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55 ways to stop procrastination

55 ways to stop procrastination

Sometimes you want to get to the root causes of procrastination (anxiety, trauma, ADHD, hexed at birth by a local demon who your great-grandmother annoyed under a full moon) but sometimes you just wanna get the f*ck to work.

Here’s my massive master monster list of techniques, tactics, and respectfully supportive dirty tricks.

Since I’m a writer they’re geared at writers, but many will work for anyone. Some shift your brain state, some actually make the task easier, and some are pure chaos which can shock you right out of your problem. Some are stolen from famous writers. A few are cheeky.

All of them have worked for me.

1 LIST. List a few precise ways your work will help someone. Might your project give somebody useful information? Inspiration? Comfort? An exciting new kind of discomfort? A reason to live? A hands-on tip for fixing their car engine? List three to five specific ways your work today will help somebody else. Now, try writing.

2 BODY. Get back into yourself with a Full Body Scan guided meditation by secular mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn. (Listen on YouTube or get it free on the JKZ app) Now, try writing.

3 SPEED. Are you typing or are you writing by hand? They’re for different speeds of thought; maybe you’re driving in the wrong gear. Switch to the other. Now, try writing.

4. SIGH. Y’all, get into the physiological sigh. This breathing pattern fully opens your lung sacs (aka alveoli, which sounds upsettingly delicious) and reduces C02 in your body to decrease your stress response so you can focus with more ease. (Science fact.) Two short inhales through the nose (with no exhale in between) followed by one long exhale through the mouth, fully emptying the lungs. Repeat it all one to three times. You can exhale with an audible sigh if you’d like, or just let sighing be a metaphor. Sniff, sniff, slow blow out, repeat, repeat. Now, try writing.

5 OCEAN. My favorite music for writing is the iconic instrumental Become Ocean by John Luther Adams (stream it via YouTube, Spotify, or Apple Music.) The track clocks in at a graceful 42 minutes; the perfect length for one writing sprint. It has a slow build and ebb of palindromic orchestral music that mimics the beautiful, natural, and carefully organized rise and swell of one gigantic ocean wave. Ride it through one writing session and see where it can get you. (It won a Pulitzer Prize, but don’t let that put you off.) Cue up Become Ocean. Now, try writing.

6 NAP. I’m serious. You might simply be exhausted. Ask your body if you’re sleep-starved, then try again. Don’t run your car with no gas. Lie down in the dark for 35 minutes. Now, try writing.

7 EAT. Don’t run your car with no gas. Have a handful of peanuts or go full Garfield and have an entire lasagna. Your brain (science fact) uses 80% of your body’s total glucose; feed the beast. Now, try writing.

8 WATER. Don’t run your car with no gas! Drink 6 ounces of water, herbal tea, or another non-caffeinated, non-sugar, non-booze liquid. Your brain (science fact) is 75% water and even slight dehydration can cause focus, memory, and mood issues. Drink up. Now, try writing.

9 FART. Don’t run your car with too much gas. Are you holding something in? Holding one thing in means holding everything in. Release the butthole. Now, try writing.

10 CRY. You might need this even more than a good fart. Procrastination is driven by dopaminergic modulation in your limbic system, which also (largely) controls emotion. By changing your emotional texture, you’ll change your brain state and interrupt your procrastination patterning. Negative emotions are often easier to tune into than positive ones, so feel free to bring in the big guns and just sob it out. Let it loose. Straight from the eyeballs. Now, try writing.

11 CAFFIENE. Have a cup of coffee. Tea. Soda. If it’s not too near bedtime, get some caffeine in you. It’s a classic for a reason. Chug up. Now, try writing.

12 SHOWER. People often have sudden good ideas in the shower because activities like this engage what’s called the Default Mode Network (science fact) of the brain, which solves problems for us. Aaron Sorkin allegedly has a shower in his writing office and takes six to eight showers a day; he jumps in whenever he feels blocked. (He says so right here.) I don’t think it does much for the quality of his pages (personally I’m an absolute hater of his starchy soft-core fake-dad faux-intellectual tote bag liberal aesthetic, although if you love it I’m happy for you) but even as a hater I have to give him props for staying prolific. He really gets words done. You can, too. Get under the water. Now, try writing.

13 FAVORITE. Step away from the desk and think about a work of art that really moves you. A favorite book, movie, skyscraper, or meal. Anything man-made. Guess what? Someone made that. They were a person, like you are. You can make something wonderful. People do it every day. Now, try writing.

