How can I kick this procrastination habit once and for all?
May 24, 2012 12:34 PM   Subscribe

I am at wits end with myself. How can I kick this procrastination habit once and for all (despite many failures)?

I am a junior in college (I'm going to be a senior next semester). Since high school, I've always had this nasty habit of procrastination. However, it was manageable back then, and I was able to maintain an A average through it all. The first two years of college were similar--I could wake up at 3AM, write essays in 3 hours, and still manage to get very high scores (my gpa is nearly a 4.0...despite one A minus). But ever since I went a severe depressive episode earlier this year, I have really fallen off. I can't scrounge up the motivation to finish anything, and the procrastination and 3am writing binges have really taken their toll. My body (and my brain) refuses to take the strain of it any longer, and would much rather be lying on the couch or inanely scrolling through Tumblr. I'm unable to concentrate in class, I become stir-crazy when I have to sit through anything. Without external motivation (which involves avoiding imminent failure), there is really nothing that can force me to do it anymore. Now, I just resign myself to watching the deadlines pass by. The work has slowly piled up, and here I am--I've managed to dig a hole so deep I can't vision a way out of it.

I can't help but think about how my depression plays into this. I've been on medication (Wellbutrin) for the past 6 weeks, but the medication is taking a while to work. Even now, I still can't even force myself to get up and do the most menial tasks. Since that depressive episode, every attempt at last-minute work has failed, triggering even more anxiety and worsening my depression--a vicious cycle. After getting a letter from my psychiatrist, I managed to haggle with some of my professors to allow for some incompletes so I can slowly try to make my way through all the work that has piled up. But, since I'm a senior next year, I cannot afford to stick with this toxic habit anymore. I've tried some techniques to help with procrastination (e.g. using a timer, offering an award at the end of a task), but these methods have not worked for me. I feel like my habit has been so ingrained into me, and so difficult to break, it's as if I'm hard-wired to be a self-saboteur. And I really, really cannot afford to do it anymore, especially with the crazy workload I have senior year (which includes fellowship activities, a research job, and too many seminars to count). Quick fixes don't seem to cut it anymore, so what I'm asking is: how can I slowly start "de-programming" myself (which I want to do over the summer), so I can beat this thing?

In short, I hate the way I am & I hate the way I do things,

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
This is not super helpful, but I have found that over time Wellbutrin sort of saps my motivation. YMMV.
posted by craniac at 12:39 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wish someone had told me it was OK to take some time off, or withdraw from courses when I was having similar issues.
posted by MonsieurBon at 12:42 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I used to procrastinate a lot and did a lot of all-nighters. I know this sounds judgmental, but the only real answer is willpower. If you don't have the strength of will to make yourself work, nothing will help you. No "mind hacks" or psychological tricks will work. You just need to do it.

It is likely that your procrastination is the cause of your depression, not the other way around.
posted by twblalock at 12:43 PM on May 24, 2012

Recently someone on Metafilter suggestedThe Now Habit by Neil Fiore, and now I recommend it to you. I only wish I'd found it when I was your age.

I'm not one for self-help books (as I know I've also said before on Ask Metafilter) but it really worked for me. Not completely solving it -- but it helps me reframe the issue -- which has made me much, much, much less anxious/depressed about getting things done -- which, in turn, has helped me get things done more.

(It also means I'm not on Metafilter as much, but them's the breaks; in turn, I enjoy my time on Metafilter a lot more when I'm not using it as a work-avoider.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:50 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

I wish someone had told me it was OK to take some time off, or withdraw from courses when I was having similar issues.

Yes, you need to get away for awhile--any chance of your taking the summer off? Maybe traveling or taking a job somewhere? Or some combination of the two....

I have been through your stage in undergrad and graduate school (was never medicated for it); and, now, in my professional life, when I feel this coming on, I know I've hit a wall and it's time for a vacation. Not everyone has this luxury, but it's truly necessary for me.
posted by resurrexit at 12:51 PM on May 24, 2012

This was me a couple of decades ago. Really.

