How to stop procrastinating : Life Kit Putting off items in your to-do list isn't a sign of laziness. It's your inner critic coming to life. Revisit your relationship with procrastination — and learn tools to kick the habit.

Why we procrastinate — and how to stop

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T K DUTES, HOST:

There's often a gap between what we're currently doing and what we feel like we should be doing.

ANASTASIA LOCKLIN: So the best way to describe this is imagining you have your present self and you have your future self.

DUTES: While setting long-term goals is seen as necessary and valuable for our future selves, it can still feel exceedingly difficult to get our present selves to act.

LOCKLIN: Your present self often values immediate gratification over the long-term goals.

DUTES: The enemy of our future selves - procrastination. Whether it's filing our taxes on April 14 or filling up your gas tank on the way to work instead of the night before like you thought you should, we all do it to various extremes and results. I'm T.K. Dutes. In this episode of LIFE KIT, we talk to Anastasia Locklin, a licensed therapist and recovering procrastinator. This episode isn't a substitute for therapy, but we'll cover what procrastination is, how it's sometimes linked with perfectionism, FOMO - fear of missing out, y'all - and we'll give you some strategies to help combat it today - like, not waiting, today (laughter).

MEGHAN KEANE, BYLINE: Hey there - LIFE KIT's managing producer Meghan Keane here. Before we jump back into the episode, we want to say welcome to any new LIFE KIT listeners. We're really glad you're here. You can expect each episode to have helpful takeaways to get you started on whatever life project you're looking to tackle. There are episodes on money, physical and mental health, parenting and much more. So take a look around. We're sure there's an episode that answers a question you've been asking yourself. OK - onto the episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUTES: Let's just jump into the main thing of it. So how do you define procrastination?

LOCKLIN: So procrastination is typically a dysfunctional way of coping with unwanted emotions and feelings of anxiety, depressive feelings, self-doubt or even fear. Chronic procrastination is an inability to regulate negative or fearful emotions or feelings.

DUTES: OK. So I was coming into this thinking that procrastination was really literally just the act of putting things off. But it's - you're saying it's the act of putting things off because I'm struggling with an internal feeling.

LOCKLIN: Oh, absolutely.

DUTES: Yikes.

(LAUGHTER)

LOCKLIN: But that's a good thing - right? - just kind of the inside - OK, what am I struggling with, right? Like, what is it? - and being able to sit there and kind of identify it with yourself. It's not a bad thing.

DUTES: Yeah.

LOCKLIN: It's just - allows you to have more awareness.

DUTES: Yeah. So I think another thing that folks are dealing with that have this issue a lot - I know I do - people that deal in being perfectionists, right?

LOCKLIN: Absolutely, yes.

DUTES: What is it about the perfectionist personality that goes hand in hand with procrastination.

LOCKLIN: The perfectionism-procrastination process cycle - it stems from typically being uncomfortable with an emotion attached to doing, so either engaging in the behavior that you're putting off or engaging in a task. And so the thought is, OK, if I can't do it perfect or if I don't believe I can do it perfect right now, then I just don't - I won't do it. I'll just wait until I'm in a setting or situation where I can be completely perfect at it. And it's unrealistic and irrational because we typically are going to have some sort of reason why things can't be perfect. And what happens is people will wait till the very last minute because they have to do it.

DUTES: Wow. OK, so now (laughter), first of all, what got you interested in helping people deal with perfectionism and procrastination?

LOCKLIN: I've struggled with procrastination and perfectionism since I was about 12 years old. And so it really started showing up for me in college when, literally, I was always asking for extensions, and I would be just having panic attacks to the point where I wasn't able to produce and excel, you know? And so procrastination and perfectionism is something that really has the ability to cripple us. And so it was so imperative that I do the work and I do the inner work, and I identified, OK, what were my barriers to procrastination and perfectionism? And how can I get to a place of loving myself unconditionally no matter where I was in life?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUTES: So what would you say - what was the self-work that you did?

LOCKLIN: To self-work initially was identifying, you know, what were my barriers to productivity and identifying who and what was my inner critic.

DUTES: The inner critic is, like, that - it's that little monster on your shoulder - right? - like, that's talking smack to you all day (laughter), so...

