4 Simple Steps to Stop Procrastinating

On the list of inescapable things in life, procrastination is right up there with death and taxes. We all do it, at least sometimes.

But some people struggle with procrastination a lot more than others—often to the point where it’s significantly interfering with their life and happiness…

  • Maybe you’ve been promising yourself for years that you’d write a book or finish some other big creative project. But here you are, years later, and it’s still not done.
  • Or maybe you’re in the habit of putting off big assignments and tasks at work. And despite eventually getting them done at the last minute, your work is consistently worse than it could be and you’re constantly stressed out about it.
  • Or here’s a sneaky one… Maybe you procrastinate on difficult conversations like talking to your spouse or partner about how dissatisfied you are with some aspect of your marriage, asking your boss for a raise, or setting a firm boundary with an overbearing family member?

As a psychologist who has had a lot of conversations with people about serious procrastination, I can say pretty confidently that the core cause of chronic procrastination is not what people usually imagine…

  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Bad time management skills
  • Low self-discipline
  • Lack of willpower
  • Etc.

All these things play a role in the tendency to procrastinate, but at the root of each of them is one underlying deficit…

The core problem in procrastination is a failure to manage difficult emotions.

For example:

  • Trouble concentrating is usually a difficulty managing the excitement of a distracting object (physical or mental) or the fear of missing out on something more exciting.
  • Bad time management skills are usually a problem tolerating the disappointment of saying no to some things so you can say yes to what really matters.

Behind every struggle with procrastination is a difficult emotion handled poorly.

In the rest of this article, I’ll walk you through four simple steps that will help you procrastinate less by getting better at managing your emotions well.

1. Acknowledge the Emotions Behind Procrastination

Most people think of procrastination as this bad thing that happens to them.

But a better way to think about it is this:

Procrastination is a defense mechanism against feeling bad.

For example:

  • Suppose you sit down to write an email you’ve been avoiding for a while.
  • You open your email app, watch the cursor blink a few times, then quickly check your phone to see if you have any new notifications on instagram.
  • 15 minutes later, you realize you’ve been procrastinating on that difficult email again, feel ashamed about it, and then tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow “for sure.”

That’s how procrastination appears to work.

But here’s what’s going on behind the scenes…

  • You sit down to write an email you’ve been avoiding for a while (because you’re scared of how the person you’re sending it to might respond).
  • You open your email app, (imagine how upset the person’s going to get and start to feel even more anxious), watch the cursor blink a few times, (imagine how uncomfortable future interactions with this person are going to be after you send your strongly worded email and feel even more anxious), then quickly check your phone to see if you have any new notifications on Instagram (as a way to escape all that anxiety you’re feeling).
  • 15 minutes later, you realize you’ve been procrastinating on that difficult email again, feel ashamed about it, and then tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow “for sure” (because you’re just “too anxious” to do any real work right now).

Of course, the details of how this works will always look slightly different depending on your specific circumstances, but the general formula here is consistent across nearly all instances of procrastination:

Think about working → feel bad emotionally → procrastinate as a way to avoid having to feel bad

Once you learn to see this pattern, you won’t be able to unsee it. It’s EVERYWHERE!

And the implication is that solving the problem of procrastination has a lot less to do with willpower or yet another anti-distraction app, and instead, learning to acknowledge and manage your difficult emotions in a healthy way instead of using procrastination to avoid them.

And as usual, awareness is the first step…

To stop procrastinating so much, you have to manage your emotions better. But to manage your emotions better, you have to get better at noticing them in the first place.

So, the next time you find yourself procrastinating, ask yourself one simple question:

What emotions am I feeling right now?

Then briefly jot them down on a piece of paper.

This might seem simplistic at first blush. But if you’re a chronic procrastinator, you are by definition in the habit of avoiding your emotions, which means your emotional self-awareness in these circumstances is low.

Simply acknowledging and naming those emotions is the essential first step in being able to manage them effectively.

You will find peace not by trying to escape your problems, but by confronting them courageously. — J Donald Walters

2. Build a Tolerance Mindset

Once you get better at seeing the emotions behind your urge to procrastinate, the next step is to shift your mindset from one of coping and avoidance to tolerance and compassion.