Looking back at college and future years, it is clear to me that while the two generate their own special self-reinforcing vicious downward spiral, its the depression that initially sets off the procrastination, and you have to deal with that first.

IANYAnything and especially not your doctor or shrink, but if I could go talk to my college self, here's what I'd say:

- Get help for the depression. First. Meds are pretty much of an matter of intelligent guesses, but when you find the right one it can be a miracle. Wellbutrin is good and gives you some energy, but I completely agree with craniac that over time it can be de-motivating and just wierd. In particular it seems to make writing hard for lots of people, especially if you're taking the generic Buproprion. (there's good discussion of this on the crazymeds boards) Some people have reported very good results with Lamictal, which is an anti-seizure drug also used for bi-polar, but don't let that scare you. (Note that Wellbutrin actually increases seizure risk, but no one really knows how either of those are related to relieving depression.)

- Stop the caffeine. You don't mention it, but I'm betting you're a heavy coffee drinker. Try downshifting to black tea then green then nothing. It makes a difference, especially in your sleep. The all-nighters will fuck you up.

- This may seem like a contradiction, but also talk to your pdoc about Ritalin. Adderall may also be an option, but most people find Ritalin to be more focusing and motivating than Adderall. Somewhere there a blog post by a p-doc called how to use Ritalin, which gives good advice.

- Exercise. Bla bla bla you've heard that before.

Your older self will thank you later.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 1:09 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

My depression acted on me similarly -- I felt like I was slogging through mud every time I had to think about something even remotely complicated. I'm also on Wellbutrin, which helps me with the depressed-mood part but not the sluggish-brain part. I had to do some medication experimentation to fix that, and probably you will too. Have you thought about asking your pdoc about supplementing the Wellbutrin with something else? Or just trying a different drug outright, if the Wellbutrin really isn't doing anything for you? In my case, the miracle drug for my focus was Abilify (it's an atypical antipsychotic, but don't let that freak you out) -- it was like magic, within a week of starting it I could work again.

While I was going through the figuring-out-medication dance, I also did some workshopping with my therapist about how to get going even when my motivation was in the basement. She did something that sounds like it ought to be counterproductive, but wasn't: she asked me to try to work on something on a set time schedule, like every half hour, but -- this is the key part -- she gave me permission to quit each work session the moment my focus drifted. At first I could only get through maybe 5 minutes every hour, but gradually my work-stamina built up again and between that and the Abilify I can now put in 8-hour days on my PhD dissertation.

Good luck. Depression is hard -- be strong when you can, and try to be kind to yourself when you can't.
posted by dorque at 1:30 PM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've been there. A few thoughts:

1. Having a lot going on means that you have a lot of "thought stuff" competing for slices of brain time. As you add activities, you move from being able to think deeply about a few things, to shallowly about several, to not being able to think AT ALL about anything because every thought is interrupted by another thought. It is really paralyzing. Priority 1 should be paring your list of activities down to the bare minimum.

2. You need non-mentally-engaged downtime. I used to think that I was "relaxing" by scrolling through amusing internet sites, but that's not restorative. In fact, I'm coming to the opinion that staring at any kind of brightly colored screen is not really relaxing at all. Staring off into space for a while, going for a long walk without any kind of technology with you (no phones, iPods, etc) is the way to go to restore some mental energy.

3. Related to number 3, I've found it helpful occasionally to go somewhere off the grid to get work done. Being disconnected from the cloud helps to bring a sense of focus because you don't have to fight the temptation to be off looking at the latest on Metafilter or whatever. Temptation itself, even if you don't yield to it, takes up precious mental energy that can be used for doing other stuff. Also, being away from home removes all those "home-y" task thoughts like "I should really do the dishes".

4. Timers have been a godsend for me. I don't know how you've used them, but if you're setting them for 1-2 hours then maybe you've been setting them too long. Try 15 minutes or 7 minutes or whatever the lowest threshhold is that you can concentrate on something. If it's only 5 minutes, fine, start from there. That's better than nothing. Success in concentrating for small chunks of time often provides just enough mental momentum to allow you to keep working for a longer period of time.
posted by sherlockt at 1:31 PM on May 24, 2012 [19 favorites]

Hey there.

