Four tips for boundaries in your life, written by a therapist.

Final exams and papers loom in the not-so-distant future (or lurk in the painfully near past) for high school, college, and grad students alike. Women in the workforce may have projects to finish or deadlines to meet before taking time for a summer trip. Yet many of us remain unmotivated to get studying, writing, or working. The temptation of the temperature finally increasing outside is enough to make many push their to-do list to tomorrow, again and again—it’s hard to crack down and get to work when the weather beckons you outdoors and you’re daydreaming about a day at the beach.

But even without the added distraction of the weather, often big assignments or projects keep getting pushed to the bottom of our to-do lists because of the anxiety they incite in us. The awareness that a looming task or project will take considerable time and work, coupled with the pressure to perform well, can cause anxiety that leads to procrastination. Whether your worry about the outcome of a final exam keeps you from acting, or you just tend to be a last-minute crammer, these tips for productivity can help you change your ways today.

Get started with an easy goal

If simply seeing “start final history paper” in your planner gets your nerves going, then break down the task. Make a simple, attainable goal to get yourself started. For a paper, this could be creating the document and making the title page today—yes, that simple! For a project, this might be opening up PowerPoint and creating the title slide. If you need to study for an exam, set a goal of getting out the books and notes that you will use to study. For a project at work, gather all the materials you will need. After you’ve done this first step, call it quits for the day and return to it tomorrow. The point of this is just to get you started. Seeing “study for chem exam” on your to-do list feels like a massive undertaking, and it’s easy to convince yourself you don’t have time for that today (or tomorrow, or the next day . . . ). “Pull together chem notes, problem sets, and books” is a much more specific and attainable task that you’re more likely to actually follow through on. Once you’ve done this small first step, you can feel like you’ve started your huge project, and it feels a bit less scary.

Make small, specific goals

After you’ve started—even if it’s a small step!—keep this pattern going. Stop writing the name of the project in your calendar; that is bound to increase your anxiety and decrease your likelihood of being productive. Instead, write a small, specific next step. So you’ve created the title page; now write the outline. Tomorrow, write the introduction—and that’s it. For studying, do one problem set today; tomorrow, review slides from the first week of class, and so on. Even if you’re down to the last few days before a deadline, you can still start tonight and use these same guidelines for getting it started (and done!) before the last minute.

Belly breathing

Hear me out before you breeze past this tip. In my work as a marriage and family therapist, I often use this technique with clients struggling with all sorts of issues, including anxiety, stress, overwhelm, and procrastination. When I tell them we are going to practice belly breathing, I can almost see them wondering how breathing is going to help. Often, they don’t think that breathing is going to help alleviate stress or increase productivity—and for good reason! When people practice breathing techniques, they often do not do it correctly or long enough to make a difference. However, after walking through this technique with my clients in session, they always tell me how much better they feel and how surprised they are that it actually helped relieve their anxiety or tension. So, when you’re feeling stressed about all that’s on your plate, or you feel overwhelmed by the thought of starting a task, sit still in a chair with your back tall and your feet flat on the floor. Place your right hand on your stomach and your left hand on your chest. Close your eyes, and breathe in through your nose to a slow count of four. As you inhale, feel the air filling up your stomach with your right hand. Pause at the count of four, then exhale through your mouth to a slow count of five. Repeat this ten times, or until you feel calm. Procrastination most often results from anxiety about the task at hand or an underlying fear of not being able to do it well enough. Thus, when we are able to quell this anxiety for a moment, we usually feel calm enough to at least begin.

Set a 25-minute timer

This might be my favorite trick in the book when it comes to getting work done; you may have heard it referred to as the Pomodoro Method. Set a 25-minute timer, put your phone away, and get as much work done as you can in that amount of time. When the timer goes off, set down your pencil (or get your hands off the keyboard) and set a five-minute timer. Take those five minutes to take a mental break, get a snack, go to the bathroom—whatever you need to recharge and relax. When the five-minute break is up, put the distractions away again, set another 25-minute timer and get back to work. You’ll be amazed at how much you can get done in 25 minutes! The allotted time is short but still allows you to get in a groove and get work done. What works about this trick is that 25 minutes is a doable amount of time. Even if you think you have hours of work ahead of you (which often feels too intimidating to start), it makes getting started so much easier when you know you get a break in 25 minutes. This “25 on/five off” system factors in work time and break time, so that you don’t spend three hours at the library “studying” when half of that time was actually spent on Facebook.

Now that you know how to get out of procrastination station and on your way to productivity, close this browser, write down your goal, take some breaths, and set that timer. Ready, set, work!