Overcoming procrastination isn’t easy. For entrepreneurs and business leaders, it’s a top productivity killer, severely hampering the success we desire and deserve.
But why do we procrastinate?
And is it fixable?
Fortunately, the answer is yes.
A procrastination habit doesn’t indicate poor time management, nor does it mean we’re “lazy.”
The Association of Psychological Science (APS) reveals that chronic procrastinators comprise as much as 20% of the adult population—more than the number of adults diagnosed with clinical depression or phobias (~17% and 8.7%, respectively).
Just like people with phobias or depression aren’t cured with “positive thinking” or admonishments to “snap out of it,” neither are those legitimate fixes for procrastination. This article uncovers several science-backed, tested, and proven strategies to help overcome your procrastination habit and become a better you.
I know you’re excited. Let’s start!
3 Psychological Reasons Why We Procrastinate
Reason 1. We worry over being liked.
A release by the American Psychological Association (APA) describes that non-procrastinators generally have a stronger personal identity, and higher self esteem, while chronic procrastinators tend toward lower self esteem and higher social esteem.
What’s “social esteem”?
Psychologists describe it as a worriment about how much others like us, or how socially acceptable we are, rather than a focus on how we feel about ourselves.
As well, we often associate successful people with being aggressive, egocentric, ruthless, manipulative, and at least a little dishonest.
(Oh, and unfortunately male, since successful women scare us.)
With those types of negative associations, it’s easy to see how a fear of being successful, but disliked, could motivate procrastination.
Although being narcissistic is clearly not the only way to get ahead, this fear (however irrational) can feed our procrastination, as we resist taking action to avoid sacrificing relationships.
Reason 2. We don’t flex our self-control muscle.
There’s an interesting commonality in the research conducted on both the potential and the limitations of our ability to self regulate.
In these types of studies, two groups are given two unrelated tasks, an initial task and a later task. Group A is asked to exhibit self control during the first task, while Group B is asked only to do the task.
The research consistently finds that the group not required to use willpower initially is able to exhibit self-control longer than the group required to self-regulate during both.
Basically, the research shows that our willpower supply functions similar to a muscle, and can “tire out.”
But just like a muscle, our willpower can be strengthened over time, through “exercise”—basically, practicing self-control leads to improved self-control.
So by regularly exercising our self-control “muscle,” we’ll be able to exert willpower more frequently and for longer. Cool.
Reason 3. We’re too “in our feelings” to get things done.
We regularly monitor our emotions to improve our mood when something feels “off.”
But chronic procrastinators focus inwardly to the extreme:
When the activity we choose in the moment will feel more emotionally rewarding than the thing we dread, we overfocus on pursuing the good feelings of “now” and neglect long-term goals.
For instance, we might spend two hours socializing on Twitter instead of working on a product launch, because the launch tasks aren’t as enjoyable.
But what’s interesting is that even when we delay what we need to do, to do what we want to do… delaying does not make us feel totally positive in that moment.
Chronic procrastinators often experience anxiety, guilt, and even shame about their decision to delay; yet, they still do, even when fully aware of the consequences that will follow the decision to “wait ‘til tomorrow.”
So why do we wait?
Emotional control is but one of the skills needed to both initiate and stick with a task. We also need high-performing executive functions.
What Are “Executive Functions”?
Mostly powered by our prefrontal cortex (PFC), “executive functions” are skills we use, to organize and act on everyday information. This area of the brain regulates our thoughts, actions, and emotions.
Executive functioning covers the following nine areas:
- impulse control
- planning and prioritizing
- activity shifting
- task initiation
- task monitoring
- emotional control
- working memory
As you might expect, any deficits in these important functions hampers our ability to successfully manage day-to-day responsibilities.
But fortunately, these deficits are often correctable. You’ll find ways to improve executive functioning in the list below.
6 Science-Backed Remedies to Conquer Procrastination, and Get (& Stay) Motivated
1. Build self-confidence. Intentionally boost your mood.
Focus less on outside opinions and care more for your own needs. This is a long-term endeavor that’s possible with intentional, focused consistency.
Need to nurture your self-esteem?