I'm a former (sometimes relapsed) procrastinator.

I did not struggle with clinical depression, so I can't speak to that. See a therapist (it looks like you have/are.

Anyway, how did I stop procrastinating?

I just started doing shit. Specifically, I'd break my shit into little tiny shits and then clean up those tiny shits before tackling the big shit.

But all that is secondary if you don't take the first step and start doing things.

It's simple, but, it worked for me.

Maybe it can work for you, too!
posted by Tevin at 2:28 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was literally about to post on here with exactly the same question, but the fact is that I - and you, probably - already know where we're going wrong.

Seconding what sherlockt said, Freedom has been an absolute godsend for getting things done. You set it to take you offline for a set period of time so you can do nothing but work, but at the moment it's problematic because I need to do a lot of research on the web, and that inevitably leads to a chain of distractions.

I've also got Nanny for Google Chrome set to block sites (including mefi, sorry!) between 8am and 6pm, which does seem to be retraining my brain not to visit those sites during the day.

But the best piece of advice, again seconding sherlockt, is to use the ten minute/two minute rule, which I read about on the web somewhere. Basically, you work for ten minutes, then take a break and do something completely unrelated for two minutes. Rinse and repeat, and eventually you'll find that you'll work for a lot longer than ten minutes, and those two minute breaks will become a lot less frequent.

Good luck, I'll be keeping an eye on this thread too.
posted by hnnrs at 3:16 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a college student as well, and your "story" sounds so similar to mine -- same problem, same thing.

Here's the solution that has totally saved my college career: write down everything that you do throughout the day, from the time that you wake up to the time that you go to bed.

7:40am -- Wake Up
7:55am -- Breakfast
8:10am -- Read NYT
8:17am -- Get Dressed
8:23am -- Check Facebook

This sounds ridiculously neurotic right? Wrong.

Here's what this accomplishes:

1. Your time is held accountable. If you do this right, you'll never have that feeling, "why couldn't I have just started this earlier; what the fuck did I do all day?!" because your whole day is right there in front of you, written down.

2. Guilt yourself into doing work. Personally, I can only write down "check Facebook," "get a snack," "watch TV" so many times before I lose my fucking mind because I know that I have something to do. Simply put, the fact that you're wasting time will be constantly reinforced.

3. You'll ask yourself "what do I want to do now?" way more often. Listing what you're doing forces you to take a step back and make real time management decisions, versus aimlessly bouncing from one thing to another. This is good.

Really try this. I honestly can't tell you how much better school is for me now that I've adopted this strategy -- it has changed everything.
posted by lobbyist at 3:18 PM on May 24, 2012 [19 favorites]

If you are at the point where you are berating yourself to get things done and still can't get things done, and none of the common tricks work for you, I recommend CBT or DBT, and therapy in general. Meds are helpful (an absolute necessity in my particular case) but you must change the way you look at things in order to be effective long term.

Your school has a counseling center; utilize their services. Get a recommendation from your primary care provider or another doctor in your hometown if you're away from campus for the summer. Also read this article to get a bit of insight into your habits/motivation.

(Depression does not play well with forced obsessiveness, in my opinion.)
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 3:53 PM on May 24, 2012

I'm right there with you. Consider hiring some kind of academic coach? I know there are dissertation coaches, so I'm assuming there are general academic coaches as well. Otherwise, try bringing your stuff to a library with no phone, no Internet access, etc, and preferably a study buddy or two who are also procrastinators and NOT close friends of yours. Make yourself stay there all day.

Over the summer, practice just gluing your ass to the chair every day for an hour or so and do some kind of marginally academic research on a topic that interests you... Just to try and build a habit of doing regular, daily work according to a set schedule. The stakes are basically zero since it's not real schoolwork, which should take the anxiety out of the equation while you literally practice working.
posted by désoeuvrée at 4:01 PM on May 24, 2012

I struggled with procrastination throughout my academic career. Now that i'm in grad school (almost done), and with a professional full time job, the answer really has been JUST DO IT. I still procrastinate sometimes (like right now reading askmefi) but it's gotten 1000 times better with no meds.

