Hey you, mindlessly scrolling through Insta when you should be working! Fed up with putting things off? Author Maisie Hill is here to tell us exactly how we can stop procrastinating

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

“Was there something you were meant to do today that you could have done, but didn’t? Perhaps you’re even reading this as a sneaky way of avoiding doing that thing that you know you ought to.” If this makes you feel seen, then life coach Maisie Hill's advice on the best ways to stop procrastinating - which she says often goes hand in hand with perfectionism - is for you. From 'temptation bundling', where you combine a task you're dreading with one you love, to 'dopamine stacking' to create small wins that motivate you as you go, she has a ton of nifty tips to trick you into getting unstuck, so you can stop standing in your own way and finally create a life you love. 

Maisie Hill (left, image: Olivia Steuer) and fangirl Florence Scordoulis

What is the root cause of procrastination?

You might think you know what procrastination is, but according to Maisie, we're getting it all wrong. As she explains in her new book Powerful: Be The Expert in Your Own Life, £12.97,  there is a harmful misconception that we do it out of mere laziness, or being disorganised. But, actually, even the most successful and organised people do it - and it's a very normal, human stress response. As she says, "Procrastination is not a sign of personal failure or a unique flaw that only you possess. It’s a universal human experience... It’s not a ‘you’ problem, it’s a ‘we’ problem". 

Instead she explains that when we voluntarily delay and postpone tasks - by, for example, by leaving them to the last minute, or missing deadlines - even though we know there will be negative consequences, it is rooted in something much more simple: the inability to manage your thoughts, emotions and actions. That is, when we're faced with doing something we don't want to do, which might be challenging or boring or pointless, it brings up uncomfortable feelings - like fear - which we then try to avoid feeling by not doing the thing.  As she puts it, "These tasks don’t exactly inspire enthusiasm. Instead, they trigger a desire to avoid the discomfort they bring, leading us to procrastinate." 

Yet, of course, when we delay like this, the problem doesn’t go away: in fact, it often gets worse, because of the consequences of putting it off - and then we tend to beat ourselves up for not doing it, which Maisie says is even more harmful as it "fuels the fire of negative self-talk and the cycle of blaming and shaming yourself." In other words, procrastination comes at a hefty cost. "In borrowing against your future time and energy, interest accrues in the form of stress, guilt and negative self-perception."

How to break the perfectionist-procrastination loop

According to Maisie, if you procrastinate, it could also be that you're a perfectionist - someone who is constantly striving to be flawless, as well as being hyper critical towards themselves and others. A typical perfectionist might have unreasonably high expectations of themself, refuse to celebrate their wins, spend too long on tasks and overwork in general. Sound familiar?  Apparently, 30 per cent of us have this trait (which is associated with high levels of anxiety, stress and depression) - but women are particularly prone to it. 

We do it in a misguided attempt to keep ourselves safe: our brains think that if we can “just do everything ‘right’” we’ll be ok, but this is far from the reality.  "This mindset often leads to procrastination, as the fear of not being perfect can be paralysing", she explains. But the good news is that by understanding this connection with perfectionism, we can unlock the solution to beating procrastination - and, as she puts it, start to "counteract it with a far kinder and more helpful narrative". 

What is the best way to stop procrastinating?

Once we stop beating ourselves up about procrastination, and understand that it's simply the result of us not quite knowing how to manage our thoughts, feelings and actions, we can start to learn the tools that will help us change our behaviour.  

The key, Maisie explains, specifically lies in developing our "executive functioning” skills - such as decision-making, impulse control and being able to switch between tasks - which help us to regulate these emotions and behaviours.  As she says, "We know what we should be doing, but we struggle to make ourselves do it. This disconnect between knowing and doing can be related to poor executive functioning skills".  But, the best part is that these skills are not fixed: anyone can learn them and get better at them  - for example, by practising planning and problem-solving.

It’s with this foundation that Maisie - who also runs a life coaching membership called Powerful and weekly podcast The Maisie Hill Experience - has developed a ream of crafty anti-procrastination techniques, as outlined in her new book. (And, you can read more about why she's the coach I recommend to all of my friends). But, in the meantime, here's a sneak peak of her very best strategies - so you'll really have no excuse not to close down this article and get started on whatever pesky task you're putting off today... 

