Overcoming procrastination: what if I just can’t get started?

By MAS Team | 30 June 2020

We’ve often heard people say that they would like to be less ‘last minute’ workers, but what holds them back is that they never feel motivated enough to make a decent start until very close to the deadline.

In a previous article we wrote about the relationship between arousal and performance, identifying that we all need a but of stress to get us engaged in a task and therefore performing optimally. So, the absence of this stress gets in the way of making progress, often in the form of procrastination. 

Person thinking about what they should be doing and not doing it

If this sounds like you, then typically what you've developed is a bad habit. You've probably learned through past experience that you can actually get the work done even if you leave it to the last minute. As a result, your mind now reminds you of this fact giving you an 'out' when there is something more fun or relaxing you could be doing in the days and weeks before a deadline.

Here are some ideas for overcoming your procrastination:


Give yourself a specific time that you have to work on the task for, before taking a break or switching to do something more enjoyable. Knowing you only have to do a task for 20 or 30 minutes is likely to make it easier to get started. 

procrastination app

Try app’s with timers to help. There are many app’s based on the ‘Pomodoro Technique’. These timers schedule you 25 minutes of work time, followed by a 5 minute break. This timeframe itself will help you focus for a fixed period and then pause to refresh your brain. If you’re competitive, you can race yourself to see how much you can get done each time before the timer goes off!

procrastination breaking down

For some people, the project or task feeling too big can be a big factor in procrastination. Try breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks that you can take on one at a time.

procrastination hard first

What is the thing you are dreading or putting off the most? Do that first. It may sound like strange advice, but getting through the worst of it is likely to improve you motivation to do the rest.

procrastination stop waiting

Stop waiting for inspiration. Research is clear that people who establish routines and just work whether they feel inspired or not, produce more than those who wait for the ‘muse’ to strike. Create a study routine that you can follow every day.

tea cup

Reward yourself for the work you’re doing. This can be a large reward once the job is completed, and can also be smaller rewards for getting started and for making some progress. Maybe after putting in a solid
first 30 minutes, you allow yourself to stop for a cup of tea or coffee. Then set a new goal to achieve before you stop for the next break.

think about what you do

Spend a few moments thinking about why what you are doing is important to you – it might be that the specific assignment isn’t that meaningful to you, but why are you taking the paper or the degree? What’s the big picture?

Loss of attention is also a core component of procrastination. Researchers from the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Canada have perhapsn unsurprisingly found that people reported procrastinating less when they were more mindful. What this means is that when we are more aware and paying more attention, we are more able to maintain a focus on our goals. This awareness helps to keep us from “giving in to the feel good” we achieve short term through procrastination.

Try this:


arrow focus

Next time you sit down to work, notice and put words to the experience of your thoughts and emotions. These could be experiences like “I feel flat thinking about starting this work”, “I’m struggling to resist picking up my phone to check that message”, “I’ve just realised that I’ve spent the last few minutes thinking about what I’m going to do at the weekend”, “I’m feeling frustrated that I can’t seem to get these words right”, or “I’ve just remembered that I didn’t do X, and feel like I better do that now…”.

exclamation mark

Do your best to notice your thoughts and emotions with interest and without judgement. Think of yourself as being a curious scientist about your own experience.

negative thoughts

Each time you notice your thoughts and feelings taking you away from what you are trying to work on, gently remind yourself what you are working on and why, drawing your attention back to this longer term goal.

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