4 Cures for Chronic Procrastination

We all procrastinate occasionally, but chronic procrastinators put off almost everything they have to do. According to Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago, and author of Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done (Wiley, 2010), about 20 percent of the global population can be classified as chronic procrastinators. They let the gas tank run to empty, miss concerts because they waited to buy tickets, or put off projects until hours before they’re due.

Many others have what psychologists call “decisional procrastination,” meaning they put off making decisions until their back is against the wall or someone else does it for them. “They’re actively, consciously, strategically postponing,” says Ferrari.

To cure chronic procrastination, Ferrari offers four tips:

1. Narrow your focus

Procrastinators often spend too much time looking at the big picture, so a project can seem overwhelming. “They see the forest and forget that it’s made of trees,” Ferrari says. “They think, ‘I can’t do all that.’”

To make the project seem doable, break it down. Write out each step, and scheduled an exact time to acomplish it. Start with the task that seems easiest or most appealing to you. Focus on one small task at a time and before you know it, the project will be complete.

2. Reward yourself for meeting your goals

Connect activities you dislike with ones you love and let those incentives help you stay on task. You might reward yourself with a favorite TV show, a run, or ten minutes of personal time. “Something you like to do becomes a reinforcer for something you don’t like to do,” Ferarri says.

As you change your habits, don’t push yourself to be perfect. “If you meet 80 percent of your goals to change, that’s a success,” Ferrari says, since you’re meeting them most of the time.

3. Hold yourself publicly accountable

Feeling like others are watching will help prevent you from making excuses. You could post your daily goals on Twitter or Facebook, pair up with a friend, or write your current task and start time on a whiteboard at your desk.

This goes for group projects as well. If responsibility is too diffuse, people are likely to procrastinate. Instead, clearly delineate who will be responsible for each task and track progress publicly. You might use Trello, an online task management tool, or morning check-ins–any system where each person reports to the group.

4. Don’t lose momentum

As Newton’s first law of motion says, an object in motion stays in motion. Once you start a task, you’re much more likely to keep working until you finish.

Take the easiest task on your list and force yourself to start. Close your browser, turn off email pop-ups, and make the program you need to use fit the full screen. “Just say ‘now’ and do it,” Ferrari says. “Just start.”