How To Stop Putting Tasks Off

Sarah Lane is an Integrative Counsellor and Mindfulness Facilitator based in the Wellbeing Centre

It’s very natural to put off important tasks in favour of other activities which may seem more interesting or enjoyable. In fact, research suggests that approximately 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators and 75-95% of university students procrastinate. Sometimes this is a conscious decision but it can also become a habit. It will often lead to negative consequences and can wrongly be mistaken for laziness. However, there are some simple things you can do to address procrastination:

  1. Find your optimum time and place to work. Choose your most productive, energised or creative time of day for challenging tasks. Also consider in which environments you achieve the most and are least distracted.
  2. You probably already use “To Do” lists but it’s worth considering a couple of extra points about them. How realistic are you being about the number of tasks you hope to achieve in a particular time frame? If we constantly feel that we are not achieving everything we have intended to, this can leave us feeling demoralised, stressed and unmotivated. It’s better to feel satisfied for having been able to complete a shorter list for the day. If your initial list doesn’t seem realistic, decide which tasks can be postponed for a later date. It’s also helpful to prioritise the activities according to what is most important and urgent.
  3. Break tasks down into all the little steps involved in their completion to make large tasks seem less overwhelming and small tasks seem more straightforward. Having smaller tasks also means you can complete them much quicker so you won’t need to wait until you have large spaces of time to do them.
  4. Schedule tasks by keeping a detailed diary. Enter in existing commitments and usual routine. Fit “chunks” of tasks that need to be completed around these activities.
  5. Plan rewards and time for enjoying yourself. Often activities which we could use to reward ourselves (e.g. socialising) are the same things that distract us and cause us to procrastinate in the first place. The more you plan regular rewards for your achievements, the less you will feel like you are missing out in the meantime. Allowing these rewards to be guilt-free by having them planned and fitting them around work that needs doing is critical. Rewards, leisure and pleasure help to replenish energy.
  6. Consider different ways of ordering tasks. You could start with the worst first which is particularly good for small but dreaded tasks. The alternative is to use momentum and start by doing a task that you enjoy which energises you and then, without a break, quickly switch to a task that you have been putting off.
  7. Setting time limits for how long you will spend on a task can be really beneficial. A technique a lot of students find helpful is the “Just 5 minutes” principle where you initially commit to doing the task just for this length of time to get you started. Then once you are underway, you might feel like doing 5 minutes more and you can continue building up in this way. The other alternative is to set a specific time period to work on a task and then stop. Be realistic about how long this should be, bearing in my mind your concentration levels at the time.
  8. It can be helpful to start measuring time. People who procrastinate often underestimate how long a task will take and therefore do not allocate enough time for it, or overestimate which puts them off doing it. If you think either of these happens for you, then it’s worth practising estimating how long you think tasks will take. Next time and record how long they actually take for future reference.
  9. Follow the “remember then do” principle. For small irritating tasks that often get forgotten, do them as soon as you think of them.
  10. Visualise yourself doing the task. Bring a very vivid picture into your mind. Notice any obstacles arising which block you doing the task, and imagine successfully overcoming these to complete the task. Focus on the positive feelings of having achieved the task. Use the momentum from the visualisation to start the task in reality.
  11. If you feel unsettled when attempting to start a task, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Breathe from your belly rather than your chest. Try to lengthen each in and out breath, slowing down your breathing to steady it. Spend 5-10 minutes focusing on your breath then return to the task. Come back to focusing on the breath again if the unsettled feelings recur.

Written by: Sarah Lane

If you would like to learn more about how to tackle procrastination, then you can read our full booklet on the Wellbeing section of the website or book onto the one-off workshop “How to Just DO IT!”