9 tips on how to stop procrastinating: by life coach Maisie Hill

1. Stop beating yourself up

“Procrastination isn’t inherently problematic, it’s a natural human behaviour. Sure, it has negative consequences. However, your response and thoughts about the act of procrastinating create more of an issue than if you just accept it and move on, so try to shift your perspective: accept that this is a thing all humans do and approach it with self-compassion and curiosity rather than judgement.”

2. Become the watcher 

“When you realise you’re procrastinating, ask yourself why. The trick is to hone in on the reason behind it. Become the watcher – a technique that simply means noticing your thoughts, emotions, reactions, responses and behaviours. This creates some distance from your experience and with that comes perspective. It’s all about noticing yourself and giving yourself options.”

3. Embrace the suck

"Embrace short-term discomfort. Uncomfortable feelings only get worse the longer we delay the task. Instead of running away, face them head-on and take action anyway. Intentionally decide to lean into the dread, worry and resentment. Commit to feeling it, knowing that in doing so you’re lessening the amount of time that you’ll experience these feelings."

4. Reason with yourself

“I  won’t try to convince you that you should love every task, however, it’s worth asking yourself if you actually want to do something and, whether you do or you don’t, why? This will either provide some motivation for getting on with it or uncover what the hold-up is. Spend a minute writing down all the reasons why doing this now is the best idea. For example:

• Once I do it, it will be done

• It won’t be hanging over me

• I will feel proud”

5. Set (shorter) deadlines

“Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available. So, if you give yourself a week to complete a two-hour task, then (psychologically) the task will increase in complexity and become more daunting. This suggests that by setting shorter deadlines, the perceived complexity reduces, making it easier to get started. Conversely, if you allow yourself more time, you’re more likely to procrastinate, because the task seems bigger than it really is.”

6. Small steps

“Overcoming procrastination isn’t about making giant leaps, but small, consistent steps forward. The hardest part is often just getting started. Then it’s easier to build and maintain momentum. It’s easier to convince ourselves to do something small than something big. We often find that it’s not as bad as we thought. And before we know it, we’re making progress. This might be as simple as writing the first sentence of an email. It shifts your focus from the outcome to the process. Instead of worrying about completing the task perfectly, you focus on the act of doing, reducing fear and anxiety.”

7. Dopamine stacking

“Procrastination occurs when we perceive a task is overwhelming, boring or lacking immediate rewards. Our brains crave instant gratification, so we’re more inclined to put it off. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. When we accomplish a task, receive praise or experience small wins, the brain releases dopamine. This reinforces the behaviour, motivating us to continue. Dopamine stacking is the practice of deliberately structuring activities to allow for this accumulation of small, enjoyable rewards, successes and celebrations. For instance, by breaking down larger tasks into more manageable steps, we can create a sense of accomplishment along the way.”

8. Temptation bundling

“The idea is that you link a task that you should do, but are avoiding, with a task that you love to do. By bundling these together, you can make the less enjoyable task more appealing. For example, if you love watching your favourite TV show, but want to exercise more, you could bundle these tasks together and only allow yourself to watch it while working out at home. That way, you’re more likely to look forward to exercising, because it’s associated with something you enjoy.”

9. Up the ante

“This is most productive with long-term goals. It works by bringing the consequences of not doing something forward in time. If a deadline seems far off in the future, you may feel less urgency about acting now. This is temporal discounting, where we value immediate rewards more than future rewards. As the deadline gets closer, the future consequences become more immediate and the urgency to act increases. Ways to up the ante include:

  • Creating artificial deadlines or milestones: Large tasks can feel overwhelming, so break them down into smaller, more manageable and immediate goals.
  • Using accountability partners: Share deadlines with a friend or colleague. Knowing that someone else is aware of your commitments can provide an extra push to get started.
  • Using reward systems: This can be a powerful motivator for completing tasks. This could be a small treat, a break to do something you enjoy or a larger reward for a big project.”

This is an extract from Maisie Hill’s new book Powerful: Be the Expert in Your Own Life (Bloomsbury Green Tree, £12.97) Available to buy now