How do I implement time management strategies and avoid procrastination?

1) Dear Alice,

How do you find time to be with your friends, family, and boyfriend, and study for school?

2) Alice,

I'm a horrible procrastinator and time manager — in school, at work, cleaning my apartment, you name it, I'm somehow always putting it off until tomorrow, or taking forever to finish. Predictably, I keep missing the procrastination workshops offered at my school. Do you have any practical suggestions on time organization and overcoming procrastination habits?

— Always Late

Dear Always Late and Reader, 

Procrastination is a common issue that many people navigate at one point or another. Recognizing that you struggle with procrastination and time management is an indicator of self-awareness, which is a great first step towards making the improvements you desire! Before diving in, it might be helpful to start by reviewing the definition of procrastination and the different types of procrastination. 

Procrastination is the act of delaying a task or activity until a later time and possibly doing unrelated activities instead (e.g., playing games, watching TV, or spending time on social media). There are various forms of procrastination and identifying your form (or forms) of procrastination can be beneficial in turning the tide and overcoming the issue. Some potentially more relatable forms of procrastination include the following: 

  • The perfectionist – these people often set their standards and expectations so high even they can’t achieve them. They often find themselves too stressed over every detail to finish or even start a project. Many perfectionists suffer from what’s commonly referred to as ‘analysis paralysis,’ in which they over-think an issue to the point where they are unable to make a final decision. 
  • The dreamer – while all the thoughts and ideas are there, this person often struggles with putting pen to paper so to speak. They often have big dreams and can picture their success, but unlike the perfectionist, they have no plan or details about how to make these dreams become a reality. 
  • The worrier – often indecisive and hyper focused on what could go wrong, these people lack the confidence to make a decision without consulting someone else first. All the ‘What if’ and ‘What could be’ questions that play on repeat for these individuals can cause them to overexaggerate the work it may take to complete a task. 
  • The crisis-maker – think about the friend who waits to start writing their paper until the night before it’s due (or that same friend who writes their vows the night before the wedding) and justifies doing so by saying they work best under pressure; they’re considered a crisis-maker. These people are often easily bored and find this rush of living on the edge to be fun and exciting. 
  • The overdoer – booked and busy, this quantity over quality “overdoer” has a habit of biting off more than they can chew either because they have trouble saying no or don’t quite have the skills to set boundaries for themselves. These people struggle to delegate tasks and as a result finds themself with little to no time to complete everything they’ve taken on. The overdoer often neglects their personal needs and is at an increased risk of burnout. 

List adapted from Indiana State University 

While reflecting on the potential reasons for your procrastination, it may be helpful to consider these questions: What are your priorities and goals, both in the bigger picture of your life, as well as in the shorter term of about a year or two? Which activities that you do (or don’t do) regularly align with those priorities? Which activities don’t align with these priorities? Relatedly, reflecting on your core values and defining them is also a helpful exercise. What matters to you? Service to others? More freedom? As you narrow down your core values, you can assess whether your priorities align with your values. Doing so may help you recognize what you feel is important to prioritize. 

You may realize that you have too many competing high priority values, and it's impossible to fit them all in. In this case, you may consider ranking your priorities to determine what to focus on first. It’s perfectly fine to intentionally decide that a particular task is valuable to you and that you can’t prioritize it at this moment in time. It doesn’t mean that you don't value it. It just means that you may want to push it into a lower priority category for the moment. Keeping in mind that when you do have space and capacity (or your relationship with that value changes), you’ll be able to reprioritize that task and dedicate more time to it. No one can do everything and that’s why it’s key to periodically check in with yourself and reassess what’s most important to you in your life at that moment in time? 

After identifying your priorities, there are a few time management strategies you can try that may help you to find a better balance between your competing priorities. Consider implementing them into your daily routine: 

  • Establish realistic goals. Concentrate on one goal at a time by prioritizing smaller, more achievable milestones. For example, setting minimum acceptable goals, like “I’ll incorporate 30 minutes of movement into each day”, or dividing your project into several smaller goals can reduce overwhelm while also providing a sense of accomplishment. 
  • Change your environment. If possible, changing your environment to an area with minimal distractions such as a library can be helpful. You might also create a study group of friends you can meet up with that may help increase your productivity and hold you accountable. Reader 1, this could also be an opportunity to partake in two activities at once: being with friends and studying for school. 
  • Plan your schedule in advance. Reviewing your daily plans in advance can prevent procrastination. This can help you to prioritize your goals and schedule your time accordingly. Planning can be done using a physical planner or a virtual planner tool. Adding extra time into your schedule to allow flexibility for unanticipated events (e.g., distractions, computer crashes) can also be beneficial. 
  • Set intentional time for socializing. When things get busy during school, it may be challenging to set aside time for your friends, family, or partner. However, studies show that social support not only enhances your self-belief and self-confidence but may also help improve academic performance. Scheduling a date and time in advance to call each other or meet up can help you both plan your day accordingly and ensure that you set time aside for each other. 
  • Be kind to yourself. Learning how to manage your time, especially as a student, can be a big adjustment. Giving yourself breaks, forgiving yourself if you don’t complete everything on your to-do list, or rewarding yourself when you do can remind you to be gracious with yourself as you learn. Remember, you’re only human and procrastination is a natural response! 

Combining tasks might work as well, depending on the situation. However, evidence suggests that multi-tasking makes people less efficient and can compromise work quality. Therefore, you might benefit from logging off of social media sites, turning off music or television, and not answering the phone while studying or doing other tasks. It’s also important to note that while procrastination can lead to stress, the opposite can also be true: stress can also cause procrastination. 

If tackling this issue on your own feels overwhelming, you might consider speaking with a health promotion specialist or mental health professional to discuss your procrastination habits in detail. They may be able to offer you some additional strategies to implement as you take on this issue. Remember, self-awareness is a critical part of the process. Identifying the issue, like you have done, Always Late, is commendable. Hopefully, the tools and techniques outlined here will help you successfully navigate procrastination and time management with self-compassion. 

Last updated Oct 20, 2023
Originally published Sep 26, 1997