Procrastination means postponing things when we expect to be worse off for it. We know it would be better if we just started the report, studied for the test, sent the email, did the homework, or made the difficult phone call now. But we put them off in large part to avoid the negative emotions we’ll experience when we do them.

Here’s the funny thing. We know we should do the work when we had planned. We have to trick ourselves into thinking it would be better to do it later. So we tell ourselves lies:

I’ll feel more like doing this later.
I’ll be more excited about doing this if I watch another episode first.
I shouldn’t even have to do this in the first place, so I certainly shouldn’t have to do it now.
Doing this now will ruin my day, I should just do it later.
Other people put things off, why shouldn’t I?
Let’s just not think about this right now.

Sound familiar?

Planning vs procrastinating

There’s an important distinction between planning and procrastinating, just as there’s a distinction between being lazy and running on empty. It’s important to figure out which one you’re doing. You can certainly plan to do something later. Planning out when you will do different tasks to get projects done on time is key to managing your time well. It becomes procrastination when you put something off in a way that you know will make your life more difficult, painful, or worse later. Procrastinating could make your life worse because now you’ll be late on a deliverable, because you’ll have to give up other things you had planned to do, or because you’ll have to sacrifice sleep or other things you like.

How can you tell if you’re procrastinating?

Listen for the little voice that’s lying to you. If you’re planning then you’ll feel in control as you map out your tasks, your time, and how you plan to delegate your energy. If you’re procrastinating, you’ll hear a voice that isn’t your better judgment suggesting all sorts of reasons you should do the undesired task later. The voice will have all sorts of clever and creative ways to convince you to leave the job for another day. It’s originating from your own mind, after all, so it knows all your tricks, weaknesses, and temptations.

What to do if you find yourself procrastinating?

You don’t have to procrastinate. It’s a choice that becomes a habit. Here are three strategies to start to break out of the habit.

  1. Recall why you were going to do the task today. This was your allocated time for a reason, recall that reason. What will be worse about your life if you put this off?
  2. Refocus on who you want to be. Instead of trying to beat yourself up into doing something, remind yourself of who you want to be. Habits are built from the inside out. First decide what kind of person you want to be, then choose the actions that create that identity. For example, instead of forcing yourself to do the task, instead, recall that one of the characteristics that you value about yourself is that you are a person of discipline, a person of focus, a person who gets things done, or a person who does what they say they will. Then take the action that a person with your desired trait would do.
  3. Do the immediate next step. To get over the huge activation barrier, break it down into a manageable next step. That could be: turn on your computer, open the file, write three sentences of outline, open the book and read two sentences, do one practice test question, make one phone call, write two sentences of an email. Make it a laughably small immediate next step, one that you can’t possibly talk yourself out of. Once you’ve done it, pick another immediate next step. After time, you’ll gain momentum and find that you’re most of the way through the previously impossible task.

Amateurs wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work. – Stephen King, On Writing: A memoir of the craft