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“Procrastination is like a credit card: it's a lot of fun until you get the bill” – this apt and humorous simile was coined by an actor Christopher Parker. Many people immediately understand the not so funny truth about constant delaying and its consequences. However, notorious procrastinators should not despair, because it is possible to conquer procrastination. Often, simple techniques available to everyone are enough to change one’s habits.

There is No Time Like the Present - Learn to Begin

The first, most useful and the best strategy for kicking the procrastination habit is also the most difficult to implement. Professor Timothy Pychyl from Carlton University in Ottawa, who has been researching procrastination for many years, claims that the best strategy to overcome the delaying habit is...starting immediately. It sounds counterintuitive. How can you begin, if you have a problem with initiating tasks? However, studies show that we can learn how to start tasks quickly and effectively.

The key to overcoming procrastination is a daily training of starting tasks promptly, without delay. According to the learning theory, procrastination is a habit, i.e. it is a learned behavior. Since we have learned it, we can also unlearn it. Most of us do not mind working a little bit, for short periods of time. Therefore, it is a good idea to set a timer for five, ten or twenty five minutes and in that time, concentrate on the priority project. The set time may be modified to suit one’s needs. However, within the set time we should be focusing solely on the task at hand and avoid any distractions. When the timer rings, we can take a break and then begin another block of set work time. By repeating this time-block method, we learn to initiate tasks.

Moreover, the method of quick start helps to avoid negative thinking about the project. When we procrastinate, we often think how daunting, dull or difficult the task is. Starting quickly helps to avoid frustration that results from this type of negative thinking and prevents us from employing avoidance tactics and turning towards more pleasant activities, such as playing computer games or watching TV. Moreover, the quick start method, like every training repeated regularly, gradually turns into a habit and it becomes the new way we operate.

The key to overcoming procrastination is a daily training of starting tasks promptly, without delay. According to the learning theory, procrastination is a habit, i.e. it is a learned behavior. Since we have learned it, we can also unlearn it.

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Psychological research indicates that once we begin a task, positive things begin to happen in our system. The task becomes less daunting and we are becoming less averse to working on it. Our satisfaction, optimism and a level of happiness are growing, because we have began the dreaded task and we have made some progress. Our self-confidence and the faith in our own ability to complete the project are also increasing.

In turn, these positive emotions strengthen our motivation. The caveat is, that if we ignore the progress made in completing the task, i.e. if we ignore the positive feelings, we may quickly become discouraged and abandon the project. Therefore, it is very important to celebrate even small steps on the road to the project completion.

In his book The Procrastinator’s Digest, Timothy Pychyl mentions interesting research results concerning a group of students, who had a real problem with procrastination. When their essay deadline was set for Friday, they would delay working on it until Thursday, the day before the deadline.

It turned out that it was the worse they could do. The longer they delayed, the more difficult, even impossible, the task seemed to be. However, once they began working on the essay, many students admitted that the task was very interesting and they experienced satisfaction from completing the paper. Furthermore, they were surprised that they had put it off for so long. Like many people, they became victims of their own negative thinking and the tendency to exaggerate potential difficulties.

Implementation Plans vs. New Year’s Resolutions and Other Wishful Thinking

Usually people formulate their intentions in the following way: “I would like to lose weight”, “I would like to start going to the gym” or “I would like to learn a new language”. The beginning of each new year abounds in new year’s resolutions, which usually are abandoned in the matter of a few weeks. Our intentions are not real plans. It does not matter how we formulate our intent, whether we say “I would like to exercise” or “Today, I will exercise”, still it is not enough. To make our intentions translate into actual actions, we must turn them into goals, i.e. define the goal precisely, set the time, the place and specific tasks that are required to achieve the goal. In other words, we must prepare an implementation plan, which will help us to achieve the desired goal.

The effectiveness of the implementation planning has been confirmed by a multitude of scientific studies conducted over the last several decades. How to implement intentions? By setting up tasks formulated as follows: “If....then..” or “When...then...”. For example: Someone trying to lose weight should formulate their intention in the following way: “If I go to a restaurant, I will order a salad.” or “When I see my running shoes by the bed upon waking up, I will go for a 20-minute run in the morning.” A similar method might work for “relationship procrastinators”, for instance: “If I see this beautiful girl again, I will talk to her and complement her.” To be effective, implementation plans should be written down and committed to memory.

