Overcoming Procrastination: Reclaim Control of Your Time

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Procrastination" by Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do we put off things that matter to us the most? More importantly, how can you stop procrastinating once and for all?

Overcoming procrastination is not an easy feat, especially if you procrastinate for reasons that are beyond your control. However, you can put an end to procrastination if you first accept some realities as being beyond your control and then focus instead on controlling what you can: your behavior. 

Let’s also explore how you can work within the constraints of realities beyond your control by practicing healthy behaviors that replace procrastination.

Reality 1: You Can’t Choose Your Emotions—But You Can Regulate Them

First, the authors argue that the first step to overcoming procrastination is to learn how to regulate difficult emotions that arise when you’re faced with a task. We’ll begin this section by exploring some of the brain science behind emotional regulation. Then, we’ll share two behaviors that support emotional regulation and reduce your dependence on procrastination.

The Brain Science Behind Emotional Regulation

According to Burka and Yuen, emotional regulation helps you calm your fears rather than exaggerate them. Your amygdala—the part of your brain that processes threats—produces fear when you encounter a task that consciously or unconsciously reminds you of negative, past experiences (such as family trauma or cultural marginalization). The amygdala sometimes exaggerates how threatening tasks are, pushing you to procrastinate. However, your frontal cortex—the part of your brain that thinks consciously—has the capacity to quiet these fears so they don’t take over and lead to procrastination. In this section, we’ll explore two behaviors you can engage in to consciously calm your fears and seek out positive emotions.

Behavior 1: Practicing Mindfulness

Burka and Yuen argue that mindfulness provides you with time and space to regulate your emotions rather than letting them regulate you. Mindfulness is a millennia-old technique that emphasizes acceptance and focuses your awareness on the present. When you practice mindfulness, you observe your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, accepting them rather than critiquing yourself for feeling the way you do. 

The authors claim that mindfulness helps reduce the feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress that compel you to seek relief in procrastination. When a procrastinator typically anticipates a daunting task, their mind fills with fear (such as fear that the task will be too hard) followed by judgmental thoughts about those fears (such as “Everything is so hard for me…I must be a loser”). To practice mindfulness, instead try to notice your thoughts and emotions without judging them. Nonjudgmental noticing is a calmer state of mind than the judgmental spiral of anxiety. You’re more likely to tackle rather than avoid tasks when your mind is calm.

Many practice mindfulness through meditation, but you can also practice it at any point throughout the day when you feel fear, dread, and anxiety in anticipation of a task. When you notice these feelings arising, pause for several seconds. Observe your emotions, thoughts, and sensations. Any time you catch yourself slipping into judgment, bring yourself back to the present moment by paying attention to your body (such as your breath or heartbeat). Pausing and reconnecting to the current sensations in your body halts the neural processes that amplify your fears. Lower levels of fear are easier to regulate and less likely to cause procrastination.

Behavior 2: Exercise

Second, the authors argue that exercise gives you the energy to persist through your fear and seek out positive emotions. Let’s examine three benefits of exercise.

First, exercise boosts your mood. It releases endorphins, groups of hormones that generate positive feelings and leave you feeling optimistic that you’ll succeed on upcoming tasks. Second, exercise promotes clear thinking. Physical activity increases blood flow to your brain, helping you think more quickly and make new connections. This increases your capacity for persisting through challenging tasks.

Third, exercise enables you to beat procrastination because it helps you set realistic expectations. Physical activity releases a protein that supports the formation of new neurons in your brain’s memory center (the hippocampus). A well-developed hippocampus helps you compare a present task to similar, past situations, enabling you to set realistic expectations for both your performance and its consequences. For example, imagine your fear of imperfection is causing you to procrastinate on writing a speech. Your hippocampus enables you to remember you’ve given satisfactory speeches before. Remembering this, you reassure yourself that this speech will be fine, too. 

Burka and Yuen provide a strategy for making exercise part of your routine: Ensure the exercise itself is enjoyable and rewarding. Procrastinators often seek activities that are immediately rewarding. If completing exercise is the only aspect of it that’s rewarding, you’re likely to procrastinate on it. To make exercise more rewarding, consider setting up a recurring exercise time with a friend. The reward of connecting with your friend will make exercising more pleasurable as you do it, not just after it’s done.

Reality 2: You’re Imperfect—But You’re Capable of Growth

The second reality to accept is that you’re imperfect. According to Burka and Yuen, you can beat procrastination by shifting your efforts from achieving perfection to achieving growth. Growth is a more realistic goal than perfection. When you approach tasks with a focus on improvement, they appear less daunting and your need to procrastinate dissipates.

To demonstrate that it’s possible to shift to a focus on growth, the authors reference the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. She argues that you can transition from a “fixed mindset” in which you fear imperfection to a “growth mindset” in which you embrace failure. Let’s compare these two mindsets:

  • People with a fixed mindset (such as perfectionists) believe their abilities are innate and that completing a task is all about displaying those abilities. They possess unhealthy self-esteem, avoid challenges due to their fear of failure, and are more likely to chronically procrastinate. 
  • By contrast, people with a growth mindset believe they can improve their abilities and that completing a task is about learning (rather than simply performing). They have healthier self-esteem, seek out challenges, and are less likely to procrastinate.

Below, we’ll describe a behavior that will help you develop your growth mindset.

Behavior: Set Realistic, Multi-Step, Observable Goals

The authors argue that setting realistic, multi-step, observable goals helps you form a growth mindset and prevents you from procrastinating on tasks. Let’s break down how these three traits each promote a growth mindset.

