By Yvonne Milosevic
Are you locked in a constant battle royale against procrastination? Well, you’re in good company. Psychology Today estimates that 20% of the population are chronic procrastinators. (Though we suspect actual numbers are much higher—especially among college students.) In the past, prevailing wisdom tied procrastination to time management problems. Now, we’re learning it’s more often related to mood and mindset.
Perhaps you put off tasks because you feel overwhelmed, afraid you’ll fail, or find the job straight-up boring. If this sounds familiar, consider these strategies favored by the brilliant Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist and professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Clark’s recent piece in Harvard Business Review lays out some specific tricks covered in her new book, The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World.
Proven Procrastination Busters
Trick #1: Start with the easy.
This strategy works wonders for anything you’re putting off due to overwhelm. When you feel daunted by a gargantuan task, break it down into manageable pieces. This is Kaizen 101. Do you want to run a 10K? Start by taking a 15-minute walk. Have dreams of writing a book? Commit to jotting down one paragraph.
Breaking looming tasks into tiny, manageable steps builds momentum and makes it more difficult to procrastinate. “The goal is that for any activity where you feel nervous or averse, lower the bar and find a small way to begin,” Clark explains.
Trick #2: Put it in your calendar.
For many of us, a hard deadline provides the fire we need to get our butts moving. Instead of adding items to a nebulous To-Do List, Clark suggests scheduling them into your calendar.
Professor Dan Ariely, also of Duke Fuqua, calls this trick a commitment device. He thinks writing down your commitments can help you better stick to your intentions. “It turns out that if you put something in your calendar, not doing it is very different,” he explains.
“If you have in your calendar, ‘go for a walk’ or ‘call your mother,’ not doing it is an active choice. I’m not doing it. It’s written in my calendar, 6:15, call my mother, I don’t do it, I feel very differently than ‘I’ll do it at some point.’”
Trick #3: Make it an experiment.
A paralyzing fear of failure is behind much of our procrastinating. “If we view a project as a defining moment in our lives, of course we’ll hesitate,” says Clark. But what if we stopped thinking of failure as the end of the road?
“Failure is upsetting to so many of us because it implies finality: You tried to accomplish something, and it didn’t happen.”
The key to overcoming this hurdle and getting started is lowering the stakes in our own minds, Clark explains. Experiments are by nature uncertain and require multiple iterations to arrive at the desired result. By reframing our actions as an experiment, we eliminate that risk of failure, she adds.
“When the pressure is off,” Clark says, “it’s a lot easier to motivate ourselves to get started.”
For more on getting motivated when you feel sluggish, check out: Why Motivation is Overrated and You Don’t Need it to Succeed and Smart New Ways to Improve Your Motivation.