LOCKLIN: Oh, absolutely. It doesn't stop.

DUTES: Do you shut it down? Or do you just say - well, 'cause, it's a part of you still, right? So you can't - should you shut it down? Is it, like, a thing that you shut down all the way? Or is it like, you have to just do certain actions to satisfy the inner critic a little bit so that you can, like, work on your whole self? I don't know. This is getting real meta for me right now.

LOCKLIN: Oh, this is - no, but you're right-on. You're right-on. A piece of advice I give my clients and I've had to work through myself is, I've had to learn how to combat negative self-talk in context of procrastination. And it's really doing the inner work and identifying who your inner critic is, where your negative self-talk stems from. But what is important to understand is that your inner critic is crafted over time from an absorption from caregivers, from teachers, from coaches, from siblings, from failed relationships, failed friendships.

And over time, that voice sounds so much like your own, but that voice is not your own. So I think the first step is, you know, doing that inner work and identifying, OK, what is really going on for me? What is my negative self-talk telling me? - and identifying that the voice is not yours 'cause we're all powerful and purposeful human beings.

DUTES: OK, so now that, you know, we've got our intentions set for greatness or, you know - or just at least, like, loving myself today, this is - today, I love myself. Tomorrow, I love myself. And the next day, I will forever love myself. Now that I'm going into the world like that, the task that I'm procrastinating on is still there. The people are waiting for me. They're relying on me. And every day I don't do it is getting worse and worse. OK, now what? (Laughter) The real procrastination work.

LOCKLIN: One solution that I use and one solution that I work with my clients is called the Ivy Lee method. And what the Ivy Lee method is, is at the end of the day, you write down six of the most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. And it's just six. You don't keep adding on to that list, and you prioritize those six items in the order of their true importance. So what six things have to get done, and what six things have to get done in a priority type of way? So what's the most important? What's the second most important? What's the third most important?

And once you arrive to your desk area or your working area, you only concentrate on one task at a time. And then before you move on to the next task, you're focusing on mastering or completing the one in front of it. You basically approach the rest of the list in the same fashion. And at the end of the day, you move any unfinished things that you didn't get to in that six up in the list of priority. And then you kind of just keep, you know, jotting them down and knocking them down as you can.

DUTES: OK, so Ivy Lee method - and doesn't matter how big or how small the tasks are - right? - 'cause I've seen other life coach people or therapists - people will say like, you know, well, take tiny chunks. But, I mean, let me know if I'm jumping out the window with this.

LOCKLIN: OK.

DUTES: But if I'm taking tiny chunks, and somebody's at the other side waiting for this project to be done, it's not going to get done for the good of everybody involved, right?

LOCKLIN: Right, right. Absolutely. And, you know, also being able to use your natural patterns so - to your advantage - so if you tend to be more alert in the morning, get that thing that someone's waiting on, or that, you know, as a result of you finishing something, another task can be completed by someone else, especially if you're working collaboratively - get that done. So if there's a time that you feel OK, maybe midafternoon, you're more relaxed, maybe that's the time to organize, that's the time to clean, that's the time to get your list together. So just being able to naturally and intuitively work with your own strong points are going to allow you to be more effective and more productive.

DUTES: OK. That makes sense. I'm definitely better, like - like, right now is my peak time.

LOCKLIN: Yeah, me too.

DUTES: After this, I've - I crash.

(LAUGHTER)

DUTES: You can't get anything out of me after that. OK, so we have Ivy Lee method - six task, and we're focusing on six task. Then we're also doing the most important ones at our peak time. That is so key right there. And where in all of this does a therapist fit there?

LOCKLIN: A therapist can always fit in.

(LAUGHTER)

LOCKLIN: Well, the type of therapy that's most effective for procrastination and even identifying, you know, your negative self-talk with cognitive behavioral therapy - and what cognitive behavioral therapy is - it's a goal-oriented, problem-oriented psychotherapy treatment. So think of it like a - kind of like a triangle, right? In CBT therapy, a therapist would help you identify, what are your thoughts about completing a task, about engaging in the behavior that you know that you need to do or complete?

And then once you identify your thoughts about it, you can identify what feelings come up for you. And so understanding your thoughts and your feelings and then understanding what kind of behaviors follows allows us to combat and work through whatever barriers may be in the way of you procrastinating or you struggling with perfectionism.