Reading books about ways to stop procrastinating is in and of itself procrastinating. I don't recommend this, but of course YMMV.

I'm at a point where I literally cannot procrastinate, because the consequences are real and immediate and extremely detrimental. Maybe you haven't experienced or can't internalize the consequences of failure to the point where not failing is motivation enough. You are now starting to see that you can't do what you've been doing and keep up with decent results, so, you know, stop doing it. Instead of checking this question 20 times for responses, go get something done. It helps to actually make a list of what you need to do ordered by importance. It might seem overwhelming, but you need to see and know what needs done, and then you need to start doing it.

Instead of looking at everything that you have to do and feeling like it's overwhelming and you don't know where to start, just pick one important thing, and knock it down bit by bit. The accomplishment you feel at FINALLY GETTING SOMETHING DONE that's not last minute should hopefully fuel you along. Rinse and Repeat.
posted by sarahnicolesays at 4:34 PM on May 24, 2012

sarahnicolesays: I'm at a point where I literally cannot procrastinate, because the consequences are real and immediate and extremely detrimental.

How interesting. For me, internalizing this kind of thinking actually caused me to procrastinate more because everything took on an "Oh my god! The sky will fall if I can't do this right/disappoint someone/fail" and so I just didn't do anything. For me, I had to learn that everything would actually be ok if I fucked up sometimes. The world wouldn't end, no one would hate me (or if they did, there wasn't much I could do about it), I would continue to be loved.

I recommend The Now Habit as well because it takes a positive approach to getting things done. I still procrastinate sometimes, but at least procrastination doesn't send me into a downward spiral of hating myself anymore or feeling like the world will end.

In short, I hate the way I am & I hate the way I do things,

Stop talking to yourself this way. You are awesome and smart and are headed down the right path. Hang in there and know that we are rooting for you no matter what grades you get.

I have these phrases (from the book) posted under my computer to help me when I am getting off track:

Change: "I have to . . ." to "I choose to . . ."
"I must finish!" to "When can I start?"
"This project is so big and important!" to "I can take one small step."
"I must be perfect" to "I can be perfectly human"
"I don't have time to play" to "I must take time to play!"

Good luck!
posted by Mouse Army at 5:50 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might want to check out Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.

Somewhere in the book, the author talks about how perfectionism fuels procrastination. Those of us who feel we have to do everything right handicap ourselves with procrastination. It provides an excuse. "That ____ I did sucked because I didn't have enough time." As Mouse Army said, it's okay to fuck things up sometimes.

You're in college, so the last thing you probably want is another book to read. But it's really helped me with the problems you mention.
posted by tenaciousd at 9:59 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know people already said this (and was probably referring to me) but I'm recommending "The Now Habit" :-) I'm not really one for self-help books, either, but it really does help. I do fall off the wagon occasionally, but it really does help when I'm following the rules.

I wish I'd learned of this book before I quit my PhD program - I LOVED the subject but was feeling burnt out and just resentful of all the work I was doing, and hardly ever being able to see my friends and then feeling guilty the few times I did see them. This book offers a way to balance your life and work not more, but more efficiently.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 11:50 AM on May 25, 2012

I had a lifelong procrastination problem. Like you, I was able to cope by doing everything at the last minute and generally coasting on my wits. But eventually it became hard for me to keep up that pace - it wasn't a depressive episode that did it, just getting older and not having the stamina anymore.

Anyway, the only thing that enabled me to start developing better habits was getting diagnosed with and beginning treatment for ADHD. I am not suggesting that you necessarily have ADHD, but if this has been an intractible issue for your entire life (ie, before you were depressed, as ADHD and depression have a few similar symptoms), it may be worth looking into.

Beyond that, nthing what people are saying about burnout. A 4.0 GPA can be really difficult to maintain, and isn't really necessary for most people.