Implementation plans create a link between the initial situation and behaviors. They indicate what should be done, once the specified conditions are met. Implementation plans do not guarantee that we will start acting, however they increase the probability that we will. They act as a trigger in a cause (the initial condition) and effect (the agreed behavior) scenario. A written and memorized implementation plan will help us to generate the required behaviors, when the necessary conditions are met. This approach helps to begin actions, without a delay.

Research conducted by Peter Gollwitzer, Professor of Psychology at New York University indicates that implementation plans are more effective in overcoming procrastination than unspecified intentions. Students were tasked with submitting an essay after the Christmas Holidays. One group of students was using the implementation plan method, while the other group did not. 71% of students from the first group sent the essays on time, while only 32% of students from the other group submitted their work as requested.

Another study, conducted over two-months, was concerned with smoking cession. The participants who followed implementation plans reduced the number of cigarettes smoked and 12% of subjects quit smoking all together. In the group that did not use implementation plans, only 2% of participants quit the habit. Another study, focused on instilling a habit of self breast examination in a group of women. All women who employed the implementation plan method performed self-examination to check for lumps in their breasts, while only 53% of women who did not follow the implementation planning, completed regular self-examinations. The intention implementation planning is also very effective in maintaining physical activity. 91% of people, who “embedded” their behaviors by planning what, when and how they will complete, successfully exercised regularly, as contrasted with only 39% of individuals who intended to be physically active, but did not use the implementation plan method.

Behavior and Resolve

It has been shown that behavior impacts thoughts and emotions. Interestingly, mood changing behavior includes also body language and face expressions. The impact of behavior on cognitive and emotional processes have been explained by the self-perception theory developed by social psychologist Daryl Bem, which proposes that people develop their attitudes by observing their own behaviors and by the theory of the mimicry feedback loop, defined by Charles Darwin.

Have you noticed that people who are motivated and ready to begin a task, for example athletes, usually flex their muscles to signal their readiness? However, the motivation-flexed muscle link works in the reverse order too. Flexing your muscles will trigger motivation. If you are facing a challenging task, make a fist. This simple action will strengthen your resolve. You may also flex your biceps like a body-builder, grip a pen firmly in your palm or make a finger loop by touching the ends of your thumb and any of the remaining four fingers. Research conducted by Iris W. Hung indicated that individuals who had used this simple strategy, increased their endurance in difficult conditions, for example they were able to keep their hands in ice-cold water for a longer period of time than people who did not. Another group, who used the muscle flexing technique, was able to resists sweet temptations at the restaurant.

Five Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination

1. Learn to begin
2. Celebrate milestones
3. Make written implementation plans
4. Flex your muscles
5. Create motivating environment


Motivating Environment

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, social psychologist who specializes in motivation, claims that having “the means to an end” in one’s surroundings may help to reach the desired goal. For example, placing running shoes by the bed may remind you to go for a morning run. Walking by a fitness club every day may increase your motivation to exercise or at least remind you that you should be doing something to improve your health, not necessarily at the gym. The fitness club as a symbol of healthy lifestyle may be the trigger for health related behaviors. For the same reason, a person suffering from an addiction should avoid places associated with the harmful habit, for example a gambler should avoid casinos.

Research shows that mere thinking about a close or a well-known person, who has already achieved a similar goal, may strengthen one’s resolve in pursuing the desired aim. Alternatively, one can also think about a person, who is known for their will power and self-control.

To strengthen your motivation, look for helpful triggers in your surroundings. They may come in the form of words, objects, places or other people. Furthermore, eliminate distractors that prevent you from concentrating on achieving your goal, for example television, a mobile phone and the Internet. If you want to successfully log off the online distractions, a timer might be very helpful, just as it is useful in the quick start method. You may also try applications that temporarily block access to the Internet, such as Freedom. Other will power aids may include healthy snacks placed within reach, health and fitness publications nearby, to do lists written in large print and placed in a visible spot or a photo of your role model.


258 piotr modzelewski

About the Author

Piotr Modzelewski – psychologist, educator, expert in psychodietetics, graduate of SWPS University. Works at Pomeranian University in Słupsk and edoktor24.pl, an online medical center. Author of numerous publications and active participant in scientific conferences. Author of Pokonaj odwlekanie - rozwiń wytrwałość [Overcome Procrastination - Develop Determination], a popular science self-help book on procrastination, reviewed by Professor Bolesław Niemierko and Małgorzata Osowiecka, M.A., academics from SWPS University.