Unfortunately, this is more challenging than it needs to be because of the way we are taught to think about emotions…

  • Most of us grow up learning that difficult emotions like fear or anger are bad—if for no other reason than everyone insists on calling them “negative” emotions.
  • And if these emotions are negative and bad, then it follows that we should either avoid them by distracting ourselves or try to lessen or eliminate them with various coping techniques.
  • Which is why so many people are in the habit of running away from their emotions—and while procrastination is one major form of emotional avoidance, there are plenty of others (stress eating, reassurance-seeking, intellectualizing, etc.)

Instead, we need to cultivate a healthier, more accepting mindset around difficult emotions—one that is tolerant of difficult emotions instead of avoidant and combative.

Because the more tolerant of your emotions you become, the more confident you will be doing difficult things despite feeling bad, rather than avoiding difficult things until you feel better (i.e. procrastinating).

The most effective way to get better at tolerating difficult emotions is to practice validating them.

Emotional validation means briefly reminding yourself that just because an emotion feels bad, that doesn’t mean it is bad.

For example:

  • If you feel anxious and afraid about bringing up a difficult conversation with your spouse, you might take a second and remind yourself “Hey, you know what, it makes sense that I would feel anxious about this because it’s a hard topic and traditionally he hasn’t responded well when I’ve brought it up.”
  • If you feel sad and disappointed when you imagine saying no to a bunch of new projects (so that you can finish the one you started), you could take a minute and remind yourself “It’s okay to feel disappointed in not getting to these things now. That’s understandable. Most people in my situation would probably feel something similar.”

If it helps, think about it like this:

Validation means responding to your own struggles like you would to a good friend who was struggling—with support and compassion.

You can learn more about emotional validation here.

We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves. — Dalai Lama XIV

3. Let Go of Negative Self-Talk

So far we’ve talked about how:

  • Procrastination is really a defense mechanism for avoiding painful emotions.
  • Which means the key to avoiding procrastination is to learn how to tolerate difficult emotions rather than running away from them..
  • And validation is one very good way to get better at that.

But dealing with difficult emotions once they arise is only half the battle…

Because no matter how good you are at managing difficult emotions, you’re still going to struggle with procrastination if your mind keeps generating a steady flow of them.

For example:

  • You decide today is the day you stop procrastinating on your dream of starting your own business.
  • So you sit down at your desk and start drawing up a business plan.
  • But almost as soon as you begin, you notice yourself feeling afraid and the urge to procrastinate and distract yourself grows.
  • But, having read this article and practiced the first two ideas, you acknowledge that you’re feeling afraid and validate that fear.
  • Surprisingly, you actually feel a little bit better and decide to keep working.
  • But two minutes later, you find yourself feeling anxious again and the urge to procrastinate pops up again.
  • So, once again, you acknowledge the emotion, validate it, and get back to work.
  • But then, two minutes later, it happens again… and again… and again!

What’s going on here?

Well, despite managing those difficult emotions well, you keep getting bombarded by more and more of them which makes it difficult to stay focused and keep working.

But why? If I successfully acknowledge and validate those emotions, shouldn’t that take care of them?

Not necessarily…

Remember, the goal behind acknowledging and validating your emotions isn’t to get rid of them. You will never be able to eliminate difficult emotions—especially if you’re working on something challenging and ambitious. Rather, the goal is to build skill and confidence in your ability to tolerate them, which means to keep working despite their presence.

That said, often people who struggle with procrastination end up experiencing way more difficult emotion that they need to for one pretty simple reason…

Negative self-talk

Negative self-talk is a type of thinking that takes the form of unhelpful or overly-negative inner speech and it’s the primary cause of difficult emotions like anxiety or shame.

For example:

  • If you constantly worry about people thinking badly of your or your work, you’re going to constantly feel anxious. Over and over and over again.
  • If you constantly ruminate on past failures and procrastinations, you’re going to constantly feel disappointed with yourself.
  • If you constantly compare your work to other people, you’re going to constantly feel inadequate or ashamed.

