do it now, but it’s pushed further and further back.

There are a lot of reasons why someone might procrastinate such as anxiety, depression, or having a mental disorder such as ADHD. These can all increase the likeliness of procrastination. 

Are laziness and procrastination the same thing?

They might appear similar at a glance, but procrastination and laziness are two different concepts. Procrastination is a choice. You’re choosing to delay an action or task even though you know you should be doing them. Laziness is an unwillingness to exert yourself or a lack of desire to achieve something.

Here’s an example of the difference between procrastination and laziness: Someone wakes up with a to-do list, including walking the dog. Instead, they stay in bed on their phone or do other tasks while the dog waits expectantly. They end up going to work and only at the end of the day do they make the time to walk the dog. This is procrastination.

A lazy person might wake up with no desire to do anything. They stay in bed just like the procrastinator but with a difference: when they eventually walk the dog, it might just be 5 minutes instead of 30. Or they throw a stick because they can’t make the effort to walk for 30 minutes.

5 Easy tips to overcome procrastination

  1. Remove distractions: Are you constantly checking your phone for updates when you’re trying to get something done? Put it in another room and don’t check it until you’ve worked for a set time, or finished the task. Remove the distraction from your workspace or move somewhere else.
  2. Starting is better than nothing: Create a list of the most important things you have to do. Start those first, so the rest of the day you’re left with tasks you enjoy doing.
  3. Take advantage of well-being apps: The Today Is The Day app is designed to help you overcome procrastination. It’s based on CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and teaches you your negative thought patterns that could be keeping you stuck in a loop of procrastination and negative self-talk. The app is full of journal exercise worksheets, healthy habit-building tips and CBT techniques you can apply to your daily life to stop procrastinating.
  4. Let go of perfectionism: Constantly telling yourself you ‘have to’, ‘must’, or ‘should’ do a certain task can build up more anxiety around the task. The language you use with yourself has a big impact on our mental health and behaviour. If you procrastinate, be kind to yourself and realise it’s OK if you stumble.
  5. Take advantage of temptation-bundling: James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, recommends the technique of temptation bundling. Essentially you create motivation to do a task you don’t enjoy by combining it with something you enjoy.  If you watch a lot of TV but want to exercise more, only watch TV while working out. If you want to eat better, only listen to your podcasts when cooking healthy food. You’ll quickly form new habits by applying techniques like temptation bundling.

How do you stop procrastinating when you’re a student?

Students are well known procrastinators. They could have more exciting things to do than study. They’re often away from home for the first time, or don’t have anyone telling them how to organise themselves.

It’s hard to see long-term value in the moment, so motivation is a key factor as to why they procrastinate. Here are some tips for students to overcome procrastination.

  • Reward yourself. Make deals with yourself: if you finish X task (the one you’re procrastinating on), reward yourself with X (something you’d rather be doing). The rewards could be spending time with friends, eating something sweet, having a break or doing a hobby.
  • Break the tasks down. Looking at a whole assignment and wondering where to start can be daunting. Breaking a large task into smaller steps makes it less overwhelming and easier to start. Try and complete the opening paragraph, or spread out the work over the days/weeks. Writing a 2000-page essay is manageable when you write 300 words a day over a week.
  • Set manageable goals. Don’t take on more than you can handle. When you’ve procrastinated and have to cram a study session you’ll be under a lot of stress. Putting some time aside every day just to start is a good beginning. Once you’ve set up and started writing, the chances are you’ll continue. So even one sentence a study session as a goal is good, as you’ll likely end up writing more. The first step is the hardest.
  • Join a study group. If you’re a social person, studying with your friends and peers makes the process more enjoyable. Sharing ideas and thoughts is encouraging and can break your procrastination habits, as study will become something fun.
  • Change your environment. Getting away from the distractions in your room and going to a designated space to work can change your thought processes. Studying in a quiet area without distractions or phone access instead of somewhere you’d normally watch films makes a big difference.

Tips for Procrastinators with ADHD

If you’re constantly struggling with starting a task, ADHD, depression or anxiety could be behind it. It’s important to be properly diagnosed by a professional if you think this could be you. Here are some tips that can help you overcome procrastination when you’re diagnosed with ADHD.

  • Set deadlines and stick to them: Having a deadline adds extra pressure to get something done. Aim towards them as having an open deadline can result in you pushing the task further and further back.
  • Don’t multitask: For his book Stolen Focus, author Johann Hari interviewed Prof Earl Miller, a neuroscientist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He found out that once you swap tasks something called theswitch-cost effect takes place. You might feel like you’re multitasking, but in reality, you’re losing up to 20% of your brain power while your brain refocuses.
  • Follow your natural productivity cycles: Organize yourself to work on the most important or most dreaded tasks at your most productive time. You might find you work better in the morning or at night, so frame your day around that extra productive period.

Final thoughts

When it comes to overcoming procrastination, you should approach it with self-compassion and small steps. From apps, to detailed daily planning, you can make small changes and habits that overtime will let you reach your full potential. Remember to break large tasks down into smaller chunks, especially if you’re suffering from ADHD or anxiety.

Jeffrey Grant, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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