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Procrastination: How to Start Something You’ve Been Putting Off

We've all been there - the task that we know we need to do, but somehow we just can't seem to get ourselves to do it. We make excuses, we find distractions, and we convince ourselves that there's always tomorrow. But the truth is, procrastination is a common and often frustrating habit that affects many of us, and it's time to understand why we do it and how we can overcome it.

So we procrastinate, what’s the big deal?

It is not realistic, or fair to ourselves, to expect never to put something off. Life happens, things pop up. On occasion, it will be sensible to prioritize or re-plan tasks for another day. But if we find that we are consistently choosing to procrastinate, it can become a bit of a problem. We might notice that deadlines overrun, problems get bigger, or we lose track of what we are doing because we start 5 things at once. All to only to end up in knots, often resulting in feeling anxious or overwhelmed.  

For example, you’ve got a call you don’t want to make. You check your watch, but ah darn, you tell yourself there wouldn’t be enough time to make it now anyway. Straight away, instant relief floods through your body. The knot in your stomach fades away. The worry disappears. You feel lighter. You’ve been way too busy doing other things to get this task done, right? Well, you are wrong. If this sounds familiar, you can probably think of endless occasions when that has happened. When you do this, it’s not practical reasons (or external factors out of your control) that prevent you from getting the job done; it is you.

Procrastination on mental health: short term relief, but long term anxiety

The Behavioral Explanation  

As humans, we naturally tend to avoid tasks or situations that cause discomfort, worry, or boredom. This behavior stems from our desire for temporary relief and the elimination of unpleasant feelings. Avoidance is a form of 'negative reinforcement' where we learn to associate avoiding the situation with feeling better. This cycle becomes our default behavioral pattern.

So, the next time we’re in the same situation, we repeat what we’ve learned. We take the shortcut to get rid of that feeling and continue to reinforce this behavior. The unintended consequence, however, is that in the long term, we feel even more anxious and unable to relax because the task isn’t complete. Often we feel overwhelmed because it is still not done, and we are frustrated for having not succeeded.

The Biological Explanation

We are programmed to take the shortcut. When we are faced with unpleasant tasks, conflict occurs between two parts of the brain: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is responsible for processing emotions and is automatic. It seeks to find ways to make things feel better in the moment, finding the best or easiest route to experience nice emotions. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that takes into account our past experiences and our future predictions, therefore helping us to plan. This isn’t automatic, and we have to consciously engage with it. When we give in, or procrastinate, it’s the limbic system driving us to do so.

Whilst understanding what happens in our minds when we procrastinate can be helpful, that won’t break the habit itself. We need to outsmart it. We are the experts in our own experiences: we know as individuals what we do to procrastinate and when we are most likely to procrastinate. Therefore, we know what we should do differently to put an end to procrastination, we just need to work out how to do it.

Procrastination is a behavior just like any other, so we have the power to change it

In most situations, eventually there will be a natural end to the procrastination; a deadline of some kind. For example, your boss will give you a date to complete the assignment by, the person that you’ve been putting off having a difficult conversation with calls you or the exam comes around. This can come with stress, anxiety, sleep-less nights and a whole lot of negativity that could be saved next time.

If after reading this you’ve identified yourself as being in the procrastination club, but you’d rather not be, you might want to practice some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) based tips below to help break this habit.

10 tips to stop procrastinating today

1. Remove all distractions. We all know what they are. For many of us, doom-scrolling gets in the way of us cracking on with our ‘to-do’s’. Download Zario for free right now to use challenges and gamification to help reduce your screen time. The app is designed to help you to break your digital habits. Don’t let your phone feed your procrastination and win back time for other things!

2. ‘The 5-Minute Rule’. If you know you need to get something done but really don’t want to do it, give yourself permission not to complete it, but make yourself do it for 5 minutes, that is all and after that, you can stop. 5 minutes seems like nothing, and is so much better than zero. See what happens. Try it, what have you got to lose?!

3. Break the task down into small steps. We know that breaking tasks down makes them feel less overwhelming and more achievable. Approach them as if you were helping someone else do them. This reduces overwhelm and increases the chances of success. For example, for an important call, write down the phone number, find out the best time to call, schedule the call in your diary, and reschedule if you can’t get through.

4. Identify possible barriers and overcome them. Think of all the barriers that could get in the way of completing the task and make a plan to overcome them. For example, if you have been procrastinating and not going to the gym this week, what could you do? Could you pack your gym kit the night before and put it next to the door, ready to go? Could you book onto that class and set an alarm for your pre-planned transport? Could you make a plan to attend with a friend? You are the best person to identify these barriers.  

5. Schedule like your life depends on it! Literally diarize the task and be as specific as possible with the details (because we know this creates accountability and helps us get it done). Then follow your plan, not how you’re feeling. Often we can let the internal factors such as: I’m feeling too tired, too anxious, too overwhelmed, get in the way of our plans. Follow the external plan that you set for yourself.

6. Commit to someone else. Hold yourself accountable by sharing plans with someone who can check on your progress. Use the people around you to help you achieve your goals.

7. Pay attention to your feelings. Remind yourself of the satisfaction and sense of achievement you get when you complete something that you’ve been putting off. As a Therapist, a common reflection that I hear a lot is that completing a task is usually not as bad as the anticipation of it. Next time you complete a daunting task, write down a sentence or record a voice note to summarize what went well. Use this as your own support text time.

8. Reward yourself. Remember, we are trying to create new habits, and we learn through rewards. If we were teaching a child, we would give them encouragement, reinforcement and praise - as adults, we need just the same.

9. Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Treat yourself like you would  a friend that was trying to take on a new challenge. Show yourself the patience and compassion that you would for someone else.  

10. Start now. Finish reading this and turn your phone off. Stop scrolling. Do whatever you need to do to support yourself to get that task done. (You can do it!)

If you need some extra help in reducing distractions and limiting your screen time, so you can kick procrastination to the curb, give Zario a try! You can set up the Circuit Breaker to limit your most distracting apps, so you can get your tasks done, once and for all.

Written by Sophie Hobson, Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapist, for Zario.

Sophie Hobson is a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist who studied at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London. Sophie’s previous experience of delivering evidence-based CBT is in the National Health Service (NHS) as part of Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT,but she is now based in Zurich. Her passion lies in equipping people with the tools needed to break out of cycles of depression and anxiety, to not just feel better in the here and now, but to empower people to feel better for life.

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