14 THREE. Add three words to your draft. You can put ‘em in a row or not. Don’t gotta be consecutive. Don’t gotta be anywhere near each other in the manuscript. They just have to belong somewhere in your project. Three words. Good. Stretch your shoulders. Now, put four words into your project the same way. Keep counting up (add five words, stretch, six words, stretch, seven words…) until you’ve accidentally started writing.

15 CLOTHES. Kids are more likely to persist on a tough task if they’re wearing a superhero cape. Adults are more likely to pay attention to detail if they’re wearing a scientist’s lab coat. (These are true facts.) Fashion shapes action. Change clothes. Suit up as your best self. Slip on the dress of someone who writes. Zip yourself in. Now, try writing.

16 MIRROR. Look in the mirror and tell yourself the very next thing you need to do. Make eye contact. Boss yourself properly. “We are gonna go finish that sentence in our Google doc, then we are gonna write 100 words before we give up.” Articulating your next step with clear specificity is half the power of this trick; the other half is the dopamine of novelty as you command yourself into it like a spooky wizard. Now, try writing.

17. NIGHTMARE. Write the really bad version of what you’re trying to do. The one you’re terrified you might make by accident. The cringe, the shame, the mortifying career-ender, the one that makes all your friends abandon you. This is not a “bad first draft you’ll fix later.” This is an exorcism. Write with a plan to burn it. You may end up surprised and want to keep some of it, but you can also actually burn it!!! Get it out of you. Now, try writing.

18 BIRTHDAY. This is my MVP tip. You ever engage a deep social drive to override your discomfort? 10/10, no notes. The how-to is a bit quirky so I gave this one its own post: my favorite procrastination quick fix.

19. MARKETING. Do the poster slogan, the press release, the book blurb, or storyboard the movie trailer. Sell your current project like it’s done. Make it sound great. Highlight its best qualities. Hype your idea until you want to buy it. Now, try writing.

20. SPITE. Think of someone prolific whose work you really dislike. Are you gonna let this punk outwrite you? Or are you zip up your boots and kick ‘em square in the drafts? (The famous playwright Henrik Ibsen kept an oil painting of his rival over his desk for this exact reason, and it worked well enough that a hundred years later your boy Henrik is the most-frequently-performed playwright in the world besides Shakespeare.) Pick a proper nemesis. Now, try writing.

21. BOOK ME. Get a sliding scale hour with me as a writing coach and just make it my problem. Let’s sort you out. (Look, I’m giving you a list of 55 solutions; you gotta let me have one for blatant self-promo.)

22. HALF. Is your project too big? Get attainable. Can you try doing half of what you’re attempting? This might be about the aesthetic complexity of your piece, the number of subplots, the thematic scope, or just the word count. Pick only the most important half. Now, try writing.

23. DOUBLE. Is your project too small? Get ambitious. Can you try doing twice as much? Imagine a version of your work with twice the difficulty and twice the impact, or simply decide you’ll make the current version at twice the speed. Grow the plan bigger until you feel a “whoosh” of excitement. Now, try writing.

24. END. Write the very ending of whatever you’re working on. Final scene, take a bow, etc. Don’t know how it ends? Make something up (it’s all made up.) Knowing where you’re going helps you get there. Write an ending to aim at. Now, try writing.

25. GUM. Get some chewing gum and pop it in your piehole. Notice the exact moment when the flavor starts to disappear. Everything disappears, even procrastination. Now, try writing.

26. FIRE. Light something (safely) on fire. A candle? A match? The top of a crème brûlée? Watch it catch and start to burn. It’s turning stored energy into useful energy. Just like you do when you stop waiting and take action. That process of change is bright, hot, and beautiful to see. Now, try writing.

27. READY. If you’re not starting, maybe you’re truly not ready. Is there something you need to do, find, or learn before you can begin? Do you need to take a walk and really think something through before you begin? Ask your gut. How can you get ready? Do what’s needed to prepare. Now, try writing.

28. JOKE. This one’s a quest: you gotta get a chuckle, a guffaw, an amused snort, or at least a smile emoji, from one real and alive human person before you’re allowed to write again. Make someone laugh. This boosts your dopamine and your communicative confidence, which is core to being creative. Now, try writing.

29. RECEIPTS. Grab something from the past that you’ve written and finished. Read a few pages. Revel in the proof that you can do it. You’ve written before, you’ll write again. Look at your receipts. Now, try writing.