See these down-to-earth, refreshing, and actionable strategies in How to Improve Your Self-Esteem: 12 Powerful Tips, by Henrik Edberg.
And whether it’s reading a hilarious article on Cracked, listening to an installment of a self-improvement video, or doing a few minutes of yoga, the happier you feel, the more willpower you’ll have to do what’s needed to run your business. And your life.
What makes you feel good?
Jot down 5 to 10 things on a Post-It and put it on your monitor or desk. Whenever you’re feeling unmotivated, choose one from the list and take a break to recharge. A healthy mood is critical to overcoming procrastination.
Need a few ideas?
Get pumped with the amazing 34 Ways to Bust a Bad Mood in 10 Minutes or Less, by @LauraNewc.
Why these are important:
When we’re in a bad mood, our brains become more concerned with correcting the negative state of the present than working toward goals for the future. (The exception is when the productive activity acts as a legitimate distraction from sad feelings.)
For instance, people who regularly put others’ needs above their own operate in a near constant emotional deficit. When we reject our needs, we put ourselves in a negative affective state where the brain is focused more on correcting the emotional imbalance than working toward more distant rewards.
In the report, What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control, researchers at the University of Albany showed that by lifting test subjects’ moods with comedy videos and surprise gifts, subjects were better able to push through waning willpower.
Researchers also found that the willpower of people who often denied their needs to please others was depleted much easier than the willpower of people with strong internal goals and desires.
2. Feed your brain well. And keep blood sugar stable.
Healthy glucose levels—or “blood sugar”—is vital to executive functioning and overcoming procrastination, so we need to intentionally keep this balanced.
We can do this by not allowing ourselves to get too hungry, balancing our carbs by eating protein first, recharging with quality sleep, taking rest breaks and naps, and limiting caffeine, bad fats, and alcohol.
See 10 Ways to Balance Your Blood Sugar Naturally, by Lauren Geertsen, NTP, for a more detailed explanation of blood sugar in plain English, along with practical strategies and ideas to keep it in check.
Why this is important:
Operating in a state of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) puts us at a severe cognitive disadvantage, as we can’t exert self-control as effectively.
According to the APA, self-control requires a certain level of glucose to function unimpaired.
And NASA finds that not only are memory, mental flexibility, judgment, and decision-making significantly impaired with a glucose deficit, so are other important skills, like accuracy, processing speed, response time, and attention.
3. Create a cardio routine to regenerate brain cells. (Literally.)
While executive functioning skills reach peak levels in young adulthood, they can certainly be maintained and even improved, particularly in older adults.
These skills are vital in helping to overcome procrastination.
In one study of adults, participants that did a 30-minute bout of moderate-to-vigorous intensity cardio saw an improvement in planning and problem-solving over the control group, which read for 30 minutes.
In another study of adults age 60 to 75, maintaining a 1-hour aerobic workout three times per week helped them improve planning, scheduling, inhibition, and working memory.
Why it works:
Exercise improves blood flow throughout the body, and can increase oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Its effects also help strengthen and support synapses (our neural connectors)—even creating new neurons(!), the basic working units of the brain that transmit info to all other cells.
In these particular studies, note that executive function improvements were gleaned through aerobic exercise (cardio), rather than anaerobic (strength training, yoga).
Also, know that exercise decreases blood sugar levels… so you may not want to exercise when your glucose is already low!
4. Separate goals into sub-goals, and projects into tasks.
Any large task has the potential to be daunting. Breaking them down into more attractive mini-goals—especially time-based goals—can make a world of difference in staying motivated to get more done and reduce procrastination.
Need help getting organized?
The online to-do list, Todoist, is fantastic. Its simplified interface requires hardly any learning curve, and allows for both sub-projects and sub-tasks.
You can even set recurring dates and reminders, get task notifications by email or phone, and explore other useful features to help organize your thoughts, workday, and plans.
Why it works:
You may have learned that our brains release dopamine each time we achieve a goal, even a small one.
Less widely known is that it also releases dopamine before achievement of the goal, in anticipation of it, which helps us to focus on the reward. That means achieving the goal has a domino-like effect… giving us yet more motivation.
An interesting bonus?
