Date posted: 16/01/2018 6 min read

Five easy steps to stop procrastination

Increase your productivity at home and at work using mindfulness techniques.

In Brief

  • Procrastination is often emotionally driven and may be linked to fear of failure.
  • Take time out to address your feelings mindfully to see what is blocking you.
  • Make a list of tasks and start the most important with a dedicated time limit and an alarm.

By Sarah Salas.

It’s a new year, it’s summertime, and things are looking good.  You have a whole year ahead to make your New Year’s resolutions happen.  Hold on a minute….. didn’t you say that last year? And did you do it? Did you apply for that new job? Go trekking in South America? If not, then apparently you’re one of the 95% of the population who procrastinates. 

The old joke: “Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow” could well apply to you.  

What exactly is procrastination?

Procrastination is the practice of doing less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or alternatively doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, therefore putting off more challenging tasks until later.

I can hear the dedicated procrastinators asking: “What’s wrong with doing the more pleasurable tasks instead?” These people are very happy to be diverted from the job at hand and are often fuelled by a rush of impulsiveness.  

In fact, procrastination expert Dr Piers Steel describes impulsiveness in his book Portrait of a Procrastinator as “the Achilles Heel of procrastination.” He goes on to say: “Impulsive people find it difficult to plan work ahead of time and even after they start, they are easily distracted. Procrastination inevitably follows.”

So why do we do it?

Apparently we humans often lack self-control - we want it all now. From early beginnings, humans would rather choose to eat that tyrannosaurus egg straight away, rather than see if they could catch something bigger later. It seems we are hard-wired to want immediate payoffs, even if it's unwise.

“These brief but powerful lapses in self-control govern the brain’s preference for behaviours that provide instant gratification and avoids pursuing goal-directed achievement,” according to the English Brain Bank blog published by scientist Dr Sarah Fox.

To add another layer, we also learn that procrastination, on a neurobiological level, actually appears to be emotionally driven. It stems from an internal desire to protect ourselves from negative feelings associated with the fear of failure, according to a journal article in Psychology Today. 

When are you most likely to do it?

Some people tend to procrastinate mostly when they are at work, whereas others tend to do it more at home or in their personal life.

Often it’s a game-changing event that you procrastinate most about, like changing jobs, relationships or moving house. It’s simply feels just too hard. Let’s say for a while now you’ve been thinking about putting in for a promotion, or applying for a transfer, but somehow the time has never felt right. Notice here the common theme is feelings. It’s all about how things feel. 

Addressing feelings may not always come comfortably or naturally. Fortunately, the following ways of dealing with procrastination only involve dealing with your feelings alone - there’s no need to share them with anyone else. (Do I hear a sigh of relief?)

OK, I want to change, where do I start?

Start by being honest with yourself. Let go of the need to blame poor time management or someone else for obstructing your progress. 

Address pressing tasks you have been avoiding and admit how the thought of them makes you feel. There will definitely be a yuk factor here, but it’s good to see this for what it is…this uncomfortable thing that is holding you back.

The next most important thing, and probably the most critical to overcoming procrastination, is to actually start the dreaded task. This is where mindfulness comes in to help you start that looming project. It will also help you move forward and feel positive about what you’ve been shying away from.  

Five steps to overcoming procrastination

  1. Make a list of important tasks and see if you can notice how your body feels after this. Write down what happens: “I feel tightness in my chest/throat, buttocks/head or I feel an ache or pain in my”….. Name an emotion if one comes to mind.  “I feel sad/slightly anxious/angry….”  
  2. Prioritise the list with the most unpleasant yet important task at the top (go back to your body again and notice how it feels, or any emotions that come to mind. Write them down. Bring your attention to where that feeling is in your body again.)
  3. Set a timer for three minutes and during this time focus on slow, deep, breathing. Try to ignore any arising thoughts and return your awareness to your breath. Now reset the timer for 30 minutes. Dedicate this time to work only on the most unpleasant task from the top of your priority list. Turn off your phone and move away from any potential distractions.
  4. When the alarm goes off, either one of two things will happen:
    a. You will give a sigh of relief and stop the task…. or b. You will decide you want to carry on because you’re on a roll!
  5. Whichever option you take, once you have decided to stop the first task, give yourself a pat on the back (literally), take a slow deep breath and notice how your body feels now - alert/alive/relaxed/excited. Also notice any emotions that you feel like relief/contentment/happiness and write this down. From here, you can move down your list and chip away at a few tasks or continue on just one. The choice is yours, but there’s no denying how good it feels to start.  So what are you waiting for?? Good luck!

Related: Five daily ways to practise mindfulness at work

Whether it’s on the train or at your desk, taking regular daily short breaks for mindfulness practice can help you cope better and lead a less stressful life.

Sarah Salas is a Melbourne based mindfulness expert. She is the Director of Need a Hint – a company that provides corporate and educational mindfulness training services.  Salas is the creator of Mindful Moments Activity Cards and owner of