First, make your goal realistic. In doing so, you’ll learn to judge your success on reasonable standards rather than the impossible standard of perfection. This makes it less likely you’ll procrastinate since the task will seem more achievable from the start. 

Second, make your goal multi-step: By breaking your goal into multiple steps, you increase the likelihood that you’ll make some progress even if you don’t achieve the entire goal. You’ll move away from a fixed mindset (which overvalues the final product) and move towards a growth mindset (which values evidence of improvement).

Third, make your goal observable: Ensuring each of your steps is observable makes it easy for you to notice and reward yourself for your progress. Rewards motivate procrastinators along the road to growth.

The authors recommend following these steps to set and complete a realistic, multi-step, observable goal:

1. Choose a Specific Task to Set a Goal. Focusing on a specific task ensures you set a realistic goal. For example, imagine you want to start a garden. The goal “I’ll start a garden” is too broad: It doesn’t specify what type of garden and how large the project will be. By contrast, this goal is more specific: “I’ll start a 10-by12-foot vegetable garden.”

2. Divide Your Goal Into Several Written Steps. This makes your goal less daunting and builds in checkpoints along the way for you to assess your performance and reward yourself for positive progress. Furthermore, ensure your first step is easy so you don’t avoid getting started. For instance, this is an easy first step: ordering a book on vegetable gardening.

3. Ensure Each Step Is Observable. An observable step is one that provides visible signs of progress. As you see your progress, you’ll grow more motivated. For instance, “I’ll grow two cherry tomato plants in cages” is a more observable step than “I’ll learn to grow tomatoes.”

4. Distinguish “Must-Do’s” From “May-Do’s.” Determine which steps are essential to completing your goal (must-do’s) and which ones you can do only if you have the extra time and energy (may-do’s). This step ensures you don’t procrastinate on your goal with less-essential, easier tasks. For instance, planting kale seeds could be a must-do; researching and planting three different varieties of kale seeds could be a may-do. 

5. Request Feedback. Ask a friend, family member, or colleague to provide feedback on your goal. By seeking this outside perspective, you make your goal public (which holds you more accountable). Other people can also help you spot any unrealistic expectations.

6. Practice Self-Compassion. If a step toward your goal is more challenging than you expected, don’t take it as a sign that you’re inadequate. Instead, take a short break to allow your fears to pass, and return to this step later.

7. Reward Yourself When You Complete Steps. Rewards release the chemical dopamine, which increases pleasure. Your brain associates this pleasure with the behavior that created it, strengthening the neural pathways linking your hard work to good feelings. This makes you more likely to rely on action rather than avoidance for future tasks. For example, you could take photos of each phase of your garden and then post them online to enjoy reading others’ reactions.

Reality 3: Time Is Finite—But You Can Learn to Make the Most of It

Lastly, Burka and Yuen claim that accepting the limitations of time empowers you to use it wisely and intentionally. As previously noted, some people procrastinate because they fear time’s passage and consequently live in denial of their limited time. Accepting time’s limitations, rather than resisting them, compels you to make the most of your time instead of procrastinating. In this section, we’ll share three behaviors that empower you to make the most of your time.

Behavior 1: Develop a Realistic Sense of Time

First, the authors argue that you can build your capacity to work within time’s constraints by developing a realistic sense of how time flows. One strategy for this is estimating tasks’ duration. Before you begin a task, predict how long it will take you. After you’re done, reflect on the difference between your prediction and reality. This exercise will develop your ability to set realistic expectations for how long a task will take, which will make tasks seem less daunting.

Behavior 2: Make the Most of Short Periods of Time

According to the authors, you can also work with time’s constraints by making the most of short bursts of time. Procrastinators often wait until they have large blocks of time to work on something. As they delay the task, their fears grow, making it likely they’ll continue avoiding it. 

Resist this tendency by making the most of brief periods of time (as short as one minute). For example, imagine you’ve been procrastinating on tidying your home. The next time you’re microwaving a meal, use those several minutes to tidy your kitchen. 

When you spend even just one minute on a task you’ve been delaying, the task seems more approachable. This is because the fear and dread you experience when anticipating a task is usually an exaggeration. Once you begin a task, you realize it’s less daunting than you originally envisioned, making you less likely to avoid it.

Behavior 3: Prioritize Life’s Most Fulfilling Tasks

Finally, the authors argue that prioritizing important tasks will reduce your procrastination and lead you toward a more fulfilling life. People tend to procrastinate by avoiding important tasks (such as getting enough sleep) and wasting time on less impactful tasks (such as mindlessly flipping through others’ profile pictures). By clarifying in advance what you believe to be important and unimportant, you’re more likely to catch yourself when you’re procrastinating with less important tasks. The authors provide guidance on which tasks to prioritize and avoid:

What to prioritize: Spend time on tasks that build social connections, offer opportunities for personal growth, and support your physical and mental health. These tasks build your self-esteem (which reduces your tendency to procrastinate) and give you the energy to tackle challenging tasks.

What to avoid: Avoid behaviors that are unhealthy (such as excessive partying), avoid people who harm your self-esteem, and cut back on behaviors that distract you and inundate you with information (such as watching too many videos on social media).

Overcoming Procrastination: Reclaim Control of Your Time

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Here's what you'll find in our full Procrastination summary:

  • How to identify the fears that lead you to procrastinate
  • How your biology, circumstances, and self-esteem affect your procrastination
  • How to better control how you manage your emotions and time

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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