Procrastination is an easy trap to fall into. Dickens called it the “thief of time”. But how do we fight the urge to procrastinate? Is there a way to trick our brains into doing hard and unpleasant things? Imagine how much more productive we’d be if we never put off until tomorrow things that could be done today.
Here’s how to make 2022 the year you stop procrastinating and get ‘it’ done. Whatever ‘it’ might be.
Why do we procrastinate?
First we need to figure out where procrastination comes from. It turns out there are hard-wired biological reasons for procrastination. It’s not entirely our fault. The problem occurs when there’s a battle between two parts of our brain: the limbic system (an ancient, unconscious zone that includes the pleasure center) and the pre-frontal cortex (a more recently evolved part of the brain, which handles high-level tasks).
The limbic system simply wants to do what feels good. It naturally shrinks away from unpleasant things. It doesn’t care about deadlines or long-term consequences. You pre-frontal cortex, on the other hand, is your organiser. It’s a newer and weaker part of the brain, which is why it tends to lose to your limbic system, which distributes dopamine as a reward. Basically, when we procrastinate, we feel better for it (at least in the short term).
If you want to trick your brain into performing hard tasks, try a dopamine detox. This is where you starve your brain of dopamine for an extended period of time. The brain craves stimulation and easy rewards, so when you take away that dopamine rush, even hard, boring, necessary tasks can seem like fun. All you have to do is refrain from dopamine-rich activities: Netflix, internet or phone browsing, sugary foods, alcohol etc. Studies have shown that unplugging from dopamine can quickly boost your mental focus and clarity.
Most people procrastinate because they’re distracted. If you don’t have the willpower to fight these distractions (see: dopamine detox) you can at least minimize them. Keep your phone in another room. Try internet blocking apps like Freedom and Forest. Close the door or find a quiet space, away from conversation and other people. The fewer distractions, the better your chances of concentrating for an extended period of time.
Create a Detailed Timeline
Ever notice how you’re more likely to procrastinate when a) the task is very large and complicated, and b) you have one deadline, and it’s a long way away? It’s easy to become overwhelmed by a single task, especially if it’s a painful one. Instead, try breaking things up into manageable steps, and give each step a hard deadline. Start small to build your momentum. For example, instead of saying, “I’ll finish my presentation by next month”, set yourself a goal of two PowerPoint slides per day, and check them off as you go.
Work In A Team
It’s much easier to slack off if you’re not accountable to anybody else, or there’s no-one tracking your progress. If you have a task, and you can’t afford to procrastinate, work with someone who will hold you to your goal. Obviously this needs to be someone who’s focussed and disciplined and unlikely to slack off themselves. Your best office buddy, for example, might not be the best anti-procrastination tool. There are even virtual coworking apps these days, to help you stay on track.
The standard habit loop in psychology is: trigger, behaviour, reward. When we procrastinate, the trigger is the job we don’t want to do. The behaviour is avoiding that job (which feels great…up to a point). And the reward is relief, which obviously doesn’t last very long. Try short-circuiting this system by offering yourself a different reward, a better reward, every time you complete a task. Which brings us to…
There’s good evidence to show that mindfulness can help with procrastination. It does this in a couple of ways. Mindfulness helps us step out of this trigger-reward feedback loop by helping us get in touch with our emotions: curiosity, the satisfaction of doing good work, and the anxiety and stress that often comes from procrastination. "We can actually train ourselves to substitute curiosity for procrastination," says Dr. Judson Brewer, Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University Mindfulness Centre. "Mindfulness lets us see the [positive] results in actually getting our work done."
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