DUTES: As a therapist, as a person who kind of does these interventions with people - right? - like, on the daily, what would you say to someone who thinks they procrastinate because they're lazy or unmotivated?

LOCKLIN: Well, someone that feels that way - I think it's very important to identify, like, where those feelings are coming from, and if it is something they were told, if they're comparing themself to someone - and really processing and exploring where those negative thoughts about self come from. And, you know, one thing I always tell my clients is, we can always change our narrative. So OK, let's work with what you have. You're saying you're lazy. You're saying you're unmotivated. Where would you like to be?

DUTES: Right.

LOCKLIN: And then from there identifying - what are the steps to get there? - even if it means, OK, one day at a time, you're going to be more productive than the day prior, and celebrating every single success, even small ones.

DUTES: Yeah, definitely. As a woman of color, I and many of my friends have this same thing that we do. So we are great at work. We are great in the world where we have to have that forward face. And at home is tough, right? Our self-care comes last.

LOCKLIN: Yes.

DUTES: Everything that we have to do for ourselves is basically - we procrastinate on. So what is that about? Like, why do we procrastinate self-care and rest?

LOCKLIN: Well, I don't think I can speak for all women of color, but I think cultural components typically come into play with that. It's like, we're taught to take care of everyone. It's, like, programmed in us due to family dynamics, and we were socialized that way. I know personally, for myself, as a woman of color, some of the things that I've been told is that if you care for yourself and only care about yourself, then you're selfish.

And I think sometimes, we attach our self-worth to our own productivity, and we're only as valuable as how successful we are. And then that makes us almost put our own self-care and self-preservation on the back burner. Another concept that comes up is imposter syndrome. And what imposter syndrome is - it's the idea that we hold internally that we're only successful due to luck and not because of our own talent and our own merit. And so imposter syndrome can be a barrier to us believing that we deserve permission to take a break, to rest and to care for ourselves.

DUTES: Yeah. So now what do I do? Like, I'm talking about myself primarily right here. And I'm going to just say on behalf of all my girlfriends and whoever else needs to hear it, but, like, intellectually, like you said, I know that the ship will keep on going. The place will run itself. But there is something about being left out or missing out on the meeting or whatever, and next thing you know, it's been six months. I got, you know, dark under-eye circles, and I just - I can't get out of the cycle.

LOCKLIN: Right, right.

DUTES: Like, I literally sometimes have an anxious response to the thought of taking a vacation (laughter).

LOCKLIN: OK. So what I say to that is, you have to schedule it out - right? - so the complete opposite of procrastination, right? It's like, OK, it's January, right? So we're in January right now.

DUTES: Yeah.

LOCKLIN: Take the time, and whether it be six months, whether it be nine months - but I wouldn't wait that long. You know, identify, when is a good time? Even if there's nothing you have to do - but being able to give yourself permission to step away and know that, you know, that break or that rest is going to allow you to be more effective and more productive when you come out - 'cause burnout is a real thing...

DUTES: Yeah.

LOCKLIN: You know? And being able to put yourself first and prioritize yourself is actually a strength.

DUTES: Yeah. And I think that what you said about scheduling time off, it makes sense to me because it gives me a chance to get ahead of all the possible things that could go wrong when I'm gone because I think that a million things are going to go wrong. I'm sort of feeding into like, OK, well, then I'll work extra hard at the top of the year so that when I take my vacation, I'm less stressed out. So that's cool. Like, as long as I give the people the opportunity to not burn the house down while I'm gone, that's all I need to know, and then I think I'll feel better taking some time or not procrastinating that.

LOCKLIN: Absolutely. And then one thing - another thing that you can do as well is, like, having systems in place, right? And so because you're planning a time off, you're able to identify, OK, are you able to delegate? OK, who can you delegate to? In the case of an emergency, an absolute emergency - right? - like, are you able to be contacted and by who, right? So identifying your boundaries and identifying systems that will allow you to have confidence to step away and give yourself that rest that you deserve.

DUTES: Yes. Oh, I clapped a little for boundaries.

LOCKLIN: (Laughter) Yes.

