Everyone knows the feeling of having a huge list of to-dos and looming deadlines, but being unable to get anything done because you find yourself wasting time on insignificant tasks or mindlessly scrolling through social media.
If this sounds like something that happens to you on a regular basis, you could probably do with a bit of help overcoming your procrastination tendencies. (Don’t worry, we all have them.)
Procrastination at work is one of the biggest killers of productivity, and it’s something that costs freelancers, businesses, and entrepreneurs huge chunks of their time and money every year. A 2008 study found that procrastination leads to a $650 billion loss in productivity and innovation each year, and email alone accounts for $70 billion of that.
Thankfully, even though procrastination is one of the biggest workplace epidemics we are suffering from, there are several actionable tips that you can implement right now to combat it. They don’t require a complete lifestyle or routine change to get going, and can help to dramatically transform your productivity for good.
But first, let’s have a quick look at the reasons why everyone is bitten by the procrastination bug so easily.
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Why do people procrastinate?
If there’s one thing that’s true about procrastinating, it’s that nobody wants to do it. You’ll very rarely find anyone who is procrastinating voluntarily. In most cases, they don’t notice that they’ve lost their focus at work until they’ve been doing something else for a while.
According to this NY Times article, people procrastinate to temporarily avoid the negative emotions associated with work — the anxiety that comes with knowing the effort required for a big task ahead, or the fear of being unable to beat an upcoming, crucial deadline.
Effects of procrastination
The worst part about procrastination is that while it gives the temporary satisfaction of escaping these negative emotions, it only takes a few moments before guilt kicks in. So instead of working because you actually want to work, you’ll be working because you feel badly about not working. It’s a vicious cycle that you don’t want to get caught in.
Next, guilt causes you to drain your energy too quickly, which leads to more procrastination. Before you know it, you’re too tired before you’ve accomplished anything significant. “I’ll do this tomorrow,” you’ll say, as if you had already prepared for your defeat.
Procrastination isn’t something that affects your mind in a single day. Unlike fatigue, it isn’t cured by sleep. It continually damages you over the course of time, unless you make an active effort to put an end to it.
So, how do you save yourself from this seemingly never-ending vicious cycle? How do you not procrastinate?
Check out these 6 techniques that can help you put a halt to your procrastination habits at work right now.
Tip 1: Break up your workload
Studies have shown that people procrastinate when they fear that the work they have to do is just too big to handle. There’s nothing worse than staring at a to-do list and thinking “I don’t know where to start.”
When that happens, all of the other unimportant tasks that you have lined up for later start to take priority, and the work you should be doing takes a back seat.
To stop this from happening, break down your work into smaller, more manageable segments. This means taking big projects (like a website redesign, or a series of articles) and dividing them into smaller chunks of key tasks.
For example, if one of your items on your to-do list is to redesign a client’s website, break it down into smaller chunks, and make a list of things to do: create a new site structure, design the nav bar, brainstorm a way to incorporate animations. Then, when you have separated out each individual task, start by completing 1% of the very first task, and move on from there.
Actually starting the work, even if it’s only completing 1%, can be counted as making progress. This progress will then motivate you to march through your to-do list and prevent you from procrastinating.
Tip 2: Track the time you work
Procrastination is a dangerous thing because quite often we don’t even realize that it’s happening. Think about all the times each day that you use your phone for things that aren’t related to work or start chatting with a coworker.
Even though each of these little things might seem insignificant, they are all forms of procrastination that are deadly to productivity. Procrastination isn’t just watching 15 YouTube videos in a row, it’s every minute you spend away from your work that can’t be properly justified.
One of the most productivity hacks you can do is to start using a time tracking solution to help you gain a better understanding of where you spend your time each day.
Downloading a time tracking app like Hubstaff, which has advanced application and URL tracking, can help you identify which sites and apps suck up your time each day and prevent you from getting things done.
Hubstaff does this by generating handy reports that show your activity levels, and your web and app usage. Both of these metrics can be really useful for telling you exactly where you are wasting your time, and can help you nip your procrastination problem in the bud.
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Tip 3: Stop multitasking
Multitasking isn’t only one of the biggest causes of procrastination, but also something that is hugely damaging for your mind and your creative output. According to this Business News Daily article, multitasking leads to a noticeable decrease in a person’s IQ, which then leads to poor work output and subpar performance.