Medication alone didn't solve my procrastination problem, but it did help me actually implement some solutions. My current strategy is is twofold. First, I write down everything I have to do at the beginning of the day, in one place (a planner). Anything left over from the day before goes in that list, and I try to break everything down into the smallest task possible. Throughout the day, when I get another thing to do, it goes in the list. I find that, when you're feeling aimless and procrastinate-y, it's really important to have that very solid, very practical list.

As for how I use it - whenever I'm ready to start a new task, I look at the list of things that need to be done. I try to go in order of what needs to get done first. BUT sometimes that can bite you in the ass, if there's something big that needs to be done that you are absolutely dreading. Actually, I've found that I have my worst procrastination spells when I'm avoiding something I'm dreading for an emotional. So I will either pick something that I'm dreading less, or try to figure out the emotion at the root of my dread. Do I feel anxious about it? Does it just seem like it will be boring? And then I try to find a way to lessen the negatives. Like, I really hate phone call chores, like calling the cable company or the doctor or whatever. So i might just schedule a time to make all those calls, psych myself up to do them, and do it. Then I've gotten all those calls out of the way for a while.

Oh, and I ALWAYS take a break when I'm done with a task. Even if it just took like 5 minutes. Even if the break is just getting up and walking around the building, or spending a minute on facebook. This might seem dangerous, but I find it helps me focus more when I am on task.
posted by lunasol at 3:17 PM on May 25, 2012

I really like how You Are Not So Smart addresses this topic.
posted by spiderskull at 11:22 PM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let me guess - you're smart, and you know it. You're a perfectionist, and you hold yourself to a high standard. You know exactly what you're doing, yet you keep on doing it.

The problem is that you see doing work as achieving a goal - that it's about an end product that you have to deliver, not a process. That's kind of a myth - the mountain climber's journey that takes them to the top of the mountain isn't a single heroic act but rather the cumulative result of the boring act of putting one foot after another.

Focusing on the goal and not the process makes you criticize everything that you do; thus even the first step locks you in a self-critical perfectionist paralysis.

Are there things that you do that aren't goal-oriented? Do you love to cook, or take a walk, or just wander around? Play checkers or board games for the hell of it? Think about what you like about those activities, and why you do them, and how, and how your mindset is so different when you're 'playing', versus when you're trying to 'perfecting'.
posted by suedehead at 12:13 PM on May 28, 2012

I was in a very similar situation a few months ago and I felt the anxiety creep up on me as the work exponentially piled up. I would lay in bed all day knowing I was only making things worse…it was a vicious, iterative cycle and the more I procrastinated, the deep the depression felt.

Baby steps got me through it. I didn't try to instantaneously snap my fingers and get to work and feel better. I talked with my instructors, got a few extensions and gradually trained myself to do more tasks throughout the day. At first, it felt exhausting but I would just shut off my brain and do simple things. Thoughts would pop into my head like "ugh, I don't want to fold my laundry" or "bahhhhh, pleaseeee don't make me read read that chapter" but that was my signal to shut off my brain, and just do the task at that moment. I started to condition myself to just do things when I heard myself say "I don't want to…" A lot of the time, I pretended to be a robot and just do tasks without over-thinking them.

When I had more complex tasks to do, I would always start with something productive but simple, like clear off my desk, or make an outline for an essay. Normally, I would find myself wanting to do these simple tasks for hours while avoiding bigger ones, but my perspective was that these things would motivate me. Perspective is key. Once I completed a little task, I gave myself a mental check mark and felt more motivated to move on to other things. Sometimes I would actually write the tasks down on a piece of paper and get out my biggest, squeakiest permanent marker and cross it out…just to feel that instant gratification.

Don't expect perfection along the way. Many times I found myself drifting back to my bed…needing a nap for a mental break, but I would set a timer and make sure to get up. The more I proved to myself that I could accomplish what I set out to do, the more motivated I felt, and in turn, the less I procrastinated. Though, like I said…baby steps.
posted by jpritcha at 2:20 PM on June 21, 2012

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