30. SMELL. Give your nose one thing to notice and play with that isn’t your writing. (It doesn’t have to be pleasant. The great German poet Schiller kept piles of rotting apples in his desk because the stink kept him focused.) Find a smell. Get it into your workspace. A candle, a salami sandwich, the interior of a new car; whatever keeps your nostrils busy. Now, try writing.

31. EDIT. People say don’t edit ‘til you’re done with a full first draft. I think they’re superstitious and scared. Why not dig into what you’ve got? It’s just words. Take a bit of your current draft (a chapter or even a few sentences) and simply try to improve it. See if the reason you can’t write the next scene is because the last one went way off course and needs correction. Now, try writing.

32. MOONSHOT. Pick a wildly unrealistic goal and get after it, because if you succeed it would be hilarious. “I’m gonna finish this entire book by Tuesday night.” “I’m gonna edit this whole chapter in the next 15 minutes.” 99% of the time you won’t make it, but 1% of the time you will. Give yourself the chance to make a legendary memory. Now, try writing.

33. BUDDY. You probably know friendship is magic. Did you know proximity is, too? Positive peer pressure and “body doubling” (working alongside each other) is like running a marathon in a pack, where you naturally keep pace with those nearby. Get a friend to do a writing sprint with you and/or jump into structured focus sessions on an online platform (like I do 15x/wk with my internet bae Flown for Deep Focus.) Get someone to physically help you stay the course. Now, try writing.

34. BRIBE. “When I hit 10,000 words for this month, I’ll buy myself that yoga mat.” “When I finish this draft, I’ll let myself re-watch the deeply messy but drastically underrated Halle Berry ‘Catwoman’ (2004.)” Look, I don’t know what you really want but you deserve it IF you earn it. Pick a finish line and a reward. (You could even pledge to write every day for a week, if a short unbroken streak feels like an exciting jumpstart for you.) Now, try writing.

35. SCARE. This is dirty motivation but every once in a while it’s what is needed. Ok. What are the consequences if you don’t do this in time? What’s the scenario where you truly drop the ball? Do you miss a deadline and lose your job? Do you disappoint someone who believed in you? Do you spend the rest of your LIFE wondering whether you could have been a writer if only you’d tried? Let the actual fear come in. Suddenly the fear of “not being quite ready” or “not doing it quite right” or whatever is causing your procrastination might hop into the backseat, cowed by the alpha fear of the consequences of Not Doing It All. Let yourself get honestly scared about that. Now, try writing.

36. THANK. You didn’t get this far in life on your own. Someone’s helped you. Pick one person who’s helped you get here and thank them. Send a quick text, a handwritten letter, a heartfelt email. Let them know they’re making an ongoing positive impact on your life. I like gratitude best when it’s also community care. Everyone likes to feel appreciated. Thank someone. Now, try writing.

37. DEEP. Not writing? Maybe you need to ask a bigger question.

38. SCREAM. Really. If you’re near people, do it into a pillow. Put your back into it. If you open wide enough to let something real out of your body, you might let some actual words out in the aftermath. So, scream like you mean it. Now, try writing.

39. YUM. Wake yourself back up to language. Grab anything in your room that has words on it and isn’t a screen. Start reading aloud. See if you can notice one word, sound, or phrase that is more physically satisfying to say or hear than the rest of it. Re-sensitize yourself to language as a physical experience, not just a carrier of symbolic meaning. Feel the noise of it, the texture. Now, try writing.

40. BATTERY. Grab a song that matches the feeling of your writing project. Put it on repeat. Listen until you’ve sucked all the energy out of it; usually a few repeats, maybe ten minutes. Let it charge you like a battery. Let that song give you the JUICE (aka dopamine.) Now, try writing.

41. DEADLINE. Commit to a public reading of your work, a publication date, or something else that will leave you roasted if you don’t finish this piece in time. Telling your friend you’ll give them a draft ain’t gonna cut it, because they’ll forgive you. Do something you can’t sweet-talk your way out of. Pay the entry fee for a contest with a deadline. Now, try writing.

42. HUBBLE. You know how one of the best ways to see the scale of the universe is by sending a space telescope out to take pictures from way, way far away? Send yourself out like that and try to see your work from way, way far away. What’s the most important thing visible from afar? What about your project could you see from outer space? Try to work only on that bit for 15 minutes. Trust that if you nail the key element, everything else will sort itself out. Now, try writing.