DUTES: I did (laughter).

LOCKLIN: Boundaries are everything. That's a whole nother episode, right?

DUTES: Yeah, yeah. Let me put a pin in that one - boundaries (laughter).

LOCKLIN: Yes.

DUTES: Is it procrastination when we prioritize doing things for other people? Like, for example, I recently built my mom a whole online shop for her hobby, not even her job. And I still need a website for myself or to update mine. The enormity of my own thing feel - it just feels like so much. But why was I able to do hers? You know? Is that a type of procrastination when we do for others?

LOCKLIN: I think so. You know, when we're doing for others - especially people like myself, and it sounds like you as well - we're helpers, right? And so there is a need to be needed sometimes. And so by allowing ourselves to be productive and show up for somebody else can sometimes even be more easy or more satisfying than showing up for our own selves.

DUTES: Ooh, girl.

LOCKLIN: Yes.

DUTES: (Laughter).

LOCKLIN: That's something I had to even, you know, work through in the beginning of my career. It's like, OK, I can show up for my eight clients in a day, but when it came to me eating healthy, when it came to, you know, me trying to move my body and exercise, it was like, oh, I'll get to it tomorrow; I'll get to it next week; I'ma (ph) start next Monday; I'ma start next month. Then - you know?

And one thing we have to identify and we have to understand is, if we don't take care of ourselves, we're going to be no good for anybody after a while because we will burn out. And we'll start to feel like, OK, we're helping everybody else get their stuff together, and, you know, internally and maybe even externally, we're falling apart.

DUTES: Wow. OK, lots of food for thought here. Do you think procrastination can ever be a good thing?

LOCKLIN: I think sometimes procrastination can be a positive, you know, decision if it's planned and strategic. You know, one thing my grandmother used to always tell me that I always resort back to when I feel like I need to do all these things at one time and it overwhelms me is there's seasons sometimes in life, right? And so we all go through seasons. We all go through ebb and flow.

And sometimes it's OK to say, you know what? My hands are tied. My hands are full on these four, three, five projects, whatever it is. And it's OK to put things aside and revisit them when you're in a better place or you have more time to get things done in an effective manner.

DUTES: And to recap, here's some tips for dealing with procrastination. No. 1, try to avoid negative self-talk. Spend time identifying your inner critic, that little monster on your shoulder.

LOCKLIN: Who is your inner critic? Where is your inner critic coming from? And having hope and faith and trusting yourself enough to know that you can always change your narrative.

DUTES: Tip two - just start. Like I said, now, today, just start.

LOCKLIN: Identify small goals. So even setting a goal for 10 minutes - right? - that can easily turn into a few hours.

DUTES: Tip No. 3 - learn how to prioritize tasks. Anastasia recommends trying the Ivy Lee method.

LOCKLIN: At the end of the day, you write down six of the most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow, and it's just six.

DUTES: Write them down in order of importance, and don't move on to the next item until you've finished what you're working on. Tip No. 4 - don't be too hard on yourself. Remember; every success is just that - a success. Win, win, win.

LOCKLIN: OK, you identified six things that need to get done, and if you master three or you get three done, that's OK - right? - and celebrating every single small success.

DUTES: Tip five - listen to your body, and try to align your most demanding task with the time of day you tend to feel most energized for focused.

LOCKLIN: So just being able to naturally and intuitively work with your own strong points are going to allow you to be more effective and more productive.

DUTES: And tip No. 6 - if you're struggling to address procrastination on your own, a professional can help.

LOCKLIN: It's OK to not be OK sometimes.

DUTES: We've got an episode about how to start therapy if this last tip is something that resonates with you. We cover how to find low-cost options and how to find the right therapist.

For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on how to drink less, and I've hosted one about how to cope with anxiety and the news. I think you should go back to that for sure. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

And now a completely random tip, this time from listener Amanda Villanueva.

AMANDA VILLANUEVA: This is a tip for people who use mouth guards or retainers. When they're soft and pliable, sometimes they can get some buildup. And I've had my retainer for about four years now, and it was looking stained and sad. And I randomly found online that you can use denture cleaner as a way to use for daily cleaning to remove stains and to keep it fresh.

DUTES: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm T.K. Dutes. Thanks for listening.

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