Breaking Procrastination: A Book Review of The Now Habit

Yiwen Wang
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

The Now Habit Book

We’ve all been there: feeling reluctant or even lazy about doing our work, whether it’s preparing for an exam, completing coursework, or something as simple as sending an email. We know we’ll have to do it eventually, and starting one minute earlier means more guilt-free time, yet something just prevents us from taking action now.

We end up procrastinating. Somehow, we manage to survive any consequences of procrastination and it becomes a habit. However, I found myself struggling with procrastination more than ever after I started my Ph.D. studies. The pain comes not just from the anxiety of meeting deadlines, but more from self- criticism and guilt. Time after time, I’m concerned that I may gradually lose the confidence and passion I had in my research. I started to look for help. Through the Mentor Session of IN- FORMS, I connected with a mentor who recommended this book, The Now Habit, which helped me feel much more relieved about my situation and determined to form an organized and efficient working habit.

Why does procrastination cause anxiety?

Procrastination, a pervasive behavior for many of us, can some- times be "chronic” and have an intricate relationship with mental well-being. This book uses four scenarios to explain why procrastination can create anxiety:


  1. Imagine your task is to walk across a board lying on the pavement. You can do it without problem, either by walking, running, jumping, or leaping. You can freely choose.
  2. Now with the same task, but with a board suspended between two buildings 100 feet above the pavement.
  3. Still the same task and a board suspended between buildings, but you suddenly feel the heat behind you and hear the cracking noise of fire from your end of the building!
  4. Still the same task and a board suspended between buildings, no fire. Instead, you have a strong supportive net beneath the board.


Scenario 2 presents an interesting situation. Imagine standing at the edge of a skyscraper’s rooftop. Your feet would tremble, and your hands would sweat. Your head would be filled with worries about falling. However, standing on a rooftop should be no different from standing on the ground. The trembling and nervousness only increase the likelihood of falling. Indeed, raising the board to 100 feet high suddenly transforms an easy task into a tricky one. However, this task becomes less daunting if it’s a “must-do”, as when there is fire in Scenario 3. It also becomes more manageable in Scenario 4 with nets below—the worst that can happen is bouncing back to try again.

Procrastination causes anxiety because it traps you in Scenario

2. We set goals that elevate a normal task to a higher level, of- ten due to perfectionism, making a manageable problem seem daunting. We’re paralyzed by thoughts like “What if I fall/fail?”. This fear of making mistakes leads to freezing and waiting. This is when procrastination kicks in: “Do I really have to walk the board NOW? What if I’m not prepared? I would be stuck in the middle. How terrible! Let’s wait.”

As we procrastinate, the pressure of deadlines continues to fuel our anxiety, like a sneakily burning fire behind us in Scenario 3. Once the fire becomes threatening, it forces us to move step by step, pushing us toward the finish line with increasing anxiety. At a breaking point, we finally decide to act. If we fall, the fear of making mistakes intensifies. If not, we find procrastination rewarding because it makes us feel better. Either way, procrastination becomes a habit.

In this vicious cycle, procrastinators feel strong guilt for not completing work. They may use the deadline to push themselves for- ward, creating a “must-do” situation to force their frozen selves to act. However, the burst of energy inevitably brings loads of anxiety. The board analogy hints at how to unlearn procrastination. We can refuse to elevate the board as in Scenario 2 in the first place. Get a better idea of how hard a problem is by launching into the project. We can build ourselves nets, as in Scenario 4, to feel safe. Remember that it’s fine to make mistakes and embrace them as learning opportunities. Both approaches ask for a realistic view of the problem: don’t overestimate its importance and consequences.

Am I born to be a procrastinator?

Many may ponder this question as they grapple with habitual delays, while others seem to always be efficient and proactive. It’s easy to fall into the belief that one is inherently a procrastinator incapable of working efficiently. However, this book argues the issue often lies in the negative thinking pattern of “I’m a procrastinator.” The book finds an interesting parallel between procrastinators and workaholics. Both groups spend their days either working or feeling guilty about not working, believing work requires sacrifice and that their lives are on hold due to unfinished work. The main distinction is that workaholics dedicate more time to working, while procrastinators spend more time worrying; but both have unhealthy working styles.

Peak performers, on the other hand, may be the twins of procrastinators, in the sense that they both complete a lot of work in a short time. However, they probably share more differences than similarities. Peak performers accomplish important tasks with limited time while enjoying their work, whereas procrastinators delay their tasks until the last minute while feeling under- serving of a rest.

Procrastinators tend to think of leisure as the opposition to work and so make statements like: “I have to work harder” or “I must finish it tonight (or something bad will happen).” This negative thinking implies a lack of choice and motivation. The performer seemingly has no choice but to complete a task beyond his or her capability, sacrificing something he or she really wants.

To combat this negative thinking, the book recommends replacing “have to" and "must” with “I choose to" and "I want to.” This subtle change of words brings a positive tone that suggests the individual is in control of their work: “I’m doing it only because I want to finish it and I know how to finish it.” This positive communication transforms a sense of victimhood into empowerment.

How to avoid procrastination?

People have long struggled with procrastination (in fact, The Now Habit has been in publication for over 35 years!). Procrastination is a tough problem because there is no one-size- fits-all solution. While everyone have unique motivators that work best for them, the book offers several tools that have been proven effective in tackling this problem. One such tool is the 

reverse calendar. As the name suggests, a reverse calendar lists events in reserve order, starting with the ultimate deadline and moving backward. For instance, if you have a short article that needs to be submitted by the end of the month, a reverse calendar might look as follows:

  • 3/31 - Ready for submission
  • 3/25 - Make final edits
  • 3/15 - Review my advisor’s comments and discuss
  • 3/12 - Send to my advisor for comments
  • 3/10 - Finish all writing
  • 3/5 - Finish all data analysis
  • 3/1 - Today: make rough sketches, start an outline, etc.

The reverse calendar immediately shows how tight the schedule is. Perhaps submitting at the end of this month is simply impossible to accomplish. If that’s the case, ask yourself which step seems the most unrealistic. Now, you have not just one “deadline”, but multiple checkpoints with a clear roadmap. Even if you are unable to reach the “ready for submission” stage on 3/31, it would be far better to confidently request an extension with a clear vision of how much more time will be needed rather than feeling anxious from day 1.

Final words

Many books discuss procrastination. The Now Habit does not have to be the best remedy for everyone, but I believe its title unveils one fundamental truth about the solution to procrastination: forming a habit. Combating procrastination, like facing any other imperfection of ourselves, takes courage and perseverance. Despite the challenges, every effort made in this process brings us closer to a fulfilling and accomplished life.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Lingchao Mao for taking the time to review this article. The header and footer images are credited to Annie Spratt.