43. ACCEPT. I got a lot out of reading the book “Do Hard Things,” (and yes I get a few pennies if you buy it through that link) by performance expert Steve Magness. He’s coached hardcore achievers (like Olympic athletes) and summarizes his advice in a gently masculine-coded yet refreshingly empathetic text. His first step for excellence: “accept what you’re capable of.” He says to train for big sports wins, begin by getting honest with yourself. You gotta start from your actual capabilities. This is spot on for creative work. The gap between what we’re capable of and what we think we should be capable of is a major source of procrastination. Maybe THE major source of procrastination. Don’t fight yourself or pretend. Accept what you’re capable of right now and act on that. If your imagination is running on fumes and all you can handle is a minor task like proofreading, do that. If you don’t have detail-oriented focus today and need the epic sweep of big-picture thinking, try creating an outline instead of line-by-line prose. If you aren’t ready for the breadth of a novel, write flash fiction. If you aren’t ready for the precision of flash fiction, write a novel. Start doing whatever you can. All progress improves your skills, including the skill of persistence. Accept what you’re actually capable of today. Now, try writing.

44. SEETHE. You hate doing this. You hate every second of it. That’s fine. Just seethe your way through it. Now, try writing.

45. PRAY. Ok, but have you tried closing your eyes and asking for help and mercy? You don’t have to be a believer (I’m not) to get that a quick, calm pause will interrupt your cycle of frustration. Who can say that’s not a larger force at work? Close your eyes for a moment, put yours hands together if it feels right, then just let the cosmos (or your angels or ancestors or your own inner wisdom) know that you’re willing to accept help. Be specific. “I could really use some help finding my focus for the next five pages. Can a girl get a little mercy?” Ask for what you need. Let it come. Now, try writing.

46. DUMP. List all the stuff you have to do. Write it all out on paper. Commonly and disgustingly called a “brain dump,” it gives you immediate relief because keeping track of all your unfinished tasks is adding to your intrinsic cognitive load (science fact.) Don’t worry about listing absolutely everything or you’ll be dumping brain all day, but capture as much as you can quickly. Put about ten minutes into writing a disorganized and shamelessly honest to do list; anything that pops up belongs on it; proofreading, climbing Mt Everest, eating more fiber, getting that spreadsheet updated, apologizing to your siblings, Duolingo, doing laundry. Don’t worry your brain with remembering all this stuff! Outsource the job to a piece of paper and promise yourself you’ll look at it after you hit your writing goal. You can deal with it all then. Now, try writing.

47. SMALLEST. What’s the smallest step that moves you forward? Like, even smaller than that. I’m talking weenie. Opening the document, finding your notes, or physically picking up a pen with your sweaty hand. Identify the tiniest action. Do it. Now, try writing. (If you can’t write yet, find the very next weenie little step and do it. One step at a time. Repeat this process a thousand million times until your entire project is done.)

48. BET. Give a friend an amount of money that you can lose but would rather keep. $30 is probably good, or $50k if you’re rich. Tell them you’re going to hit a certain writing milestone (x number of words, a full draft, etc) by a certain date. If you make the goal, they give you the money back. If you don’t, they give the money to something you hate. Super-gimmicky vibes, but the science is good and it worked in my real-life field test, so don’t judge a useful ruse. Put your money where your mouth is. Now, try writing.

49. DENTIST. Make an appointment for something you can’t get out of, like a dental cleaning. Start writing 20 minutes before you need to leave the house. Having a hard out can set you free to dive into work without being worried you’ll get lost; there isn’t time! Book a coffee date, a vet check-up, a sliding scale acupuncture session, a theme park ticket with an hour-long entry window… anything that’s gonna force you outta the house at a specific time. Wait until just before you go. Now, try writing.

50. PLANK. Do one to three minutes of actual physical exercise. Run down and up a flight of stairs, do a cartwheel in the living room, drop to the ground and do a plank. Get your heart rate up and get a quick endorphin shot. Now, try writing.

51. LAB. Short version: Stop giving yourself orders and start asking yourself questions. Long version: If you’re barking “write now!” at yourself like a drill sergeant, can you swap modes to try investigating like a curious scientist who asks “can we write now?” After all, writing is not the army or the navy. It’s way more of a (sometimes mad) science lab. What experiment can you conduct? What can you investigate? “I wonder whether this chapter could be longer…” “What would happen if I took another look at that one section…,” “Let’s see if I’m able to write for fifteen minutes without stopping…,” or “I’m not sure whether I can write today, how will I find out?” I’m sure you get the idea. In this exact moment, are you 100% confident about whether or not you could truly open up your document and write? What would happen if you tried?

