How to Stop Procrastinating

Immediate & tested help for students

Photo: Miguel Angel/Flickr, source

It’s that time again. You’re holed up in your room, having announced to everyone that you have to study all weekend. The door is closed, and the noise of your anxious thoughts is suddenly deafening. That gnawing, uneasy feeling is growing stronger: you should have started studying long ago. In fact, when you consider how much material there actually is, you know there’s no way you’ll have time to look at everything now, let alone learn it.

Suddenly, that silly game on your phone is very interesting. You must read every tweet by that politician you can’t stand. Your dusty floor is driving you crazy — there is no way to work in here until you take care of that!

Sound familiar? Trust me, I know this feeling well. In the 10 years I spent as a university student myself, and the 9 years I’ve been teaching college students since then, I’ve read countless articles and heard numerous tips on beating procrastination. I’ve tried different techniques and recommended them to my students, and I’ve seen first-hand what works and what doesn’t. Some of the strategies in this post are tried-and-true techniques from well-known psychologists, some are ideas I’ve heard or read whose source I can no longer trace, and still others are the result of my own trial-and-error. All have been road-tested by my students and myself. Together, they make up a first-aid kit which I hope will help you break out of procrastination and make progress on that urgent project, paper, or test preparation.

Procrastination Emergency: First-Aid Kit

Before we start, let’s get one thing clear. You may not be able to make your project perfect or get 100 on your test, but you can do your best under the circumstances, while looking forward and having no regrets. Beating yourself up is counterproductive. Start by making a promise to yourself:

I won’t allow this work to be painful. I’m going to take breaks and reward myself for my work, and I won’t judge myself if my performance isn’t perfect. I am more than the result of this one test or the grade on this one project. [1]

Say it out loud to yourself. Write it on a post-it and stick it on your bathroom mirror. You must keep this promise to yourself if your procrastination patterns are to change.

Getting Started

Forget about planning your project perfectly, or setting up the right study schedule. The most important thing right now, and the only one that’s going to make you feel better, is to get started ASAP.

Choose one task or one part of your project, or one chapter to study, and start doing it with minimal preparation. If you have a study outline, take the first item and begin reviewing that material. If you have to write an essay, begin looking for sections related to your topic in the first source you have.

When you crack open your book or notes, or re-read the assignment instructions, you may be struck by a feeling of doom: the assignment is bigger than you realized; you forgot about that part where you’re going to have to interview someone in a different time zone; there is that topic you never understood because you missed a class… At this point, you may be almost paralyzed by anxiety and the looping thoughts in your head will be along the lines of, “I should have started earlier. I can never fix it now. I’m going to fail.”

When you notice yourself thinking this, tell yourself: “STOP!” Picture the word “stop” written out in big bubble letters, brightly colored and dressed up. [2] Maybe put a Santa hat on the letter S and imagine the T holding a cane. The point is to jolt yourself out of the loop of negative thoughts. They aren’t helping you at all right now.

Instead, treat yourself as you would a child who was anxious and overwhelmed. [3] Try to create a safe and a relaxing environment so you can focus on the work. Here are some suggestions:

  • Take a few moments to turn on some soothing music, light an aromatherapy candle or make yourself a cup of herbal tea. Shut out distractions by closing the door, turning off the ringer on your phone, etc.
  • Use a kitchen timer or the timer function on your phone or watch (or this online timer) to set an interval in which you will focus without interruption. Start with something short, such as 20 minutes. It is important that during these 20 minutes, you really engage in focused work — do not take snack trips, check your email, or do anything else except work until the timer rings. [4]
  • It is equally important that when the timer does ring, you stop and reward yourself with a short break. Think of how you would treat that scared child — the last thing you would want to do is betray their trust by putting off the promised reward after they had overcome their fear and started working. Instead, reward yourself with something small but valuable — say, 5–10 minutes playing that addictive phone game or messaging with a friend. Set a timer for this too, lest you find that an hour has somehow gone by. The break should be short enough that it doesn’t disrupt your momentum, but long enough to reward you with positive emotions.

This association between work and reward is necessary for learning to trust yourself, so that in the future, when you tell yourself, “I’m just going to work on this for 30 minutes”, you will know it’s not a trick. That trust will go a long way to helping you avoid procrastination in the future.

  • Sometimes, you’re so terrified of the task that 20 minutes seems impossible. That’s okay. In that case, set your timer for 15 or even 10 minutes. [5] However horrible it may be, you can handle 10 minutes. It’s fine if in those 10 minutes, all you really have time to do is read over the assignment and open a new Word document, or just read the first two pages of your notes. You’ve faced the task and gotten started, and that’s something to celebrate. Make sure that when the timer rings, you reward yourself with 5–10 minutes of something fun. Leave your notes or your project open on your desk, making it easier to return and continue on after the break.

Staying the Course

Congratulations! You’ve done the hardest part — you’ve gotten started! Now, as George W. Bush used to say, “you’ve got to stay the course.”

Continue to work in short blocks of time, such as 20–30 minutes, followed by 5- or 10-minute breaks. If you find that you are getting into a groove and are able to focus with little anxiety, you might increase the work intervals to 45 minutes, followed by 15-minute breaks. Don’t ditch the timer, however, or start skipping breaks.

