I Was a ‘Master’ Procrastinator. Here’s the Simple 5-Step Method I Used to Quit the Habit

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I used to be a master procrastinator.

I say “master” because I felt my procrastination was with a “purpose.” It was justified. 

I’m extremely busy, I’d tell myself. And since I have so many things to do, I’ll push off this important stuff so I can focus on the urgent (also important) stuff.

I had also seen the effect of “Parkinson’s Law.” You know, the concept that states that “work expands to fill the time available.” To combat that, I’d often wait until I had just enough time to complete a task before staring work on it. 

“That’s how I can get the maximum amount of things done,” I told myself.

But there are some big problems with this thinking.

First, I tended to underestimate scope. I thought I knew how long it would take to complete a certain task…but it often ended up taking longer, so I was late. Or, I rushed the job–but didn’t give it the time, attention, or deep thought it deserved.

Additionally, I lived under constant stress. I was very productive–running a business, spending time with my wife and kids, even serving as a volunteer several hours a week. But extreme productivity was accompanied by extreme pressure. 

I can’t continue like this, I told myself.

So, I started to make changes. Those changes led to positive results, like relieving stress and increasing the quality of my work, my family time, and my joy.

Each of the following tips are founded on principles of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage emotions, with the goal of producing real change.

Acknowledge the need to change.

If you’re a master procrastinator like I was, you have to stop making excuses for procrastination, and acknowledge the reasons why it’s bad. Otherwise, you won’t be convinced there’s a need to change.

First and foremost, procrastination is evil because it often causes you to not give a desired task or project the time it deserves. But there are other problems, too.

“Procrastination makes life much more laborious and burdensome than it should be,” a friend once shared with me. “It also makes it a lot less fun, because it increases the  worries and anxieties about getting things done the right way and on time instead of just doing them.”

And now that we’ve established that, say it with me:

Procrastination is bad. 

Procrastination is bad. 

Procrastination is bad. 

Identify and understand your feelings.

There are several emotions and feelings that could contribute to your procrastination habit.

  • Fear (of doing something you don’t enjoy or the sheer size of a task or project)
  • Pride (I’m so productive, I’ll focus on other more urgent things and do this tomorrow)
  • Anxiety (There’s just so much to do, I need a break)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these feelings. But by identifying and understanding them, you can deal with them.

Fear of a huge project is natural. But could you break that project up into manageable tasks?

Being proud of your productivity is ok, to a degree. But might you need to say “no” more often, to give the proper time and attention to the more important things?

Anxiety is natural. But can you set a time limit on your break, maybe to 15-20 minutes? Otherwise, you’ll head down the YouTube rabbit hole, and your anxiety will give birth to, well…more anxiety.

Work on stuff earlier.

For master procrastinators, the idea of working too early on a task is stupid. 

What if something changes and causes me to want to do this thing differently? 

Or, what if I don’t even end up having to do this thing at all?

(Believe me, I’ve thought of them all.)

Just because you start working on something doesn’t mean you have to finish

The beauty is that by starting, you get the juices flowing, allowing you to reach a state of flow more quickly so that you get more of your thing done than you anticipated. (More on this in step 5.)

Additionally, you increase the quality of your work–because every time you revise your thing it gets better. (Procrastinators, on the other hand, are basically always turning in their first draft.)

Just finished a meeting? Start planning the next one.

Got an idea? Don’t just write it down. Start fleshing it out.

Been assigned a task? Start preparing it now (or, the same day if possible).

Put it in the calendar.

In the past, if I couldn’t work on a task or project right away, I’d add it to my task list. This assuaged my anxiety, as it made me feel that the task would get cared for.

I ended up with an “impossible” list, a list of tasks so huge that it was impossible to finish anytime soon. So things towards the end of the list just kept getting pushed to the next day, and the next day, and the next day…

So, instead of adding important tasks to a list, schedule them in your calendar.

Make sure to schedule enough time to actually get your task done, or at least make significant progress. And don’t fill your calendar with back to back tasks, meetings, and appointments; that’s just setting yourself up for burnout.

Instead, if you’re reasonable about your expectations and give yourself time to breathe, you’ll do more and better work in the long run. 

Use the 5-minute rule.

Finally, if you find yourself with some free time and you need to convince yourself to start working on a difficult task, follow the five-minute rule:

Force yourself to work on a task for just five minutes, with the understanding that you can quit after five minutes if you like. (Face it, you can do anything for five minutes.)

This simple mental trick is usually get started–and will often turn into much more than five minutes. But even if it doesn’t, you’ve done the hardest thing of all: 

So, remember: Fighting procrastination is a life-long battle. 

But it’s a winnable one, especially if you:

1. Acknowledge the need to change.

2. Identify and understand your feelings.

3. Work on stuff earlier.

4. Put it in the calendar.

5. Use the 5-minute rule.

Use these techniques to drastically increase the quality of your work, lower anxiety and stress, and leave your procrastination habit behind–once and for all.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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