We’ve all been there. Sometimes you find your to-do list so full of endless tasks that you can’t will yourself to do... anything. Or maybe you have a looming project (with an equally looming deadline) so big you have no idea where to start.
But putting things off isn’t just unproductive and anxiety-inducing—it can also make you look bad professionally. Procrastination definitely can play a role in limiting someone’s career, says Deb Wheatman, CPRW, CPCC, and president of Careers Done Write, Inc. It’s especially true if that means you don’t finish a task that’s crucial to the overall project being delivered on time.
Rather than risk your professional reputation (and dread your to-do list), take charge. Here are nine tips that will take you from procrastinator to productive in no time.
1. Find Out Where it Stems From
As with many habits, procrastination starts with psychology. Certified life coach Holly L. Kaiser, who specializes in wellness for creatives, says it’s important to ask yourself what exactly you enjoy about putting things off. (If there were no mental reward, you wouldn’t do it, right?)
“If you can discover what you enjoy about the procrastination habit—e.g., getting an adrenaline rush from completing the project at the last minute—you will be able to create a new pattern of thinking to get rid of the unhealthy pattern that is allowing the procrastination to occur,” she explains.
Another common cause to consider is a broken chain in your workflow. “Ask yourself: ‘What do I keep doing that constantly brings me back to this place of putting things off to the last minute?’ The answer may surprise you,” Kaiser says. You may also procrastinate because you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel—as in, there’s a lack of reward. “Ask yourself, ‘What would happen if I finished this project on time?’ If we can see the outcome or the reward, we will be more motivated to follow through with the work that needs to be done to complete the project,” she explains.
2. Restructure Your To-Do List
In some cases, you know exactly what you need to do, but you’re having trouble getting it done because you’re overwhelmed.
“Instead of creating one unending list, divide tasks into smaller chunks,” says Yvette Green, MA, a mediator who runs 3rd Party Solutions, which helps people overcome personal and professional relationship challenges. “Tasks can be divided into categories, spread out over several days, or organized by deadline.” This to-do list revision will keep you from getting stuck in what Green calls “analysis paralysis.”
3. Prep Ahead of Time
Set yourself up for success by being totally equipped to work before your scheduled time frame. That way, prepping doesn’t eat into the time you are supposed to be tackling the task at hand.
“For example, if you want to work on your endlessly-put-off novel in the morning, bring the document up on your computer the night before, put any important resources on the desk and set the coffee maker to brew 10 minutes before you’ll sit down,” says psychotherapist Tonya Lester, LCSW, who specializes in working with women dealing with anxiety and attention deficit disorder. “This head start is invaluable to really getting things done.”
4. Set a Timer
Once you know what you need to do and feel more confident about getting started, set a specific time to actually do it says Holly Parker, PhD, who studied experimental psychopathology at Harvard University. Make the deadline firm, she says.
“Literally block time for whatever it is you’ve been putting off. If you haven’t finished it in that time frame—for example, three hours of work on a major project—schedule another three hour block.”
If all else fails, literally set a timer. Having the clock run as you embark on a task creates an artificial deadline to help push you along. Career coach Nadine de Zoeten suggests setting the timer on your phone or using a program like TickTockTimer to keep you motivated.
Another tactic for scheduling time according to certified life coach Belinda Smith, who runs her own coaching practice called Unhooked Life, is to schedule the task for first thing in the morning, which is when you have the best chance for productivity.
(Food for thought: Morning people, according to research published by the American Psychological Association in 2012, are not only more productive, they’re also happier and healthier.)
5. Create Rituals
If you have a large-scale project with many moving parts—or you’d like to start a project you’ve really been putting off—start by working on it a little bit at a time to create a daily habit.
“The most effective way to get yourself started on a heavily procrastinated task is to ritualize it in some way, and to ease yourself into it,” says Ben G. Adams, clinical psychologist, PTSD researcher, and author of The Creative Process Diet. For example, plan to work on it for just 15 minutes tomorrow and then gradually increase the time the following day, Adams adds.
To really make this exercise powerful, create a simple log where you document the amount of time you spend on the task each day. Before you know it, those 15 minutes will turn into 30, 60, and then, voilà, a finished project.
6. Minimize Interruptions
For most of us procrastinators, we’ll take whatever distraction we can find as an excuse to do something—anything—other than what we’re supposed to be doing. Which is why it’s essential to curb those diversions as much as possible. “It has been estimated that each interruption wastes between 10 to 15 minutes, including time to re-engage in the task we were doing before we were interrupted,” says business consultant Anne Grady, author of 52 Strategies for Life, Love and Work.
“Drifting thoughts, multitasking, constantly checking email and texts, and staying glued to social media are your biggest time wasters.”
This means you may want to turn off your new mail alert, maybe even your smartphone, and close browser tabs until you’re done with your task. If needed, block off time in your shared calendar with colleagues so they know not to pop by while you’re in work mode, Grady adds. This way, you’ll be able to stay completely focused.
7. Visualize Completing the Task at Hand
Another strategy for getting started is completely cerebral. Rather than visualizing what you need to do, proofreading a dauntingly long document, for example, imagine what life would look like if it was already done, suggests certified hypnotherapist and master NLP coach Holly Stokes, author of A Lighter You! Train Your Brain to Slim Your Body.
“By imagining it done, you get [to feel] relief rather than the feeling of the problem,” Stokes explains. “It also cues your brain to mentally organizing the steps to getting it done which gets you out of overwhelm mode. And it cues your unconscious mind to make it happen.” Sounds a whole lot better than stressing out.
8. Enlist an Accountability Buddy
Let a spouse, friend, or colleague help you stay on track, suggests de Zoeten.
“Tell somebody what you plan to do and ask him or her to check in after a while,” she says. “Stating your to-dos will ‘force’ you to get them done.” Being accountable to someone else, other than your boss if you’re procrastinating on a job-related project, can be extremely motivating, much like having a gym buddy can keep your fitness goals on track.
9. Plan Your Reward
Ah, yes, the sweet promise of reward. To further motivate you, dangle that proverbial carrot to encourage you to finish up a given task, or parts of a task, Clark advises.
“For instance, you can have a bowl of ice cream when it’s done,” he says. “Or, commit to buy yourself that tech gadget you’ve been wanting when you’ve finished that bigger goal.” Hey, if bribing yourself gets the job done, it’s worth it.