Multitasking makes it really easy for you to get distracted and start to procrastinate your time away. We’ve all been there when we’re working on a few things at once, and we find ourselves drifting off until we’re no longer doing work at all.
To manage this, discipline yourself to focus on only one task at a time. Turn your phone off, make your apps fullscreen, mute notifications on your computer, and log out of your social accounts.
Limiting the number of potential distractions you have around you, by turning off your distracting devices or moving away from co-workers, is an easy way to set yourself up for productivity and success.
Tip 4: Set deadlines and incentivize yourself with penalties
For many of us, procrastination starts because of a lack of structure or incentive. Without deadlines or incentives, we find that the motivation to start and complete work just drifts away. This means that even though we know we should do some work, we start putting things off until ‘tomorrow’, or ‘when we’re not tired’. Sound familiar?
What you can do is set yourself strict, manageable deadlines that are before the actual due dates. Deadlines can be great incentives in their own right because missing each one is a small failure and hardly anyone likes the idea of failure.
But if you find that deadlines alone aren’t enough of an incentive to get you to work, start to implement penalties that come into force when you miss your deadlines or when you aren’t productive.
These penalties can be anything from not allowing yourself a slice of chocolate in the evening, to small financial penalties that hurt your wallet rather than your stomach.
A great service to help you avoid penalties — and actually get stuff done — is stickK, a web app that fines you a small amount of money when you don’t stick to your goals. This means that whenever you don’t sit down to complete that website redesign for your client, or write those articles on your to-do list, you will actually get charged for failing.
Many people find that once their procrastination starts to hurt their wallet, they start to take notice.
Tip 5: Get a work buddy
Sometimes, the temptation to procrastinate is just too strong when you don’t have someone else providing a little dose of peer-pressure to help you get stuff done. Remote workers are affected by this more than people in the office.
To get around this, find yourself a work buddy who is willing to work with you each day so you can help each other to get stuff done. Work buddies can help and motivate each other to be productive, and even to get through tough and challenging workloads.
The benefit of having someone with you each day, who is willing to help you stop procrastinating and get stuff done, is that the temptation to slip away from work to do something else is completely removed. Having someone sitting opposite you provides a good dose of social stigma that can help stop any potential procrastinator.
An alternative to this is finding a productive environment to work in. If you find that working from home leads to distraction and procrastination, consider finding an alternative place to work that is close to your home.
Taking your productivity out of the home, and into a new environment, can help to transform your mindset and help put you in ‘work mode’. If you decide to do this, be sure to bring your work buddy along with you to give yourself an extra productivity boost.
Tip 6: Schedule your days
We all know what it’s like when a day lacks structure and foresight. You wake up, ask yourself, “what do I have to do today?”, and then find that you slip from hour to hour without actually getting anything done.
The best way to combat this is to meticulously plan out your day beforehand, so that as soon as you wake up, you know exactly what you have to do and can get started right away.
Before you go to bed, or when you finish work each day, make a list of the tasks you need to get done the next day, ranked in order of priority. Keep this list by wherever you work. Then, when it comes to sitting down at your desk and starting work, you already have a firm roadmap for what your day will look like, and your chances of drifting around aimlessly are dramatically reduced.
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When you’re planning your days, remember to schedule your work in set time increments, of 20, 40, 60, or even 90 minutes, and to include short breaks after each block of work. Evidence shows that taking regular breaks helps us to retain information, give us time to reevaluate our goals, and helps prevent us from getting bored.
If you find yourself getting into a state of flow, and overrunning your time blocks, that’s also okay, but remember to still take regular breaks so that your mind has the chance to pause and recover. Doing so will help you to be far more productive in the long run.
Have you found a solution to your procrastination problems?
Procrastinating is a tricky thing to stop, but once you build processes, incentives, and deadlines into your daily life, you can find that your motivation to work becomes greater than ever before. You’ll be getting a lot of work done in no time.
Finding out which solution works best for you can be a bit of trial and error. But if you try out each of the steps above, you’ll be sure to find one that works well for you.
Share your favorite tips for overcoming procrastination in the comments below.
This article was originally posted in July 2016. It was updated by the Hubstaff Blog Team in December 2019.