52. PROCRASTINATE. Don’t wanna write? Pick something else you want to do even less. It’s gotta be harder, bigger, more daunting, and generally worse. Now, use writing to avoid it! The more important and terrible the task (sorting out your health insurance, etc) the better. Now, try writing.

53. DONATE. When I sit zazen with the Sōtō Zen Buddhists at the Zendo where I’m an occasional guest, at the end of meditation and chanting the last thing we do is “dedicate our merit.” That means any beneficial or protective goodwill or virtue we’ve collectively accumulated through our spiritual practice in that day’s session no longer belongs to us; we give it away to protect another group of people who are not present. How to apply this to writing? Go tangible (any money you make from today’s writing goes to save the rainforest) or go metaphorical (anything today’s writing does to set you free individually helps us all get free collectively.) Find a way to get the good and give it away. Now, try writing.

54. QUIT. Quit writing forever. It’s your life. You can just quit. Oh, you don’t want to? Try writing.

55. FORGIVE YOURSELF.

If you procrastinate, you gotta forgive yourself.

(I mean you don’t have to, but it super-duper helps.)

When I think about forgiveness, I think of this one family I saw have a huge argument when I was on tour with my show in Edinburgh. They were tourists like me, this family, Americans with fanny packs having one of those big fights that happen during travel stress. This one was over breakfast in a restaurant. Before you get too worried, I promise you that their argument really seemed to be about absolutely nothing; bickering that got out of hand; parents were tired, kids were bored, it was raining; they were a classic loving family that were getting on each other’s nerves. There was no clear resolution to be had, because nothing was exactly wrong, but they just could not shake it. They kept getting deeper and deeper in. At some point in the meal, the table had gone totally quiet with one of the many tense and grumpy silences that seemed to be part of the ongoing fight. In that eye of the hurricane one of the kids, who was around 9 or 10 years old, said these words with the wisdom of all our ancestors in a voice so quiet I could barely hear: “Can we still have a good day?”

Ooooooof. “Can we still have a good day?”

“Yeah. This can still be a good day,” his dad said.

Soon they were chatting and laughing, planning their museum schedule, and even though it was almost a decade ago I’ve never forgotten the simplicity of that ask. Can we still have a good day?

That’s the beginning of forgiveness.

If you’re procrastinating, you need to do this for yourself. Be that kid and that dad. YOU CAN STILL HAVE A GOOD WRITING DAY.

It might include accepting that some of this is your fault.

It might also include accepting that some of it is not.

Listen.

They’ve studied twins and determined that procrastination looks to be about 46% GENETIC. Lab studies show (201920182017) that some people’s brains are structurally, architecturally, biologically more likely to chronically procrastinate.

Yeah, you might’ve been lowkey doomed in the womb.

I probably was. Whatever the procrastination genes are, I likely have the caboodle. I’ve had some Blair-Witch-level procrastination jumpscares. Uploading a file at 11:59 for a 12:00 deadline. Finishing act two in the lobby of a theater while they’re rehearsing act one inside. Every time something like this happened, I made it worse. Because I beat myself up afterwards.

I don’t anymore.

And I’m getting a lot more done now. In healthier, more sustainable ways that break the cycle of rush-and-regret.

You’re allowed to grow past hating yourself for procrastinating. Look at the facts. Forget what your High School English teacher said about your work ethic and look at the SCIENCE. You can manage your mindset and mental health to reduce and prevent procrastination (I have and I do) but some of it is almost definitely genetic. A lot of this really IS NOT your fault, and even if it were, blaming yourself won’t get you closer to writing.

(If you “get” all this intellectually but could use support putting it into action, hit me up for a sliding scale coaching session. Drop in for one hour and we can work some of this stuff out. I believe in you. Even if you’re a chronic procrastinator, you deserve to write anyway.)

xo, megan

Thanks for giving this a few minutes. I hope it felt supportive.


Writing coach Megan Cohen is a white cis woman with soft femme hair. She wears black but stands in front of a wall covered in brightly colored brainstorming post-it notes. She smiles with closed lips and warm eyes. Her skin is amazing even though she's middle-aged.

I’m a f*ckin’ friendly writing coach.

Let’s see what an hour with me can do for you. Get treated with honesty and respect. Bring your work-in-progress, your goals, or your frustrated blank page. Sliding scale; no ongoing commitment; just an hour to work on your writing. See me in a private zoom to put my 20 years of experience on your side.

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