How to stop procrastinating

Always putting tasks off until tomorrow? Here’s how to beat procrastination…

Who hasn’t put homework off for another day, guitar practice for another week, or tidying your room for (at least) another month? It’s rarely a disaster – there are occasions when there’s no option but to delay a task and sometimes it works just as well to do it later.

But there’s an old saying you might have heard: ‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today’ and (unfortunately) it does have quite a lot going for it. Why? Because endlessly putting off a task, or ‘procrastinating’, can increase stress levels and have an effect on your achievements.

Why do we procrastinate?

Be honest, not all tasks are created equal. Let’s say you’re given two instructions: ‘Tidy your room’ and ‘Here’s some money – order pizzas for you and your friends.’ We know which one we’d put to the side. But people procrastinate for many reasons. It could be:

  • there’s something about a task that is unappealing
  • it compares unfavourably to another activity you could be doing
  • your feelings around it are negative

So, you might put off studying for a science test because:

  • you don’t like the subject
  • you’d rather be with your friends at the park
  • your nerves about the test are so great that you don’t even want to think about it 

When is procrastination a problem?

Putting something off until later isn’t always an issue (some people even work better when they have a deadline looming). Postponing a task isn’t always procrastination, either – like when the dog needs a walk but it’s raining heavily so you wait until the weather clears up. By the same token, short-term procrastination of the ‘I just don’t feel like it’ type may not be a problem – who doesn’t hit the snooze button a few times before getting out of bed? When the delay becomes more long term, however, it can have a knock-on effect. This could be when you press snooze too many times, make yourself late and then end up starting your day stressed and frazzled.

Beat procrastination by planning ahead

Often the problem with procrastination is that it can make tasks seem overwhelming, even the pleasant ones.

Take Christmas presents, for example. Say you have 10 to buy for your friends and you have to hand them all out on the last day of term. You could spend a couple of days thinking about what each friend might like and then buy two each weekend in the five weeks leading up to the festive break. That’s two per weekend over five weeks – not so bad.

Delay the task for too long and those numbers creep up. Two becomes four, four turns into six and then before you know it you have only one weekend to find 10 gifts that you know your friends will like and you’re really happy with.

Schoolwork’s the same. Suppose you have two weeks to complete an assignment. It’s a difficult one and you’re not feeling confident about it, so you leave it until later. Before you know it, you have only a week left to do it, which instantly makes it seem even more overwhelming and difficult. Perhaps at this point you put it off further and end up rushing to get it done the day before the due date. This can result in more stress and possibly a lower mark than the one you could have achieved.

3 ways to stop procrastinating

Realising when procrastination is a problem is the first step to tackling the issue. Take the example of the assignment, for instance. If the stress and (possibly) a lower mark dent your confidence, you might repeat the same pattern next time you have a similar test – and, without meaning to, put yourself in an unhelpful cycle or pattern of behaviour. If, on the other hand, you look at the situation and see that starting the assignment earlier might have meant less stress and a higher mark, then you can decide to change things. The important thing is not to give yourself a hard time. Accept that it happened and try to think of ways to tackle less appealing tasks in the future. Here are a few methods we use at the Teen Breathe office:

1. Manage your time

Create a timetable around activities, whether they’re things you want to do (write a Teen Breathe feature) or things you need to do (read the final page proofs). It will help to organise yourself in a way that means you fit everything in and manage your time effectively.

2. Break tasks into blocks

Dividing a large task (checking all of Teen Breathe’s pages before they go to print) into several smaller ones (reading eight or nine pages a day over a week) makes everything seem more manageable. In a similar way, you could tidy your room area by area over a week or write a paragraph or so of your assignment each day. Start small and things will gain their own momentum.

3. Rewards

Every time you complete a section of the task, give yourself a break to do something else but keep an eye on timings.

If you still leave something until the last minute: Remember – ‘better late than never’. See it as a challenge and do your best, you’re only human, after all.

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