The Fascinating Science of Procrastination – and How to STOP

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Are you a procrastinator? Want to get back to me on that?

Why is it that we can’t make ourselves do what we need to do? You’re not alone in the struggle. Procrastination is a problem that many of us face regularly. It is frustrating, anxiety-inducing, and although we think we’re delaying stress by doing it, we’re actually just adding more stress. Even knowing this, we still can’t seem to just get down to business. The good news is we can train our brains to break the cycle and stop procrastinating.I’m going to break down the tips you need to stop procrastinating now – not later. Let’s go!

As a stress physiologist who’s been privileged to interact with high performers across the globe, I’ve seen (and personally had myself) plenty of struggles with procrastination. Although you may feel like procrastination is your fault, like you’re just being lazy, the good news is it’s actually not! Our brains are wired for it. Procrastination is a battle between the limbic system (the part of our brains responsible for behavioral and emotional responses) and the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brains responsible for planning). When faced with an unpleasant or undesirable task, these two parts of our brains basically duke it out. When your more ancient, emotionally-based limbic system wins is when procrastination happens. You end up putting off that task for temporary emotional relief. In other words, you’re running away from it, which is exactly what your limbic system is set up for. Your limbic system is responsible for the behaviors we need for survival – in this case fight, fight, or freeze. When we’re presented with an unpleasant task, our instinct is to fight against it, flee from it, or stop and stare like a deer in headlights. In other words…procrastinate! This response is automatic – that’s why it’s so easy to put off the task!

If we want to override our procrastination response, we have to consciously make a decision to engage in that nasty task we’re trying to avoid, which can be especially difficult since our brain is literally trying to do what it was wired for – fight, fight, freeze, and survive. Okay, so let’s jump into how we can rewire our brains to stop procrastinating!

The first step is mindfulness. Being aware of what you’re doing and how you feel can actually help break the procrastination cycle, because the limbic system is all about feeling. When we describe and think about any task as icky, gross, or unfun our brain is going to protect us from it. “No problem! I’ll save you from this emotion…let’s just not do it!” Researchers call this mood repair – essentially avoiding the task by doing something more fun. Plus, you avoid the bad mood you anticipate and associate with that task at its core! We procrastinate to keep ourselves happy in the moment. Humans are really bad about caring how anything feels in the future, so even though we know we’ll feel even worse than we do now next week, when this task still isn’t done and the deadline is looming, our brain only really responds to the here and now. This means we need to begin to change the negative associations we’re having with the task if we want to actually get it done. Nothing some chocolate motivation can’t help with! Maybe it’s eating an M&M after every paragraph you write, or watching your favorite program only while you run on the treadmill. By adding something fun or pleasurable along with the task, you can start to overcome what feels like an insurmountable obstacle. Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely calls this method reward substitution, or doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Trick your brain into a slightly happy or emotional state, and suddenly that daunting task seems more than achievable with the promise of ice cream and Ted Lasso episodes.

The second major key to overcoming procrastination is to start small. The smaller your first step towards getting this thing done, the more likely you are to take it. Make your expectations so ridiculously low that it becomes almost impossible not to start. Write one sentence, walk for three minutes…research shows that progress, no matter how small, can be a huge motivator to help us keep going. Our brains hate to experience dissonance – that feeling of suspense we get when something is left half finished. It’s why we binge television shows ,and can’t stop reading that last chapter of the amazing book that we just have to finish, or won’t walk out of a terrible movie. One researcher even found that 90% of participants not given enough time to finish a puzzle stayed longer after they were told to stop, just so that they could complete the puzzle! Known as the Zeigarnik Effect, this phenomenon can be used to our advantage. When we feel ourselves beginning to procrastinate, just lower the bar: we don’t have to write that whole report, just one sentence. You’ll be amazed at how often you end up finishing tasks you were only trying to begin!

Stay fearless, my friends!

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