Dopamine also helps with focus, attention, and problem-solving, all more of the things we need to check the next task off of our to-do list. (Hey, this dopamine sounds pretty useful. Here are a few more tips to increase dopamine naturally.)
5. Play brain training games to think faster and improve memory.
Researchers are currently exploring whether skills built when playing brain training games are transferable to real life activities. Some studies do show improvements to executive functioning skills as a result of games like Brain Age, and even Tetris.
Why they may work:
These games are designed to train various specific brain functions, like working memory or task shifting, to hone those skills individually.
Just as physical training improves our physical well-being, cognitive training is thought to improve our cognitive fitness.
Studies have not consistently proven, however, that cognitive improvements from brain training games transfer well to even similar daily activities.
For that reason, it’s best to consider brain training games as productive ways to pass the time, such as for short “refocus” breaks, than to rely on them for any measurable improvement in executive functioning and overcoming procrastination.
6. Correct your posture… and your language.
For instance, in one study, the group that did self-control “exercises”—monitoring and correcting posture—for two weeks exhibited significant improvement in their ability to exercise willpower as compared to those who did no such exercises.
In a different study, choosing to use the nondominant hand or refrain from cursing for two weeks improved test subjects’ abilities to regulate their use of stereotypes. And in yet another study, a group of people who forced themselves to exert willpower by studying or exercising increased their self-control ability over the control group.
So how can you boost your own self-control?
For at least two weeks, correct your posture each time you find yourself slouching. Bonus: This easy copycat strategy also instantly increases self-esteem.
How it works:
As mentioned previously, preliminary research shows that practicing self-control exercises actually helps improve and strengthen self-control. This proves true when applying even tiny amounts of willpower across an extended period.
For the self-control aspect, researchers at the University of Albany found that, just by practicing small amounts of inhibition, we can increase our ability to self-regulate.
And for the self-esteem / confidence aspect, researchers at Ohio State University found that body posture affects confidence in our own thoughts. In one study:
“People who were told to sit up straight were more likely to believe thoughts they wrote down while in that posture concerning whether they were qualified for a job.
On the other hand, those who were slumped over their desks were less likely to accept these written-down feelings about their own qualifications.”
To learn what other instant improvements posture correction can offer, see the 60-second read, Bad Posture Makes You Sad and Afraid, Study Finds, by @MandyOaklander.
Procrastination is fixable.
Your brain is trainable.
You’ve already begun the process of change.
Remember that getting a change to stick takes patience, self-forgiveness, and time.
The single most important factor to creating successful, lasting change is to choose just one remedy at a time from the above, and work at it until you’ve mastered it. Only then should you move on to the next.
Final success tip:
Instead of dwelling on any missteps from your past, look forward to the potential of your future. A forgiving outlook is a powerful motivator to change.
A final example?
Dr. Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, helped conduct a survey of 119 students before midterms. They found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating on the first exam were less likely to delay in studying for the second one.
So don’t create delay; create change. By finishing this article, you’ve already taken the first step. Keep up the good work!
Which one remedy will you start with for overcoming procrastination? What action are you taking now to get started? Share your motivation with others in the comments.
Overcoming procrastination is achievable if there is strong willpower and discipline to do what is required at all times.
Its not really easy doing the right things when the confidence is lacking but this can be changed by boosting mental and physical functions.
The research you have shared here are revealing and relevant. I have learned new things here.
My best takeaway here is this “Build self-confidence. Intentionally boost your mood”
I left the above comment in kingged.com as well
Hi Sunday, thanks for commenting. I thought the research was incredible as well.
I did figure mood would be a factor in being able to self-motivate. Self-confidence also makes perfect sense, but isn’t as readily apparent when thinking about the reasons we might delay in the things we need to do.
I learned a lot, too. ツ
Fairly! This was a really wonderful post. Thank you for your
Sure. Hope the research helped.
Thanks for the outstanding information, it actually is useful.
I’m glad. Thanks for letting us know.
This really replied my dilemma, thank you!
Great – glad to be of help. :)
You have shared such great information. I really enjoyed to read your article. Keep sharing.
Thanks Danielle, hope it helps you.