So, no matter how good you get at acknowledging and identifying your difficult emotions, if you’re in the habit of negative self-talk, you will be constantly flooding yourself with a stream of difficult emotion.

So, in addition to validating those emotions when they come up, you’ll have a much easier time staying focused and not procrastinating if you decrease the frequency of those emotions showing up in the first place by learning to let go of your negative self-talk.

Now, negative self-talk is a huge topic which we couldn’t hope to totally cover here. But for the purposes of procrastinating less, here’s the most important thing you need to know:

You can have a thought without thinking more about it.

For example:

  • When a worry pops into mind, you’re not obligated to keep worrying.
  • When a painful memory of a past failure pops into mind, you’re not obligated to keep stewing on it.
  • When an image of your peer doing this work 10x better than you pops into mind, you’re under no obligation to continue thinking about how bad your work is in comparison.

Put another way…

When your mind talks, you don’t have to talk back.

You can have a thought enter your mind and just leave it alone. Let it be there hanging out in your consciousness without getting into a conversation with it.

Of course, people are so used to thinking about all their thoughts, that this probably seems like a completely foreign concept. But regardless of how strange it appears, the ability to let go of negative self-talk is critical for managing your emotions well, and as a result, avoiding procrastination.

Mindfulness training is a powerful way to start getting better at letting go of negative self-talk.

It’s hard to grow beyond something if you won’t let go of it. — James Clear

4. Visualize Your Values

Once you get good at the three skills outlined above, that should be sufficient to break free from the procrastination trap and start following through on your goals and commitments more consistently.

But there’s one more step you can take that—even though it’s not necessary—will make it much easier to resist the temptation of procrastination…

Visualizing your values

Values are core principles or ideals that guide our behavior. For example: hard work might be a value for you or kindness or loyalty.

In difficult situations—like when you’re being tempted to procrastinate rather than stay focused—your values can help remind you of your goals and how you want to behave.

So, for example, your value of quality time might remind you how important it is to stay focused and finish up your work efficiently because you want to have time to spend with your kids after work.

But values do more than just guide our behavior…

Values are powerful because they motivate us to do the right thing over the easy thing.

For example

  • Suppose you told yourself you’d finish filing your quarterly taxes by the end of the day.
  • But it’s 4:30 and you still haven’t gotten to them yet. What’s more, you’re already rationalizing to yourself why they can wait another day and “it’s not that big a deal.”
  • You’re at a crossroads and you’re learning heavily toward walking down procrastination lane…
  • Until, you remind yourself of one of your core values: Presence. Specifically, you value being 100% present and attuned with your partner after work, since it’s really the only time you have together. However, it’s hard to be truly present when you’ve been procrastinating all day and are worrying about getting it done, whether you’ll procrastinate again tomorrow, what the consequences might be, etc.
  • So, you take a moment to visualize what it would be like to live out that value of presence… You imagine spending a wonderful evening with your spouse, fully engaged and present with them, laughing and enjoying making a meal together totally carefree. You imagine how good it feels to be in a situation like this—the lack of anxiety or guilt, the feeling of love and connection, the excitement of playfulness unencumbered by worry and rumination.
  • Now, having done that—having visualized your value of presence and everything that comes with it—you will find yourself far more motivated to finish your taxes so that you can reap the rewards later in the evening.
  • In other words, you’ve used your values to outcompete the pull of procrastination.

So, if you really want to get good at overcoming procrastination, commit to getting good at remembering, clarifying, and visualizing your values in the face of procrastination.

Because when you do, you’ll find a huge source of largely untapped motivation waiting for you.

This guide on values clarification is a good place to start.

You don’t need more discipline, you just need a better reason to be disciplined. — Jack Butcher

Learn More

If you’re interested in a more structured and in-depth solution to procrastination, I teach a course called Finding Focus that’s all about a values-based approach to overcoming procrastination and building sustained motivation.

All You Need to Know

At its core, procrastination is an emotion management problem. Here are four simple steps to help you procrastinate less by managing your emotions more skillfully:

  1. Acknowledge the emotions behind procrastination
  2. Practice validating your difficult emotions
  3. Let go of negative self-talk
  4. Visualize your values

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