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5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Beat Procrastination

A raft of psychological studies have looked into why we put things off and how to stop. Here are the top takeaways.
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Apparently, psychologists struggle with procrastination, too.

At least that's what one would conclude from a recent PsyBlog review of all the studies that have been done on putting things off and how to stop. With all this work on the subject, you would have to assume that psychologists must have personal as well as professional motivations to find a cure for procrastination. So what have the scientists come up with that business owners can put to use? They offer no shortage of tips.

1. Start Easy

Starting is hard, but if you can get over that hump you'll not only have some degree of momentum, but your brain is more likely to pester you to keep working on the task. Why? It's down to a psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect, which says that unfinished tasks are more likely to get stuck in your memory. (This is also why to-do list items continually pop up in your head until you write them down--a to-do list calms the Zeigarnik effect.)

2. Break It Down

Big tasks can be terrifying, so we put them off. By taking that huge job and breaking it down into its first few concrete tasks, you can reduce your fear and help yourself get started. So instead of thinking, I have to finish giant Project X, think, I have to email so-and-so to see if she can meet to discuss the design parameters next Tuesday. The former is scary. The latter is patently doable.

Want a handy trick on how to actually accomplish this in practice? Just pay attention to the verbs you use to describe your tasks. 

3. Be Nice to Yourself

You might assume that in order to beat procrastination you need to be strict with yourself, but that's not what science says. If you've already procrastinated, you're more likely to get started on time going forward if you show yourself some compassion for your previous slacking rather than beating yourself up about it.

4. Get a Good Why

No one would disagree with the common-sense truth that it's easier to get yourself to do something you value, but rarely do most of us connect that simple truism with our anti-procrastination efforts. If you're struggling to get something done, why not spend a few minutes thinking a little more deeply about exactly why you want to do it.

"You've got to dig a little deeper and find some personal meaning in that task," psychology professor Fuschia Sirois of Bishop's University in Canada has said of her research on the subject. "That's what our data is suggesting."

5. Be Mindful

Perfectionism and fear of failure are at the root of some procrastination. To beat this kind, science suggests you start by listening to your inner monologue and flagging any less than productive thinking. When you catch yourself saying things like This will be a catastrophe or I want this to be absolutely perfect!, PsyBlog suggests a deceptively simple-sounding intervention to begin taming your anxiety: "Try doubting your doubts. One easy way to do that is by shaking your head while thinking those negative thoughts. It may sound childish, but according to a study, it can help the chronically uncertain."

 

Last updated: Apr 3, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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