At this point, you might want to switch up your surroundings. The change of scene will reinvigorate you, and it’s often motivating to be around other people who are working intently. Here are some suggestions:

  • Try working in a library or coffee shop. It might be useful to bring headphones to block out excessive noise, even if you don’t actually listen to music while working. You can use your phone timer in Vibrate mode if you don’t want it to be conspicuous.
  • Although you may not be at a stage where group studying is helpful (in general, it’s most helpful after you’ve had at least a first pass through the material by yourself), you may want to get together with a few friends to quietly study or work side-by-side. Using a timer will help you begin without wasting too much time, and the sight of each other working hard will keep you on task. Then, when the timer rings, you can really enjoy socializing!
  • Perhaps you’re taking online courses or commuting to campus, making it difficult to get together with classmates. You might want to arrange to work over video conference, for example, using Skype or FaceTime. Once you connect and say hello, simply do your own thing while staying in view of the webcam. It may feel strange at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it and enjoy the same benefits as you would in a face-to-face co-working session. In fact, if you don’t have a friend or classmate who can be your study buddy, try FocusMate, a free app which will pair you with another person from the online community for a 50-minute quiet co-working session.

Common Pitfalls & Solutions

After a few hours of short work sessions interspersed with breaks, it’s a good idea to schedule a longer rest. Go out for a walk, eat a meal while socializing, or read something else that will take your mind off your task. Give yourself 45 minutes or an hour off, and really enjoy this time without guilt.

I know what you might be thinking: “But I’ve wasted so much time already, I can’t afford to spend a single second not working!” Maybe, if this is your final exam or project of the semester, after which you’re going to have some time to recover from school, you can get away with binge-working and cramming. In any other case, working frantically without breaks is going to set you up for burnout and more procrastination in the future. By going into workaholic mode, you’re going to reinforce your subconscious belief that studying is awful and incompatible with having a life. [6] In fact, you might give up and go back to procrastinating right now.

Don’t take the short view. Remember the promise you made to yourself at the beginning.

Occasionally, as you come across particularly confusing material or reach an especially challenging part of your project, your anxiety will mount, and the self-reproaches will come back. “I should have started earlier. I’m so lazy. What’s wrong with me? Now I’m going to fail.” As soon as you catch yourself thinking like this, remember to picture the word “STOP”. You can use Scarlett O’Hara’s maxim from Gone with The Wind: “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your fear and anxiety are truly overwhelming. You may be in that coffee shop, or in your home study space surrounded by candles, or sitting across from a study partner, your timer ticking away, but you just can’t think straight. Here are some crazy ideas that may work for you:

  • Hole up in the bathroom with your notes and run yourself a warm bath. The heat and the sound of running water will relax you, and with no distractions available, you’ll end up focusing on your work. (Note: use caution so you don’t soak your notes, or, worse, your laptop!)
  • Crash a class outside your major. Obviously, this only works if you are on campus and is best with a big lecture, where you won’t be conspicuous. Choose something really different, like an engineering class if you’re an arts student, or a philosophy lecture if you’re taking chemistry. Bring your headphones and your work and sit in the back. You’ll see people working hard to master something completely foreign, and it just might get your academic juices flowing.
  • If you don’t suffer from motion sickness, get on a bus, streetcar, or train (bonus if you live in a city with good, reasonably priced public transportation). Don’t bring anything except your work. As many commuter students can attest, there’s just something about sitting in a cramped, moving vehicle that puts you in the zone for efficient studying.
  • Have other crazy strategies for overcoming procrastination-related anxiety? Please share them in the comments!

The Moment of Truth

Finally, this is it: exam day or the day your project is due. Be proud of yourself for getting the better of your procrastination and starting to build good work habits. As a wise adviser once told me, “There is the best you can do, and there is the best you can do under the circumstances.” [7] If your grade on this assignment or test is lower than you hoped, don’t get sucked back into cramming and binge-working. You know it’s not sustainable, and it’s certainly not fun.

Best of luck, and let me know how it goes!

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[1] I’ve adapted this technique from similar ideas in this wonderful book: Fiore, N.A. (2007). The Now Habit: A strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

[2] I read about this technique for breaking out of looping negative thoughts in a book about depression: Kleiman, K.R. and Davis Raskin, V. (2013). This isn’t what I expected: Overcoming postpartum depression (2nd ed). Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.

[3] Many psychologists and life coaches recommend adopting a parental tone toward a scared or resistant part of yourself. I think I first read about this in: Fiore, N.A. (2007). Awaken your strongest self: Break free of stress, inner conflict, and self-sabotage. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

[4] There are almost endless variations on this timer technique practiced by parents, students, and professionals in all areas of life. It’s difficult to trace the original source, but one of the most well-known implementations is the Pomodoro Technique (Cirillo, F. (2006). The Pomodoro technique. Retrieved from ). In this article, I suggest modifications which I’ve found to be effective for students.

[5] I first read about a version of this approach in Virginia Valian’s essay: Valian, V. (1977). Learning to work. In S. Ruddick & P. Daniels (Eds.), Working it out: 23 women writers, artists, scientists, and scholars talk about their lives and work (pp. 162–178). New York, NY: Pantheon Books. Available here.

[6] Neil Fiore’s book (full citation in #1 above) addresses this and other subconscious beliefs and self-messages which drive us to procrastinate.

[7] Thank you to the wonderful Dr. P.K. Rose at Queen’s University, Canada.

Maria has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and writes depth pieces about the biology of humans and other animals. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTerScience