Procrastination. It is a word that evokes much familiarity in the minds of university students everywhere. We all know what it is, we know the anxiety it brings, and yet most of us, including myself, cannot seem to stop it. For the longest time, I thought of procrastination as almost a built-in part of myself. No matter how I planned, I could never stop it. The problem was, I never understood the whys behind my negative habit. When I started to look at the why, I could understand more about my destructive habit, and little by little I began to see progress.

Why do we do it then? One common reason is explained in Tim Urban’s insightful and humorous TED Talk and on his blog Wait But Why. Urban explains that a procrastinator’s brain is often controlled by an “instant gratification monkey,” who can only focus on doing what feels easy and fun at the moment, always avoiding more difficult and less pleasant tasks. This behavior makes a procrastinator’s life ridiculously more difficult in the long term than the tasks they avoid in the short term. It probably does feel a lot better to watch that new Netflix mini-series instead of starting that 3000-word final paper. But this only brings short-term “happiness” and will not bring long-term fulfillment, only triggering extreme stress, regret, and self-loathing. 

While I agree with Urban about the ease of succumbing to instant gratification and its persistent role in a procrastinator’s life, I find myself grappling with two deeper reasons. One, I often procrastinate because I am paralyzed by fear of imperfection. Two, I am often overwhelmed and have no idea how to start. Based on further conversations with my peers, I find that these two reasons are commonly shared, especially in a community of high-achieving individuals at Berkeley. We have tons to do and extremely high expectations for ourselves, which is a breeding ground for what I call “stress-induced work paralysis”, leading to unwanted procrastination.

So, how do we break this habit once and for all? First, understand that procrastination is a habit built over time and is a habit that therefore must be broken over time. As you embark on the journey to ending procrastination, be patient and compassionate with yourself. Do not ruminate on your shortcomings; instead, remind yourself that you are learning something new, perfection is a myth, and that the next task is always a fresh start. 

Next, here are three strategies I have personally utilized to improve my procrastination habits:

Start with the easiest task first.

This strategy may be shocking, as most people would tell you to start with the hardest or most dreaded task to get it out of the way. However, for a recovering master procrastinator, that method is not effective. You need to start slow. Time yourself and finish a small task as fast as you can. By completing it, you show yourself that you are capable of finishing small tasks and build the confidence to take on bigger projects with less doubt.

Break tasks down into more manageable parts, taking them step by step. 

For a procrastinator, making one monumental to-do list with all unfinished tasks does nothing but create more stress. More than likely, this will result in almost nothing getting done. Instead, focus on one task, and whatever it takes to start it. Once that is done, keep moving through it in small increments until the crucial task is completed. Repeat this process with each subsequent task until your list is sufficiently shortened.

Reflect on your successes, and remind yourself of the end goals.

Remind yourself that you have beat procrastination before to get to where you are now and that you can keep doing it. Visualize how good it will feel to earn the grades you know you can achieve or to acquire that skill you’ve been thinking about for the last month. Once you start doing this, you will begin to strive for this long-term gratification over giving in to procrastination.

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