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7 ways to beat procrastination

At a glance

  • Procrastination doesn’t reflect laziness or poor time management. Rather, it’s a signal that a task or project carries a negative emotional charge.
  • Strategies to overcome procrastination include seeking study partners, breaking down overwhelming tasks into manageable steps, using mindfulness strategies, and seeking professional help when appropriate.
  • University of Phoenix provides a supportive and flexible path toward higher education with online classes, fixed-rate tuition and life resources.  

Can I put this off until tomorrow?

That is the perennial question posed by college students (and people in general) around the world. Of course, many students are all too familiar with the consequences of postponing academic work until the last minute: increased stress, all-night work sessions, unfinished assignments and less-than-stellar grades.

And it’s not just students. Plenty of tasks on the job can fall into the “I’ll get to it later” category, even when you know better and resolve to not procrastinate.

So, why doesn’t the resolve stick? Rodney Luster, PhD, LPC, has a few ideas. As the chair for University of Phoenix’s Center of Leadership Studies and Organizational Research, and as a frequent contributor to Psychology Today, Luster is just the expert to explain the psychology behind why people procrastinate.

Learn more about online doctoral degrees at University of Phoenix. 

7 science-backed strategies to overcome procrastination

To get the upper hand on procrastination, it turns out you need to reframe your mindset. Here are some tips.

1.   Recognize procrastination is an emotional management issue — not a time management one

The good news is that putting off writing that economics paper is not the hallmark of laziness you feared. Piers Steel, PhD, author of the book “The Procrastination Equation,” believes procrastination is actually a subtle form of self-harm.

Luster explains: ““Self-harm through procrastination is the delay of the things that could end up hurting our career, our relationships or even ourselves. When Dr. Steel says ‘self-harm,’ he’s talking about the gradual aspects of how that ends up affecting our lives.”

Experts believe that our stalling is less about time management and more about managing emotions. In other words, we avoid starting specific tasks to control the negative feelings around that task. It’s a way to cope with stress, anxiety, frustration and other uncomfortable feelings.

Basically, when we procrastinate, our brains are trying to protect us, but at the cost of our future selves.

2.   Study with a buddy

Trying to go it alone is a dangerous road for those trying to break their procrastination habit. “When we are isolated, and we do things in a silo, it becomes harder to feel motivated,” Luster observes. “I encourage students to find a study partner to help them when they feel like they just don’t want to do something.”

South African research study in 2018 reinforced this insight. It found that students who prepared for exams with a study partner had higher pass rates than those who didn’t, perhaps in part because of the built-in accountability.

If you’re a University of Phoenix student searching for an accountability partner to prevent you from procrastinating, reach out to your faculty, academic advisor or the UOPX Student Community (Official) Facebook group for recommendations.

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3.   Break down overwhelming tasks into manageable steps 

Has your to-do list ever triggered a feeling of panic? (Been there!) When there’s too much to get done, it can be tempting to give into distractions and put things off for just a little longer. Luster suggests a different strategy.

“Rather than eat the whole elephant, break it down. Handle a little bit now, and then maybe do something else. Then, you can come back to it later. Otherwise, it can look overwhelming,” he says. 

Focusing on immediate tasks, like finishing the next 10 pages in your textbook (compared to all 100 pages), can override your brain’s panic response and help you dig in rather than flee. If it helps, reward yourself when you complete a task. Receiving a reward, even a small one, for each accomplishment can motivate you to keep going. This could be a snack or a brief social media break. Just make sure your rewards aren’t more reasons to procrastinate. 

4.   Stay focused on the present

While trying to plan your career and life, not to mention what’s for dinner, it’s easy to lose track of what’s important right now. Part of prioritizing current tasks (our bite-size chunks, remember?) is learning to focus on the present.

“The funny thing about stress, anxiety and thinking about procrastination is that stress is a future state. When we’re lingering in the future, guess what happens? The mind fills in what it doesn’t have, and it can usually do a good job exaggerating things,” Luster explains.

Practicing mindfulness strategies, like breathing exercises, self-awareness and self-compassion, can be highly effective at overcoming the anxiety that often leads to procrastination.

5.   Don’t rely on productivity apps

For procrastinators, the promise of an easy solution has turned a formerly simple productivity app into what is now an $8 billion global industry.

Yet research has shown that while time management techniques such as apps do impact behavior, they aren’t usually sustainable. In many cases, they even reduce job performance while increasing anxiety.

“Apps don’t really do a great job,” Luster says. “They are not a silver bullet. The excuses are always there.” If you use an app and feel that it keeps you on track, you don’t have to delete it. But beware the common pitfall of seeking the elusive “perfect” app, which can become its own form of procrastination.

6.   Be realistic about what can be done

In our productivity-obsessed world, it’s easy to lose perspective of what can be realistically accomplished in one day. For working adult students, many with families and other commitments, that balance can seem even further out of reach.

To put things into perspective, Luster recommends asking yourself why a given task is important and how it fits into your overall goals.

Be mindful of overfilling your schedule, which can lead to burnout, stress and perpetuation of the procrastination cycle. And remember that decent sleep, regular meals and a daily dose of sunshine are essential for all humans — not luxuries reserved for people with less to do.

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7.   Reach out for help if you’re struggling

How do we know if our tendency to delay has crossed the line from bad habit to serious issue?

“If you can’t function, that’s when you need to seek help,” Luster says.

Some signs of trouble are severing relationshipsundermining your performance at work or school or suffering disrupted sleep or diminished health.

University of Phoenix has a wealth of resources available 24/7 for students. For starters, the Life Resource Center offers counseling sessions face-to-face, virtually or on the phone. Wellness workshops, financial consulting and peer support groups are also freely available.

Procrastination pointers

Despite applying these strategies, you might still find yourself procrastinating on a task you dread. Remember, you are not alone in the procrastination struggle. In this fast-paced world, productivity apps and endless distraction tempt us daily. So, when you find yourself avoiding a to-do list or putting off an assignment until the last minute, don’t berate yourself. Instead, use it as an opportunity to tune in: Your brain is trying to communicate underlying stress or anxiety.

That is the first step toward empowering yourself on a more productive, less stressful academic and life journey.

Headshot of Claire O'Brien


Claire O’Brien has led copywriting teams for Hilton Worldwide Corporate’s creative studio and advertising agencies specializing in the real estate, hospitality, education and travel industries. In 2020, she founded More Better Words, a boutique copywriting agency that taps into her global connections. She lives in Costa Rica with her husband and six rescue dogs.


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