Break the Habit of Procrastination

21 May, 2020

It is a beautiful Tuesday morning. You woke up with an intention to write an article / complete your to-do list / call a potential client / finish a presentation / start eating healthy and exercising. It is 11am already and here is what you have achieved so far…. Listened extensively to every self-help piece of content on how to start writing / added more items on to your to-do list / cleaned the bathroom / organised your sock draw / commented on every single post on your Facebook news feed / had three cups of coffee and ate a bag of cookies. At the end of this beautiful Tuesday you are beating yourself up about not having done what you promised yourself to do. Then you relax into the evening after promising yourself to do all of those things as soon as you get up at 6am on Wednesday morning. Tomorrow is a new day after all.

We need to demystify procrastination because it really is not an inherent character trait. All of us procrastinate because our brain is designed this way. Procrastination is the limbic brain (the oldest part of our brain responsible for our survival) getting in the way of our greatest intentions. Our prefrontal cortex (much newer part of our brain) is active when we are making plans for our future, making decisions, etc. It is responsible for all those beautiful intentions. According to Dr Timothy Pychyl (professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa), our limbic brain is so primal and so well developed – it overrides the prefrontal cortex. Limbic brain always seeks immediate pleasure and pushes us towards avoiding immediate pain. Running away from the danger, finding food and having sex ensured the survival of the species. In a much more complex world of today, that same mechanism is driving us away from challenging and uncomfortable tasks (immediate pain) that would ensure a long-term success to a bag of cookies (immediate pleasure).

Dr Timothy Pychyl says that procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem. It is about being more focused on the immediate urgency of managing negative feelings and emotions than on getting on with a task.

Why does limbic brain get activated? The task you need to complete may be unpleasant (such as sacking an employee, making a cold call, start running) or there may be some deeper-rooted issues like a fear of failure or lack of self-belief/your ability to complete the task, particularly if you are starting something new. Limbic brain does not distinguish between actual danger and perceived danger. For your limbic brain making a cold call equals encountering an angry lion. It would rather have you sitting comfortably on the couch eating a bag of cookies.

If you procrastinate frequently, it becomes a habit. Those neural pathways in your brain get really established. It means next time you feel slight discomfort or unpleasantness about the task at hand, your brain will go: ”Ooh, there is a bag of crunchy cookies in the cupboard, you know…” or “Ooh, the laundry basket is really overflowing – I wonder if children have any clean clothes in the wardrobe”.

How to get out of this loop?

  • Using mindfulness meditation to downregulate the limbic system. Mindfulness meditation is very simple – it is about slowing down and being intensely present, both in your mind and body. If you closed your eyes and really felt the weight of your feet on the floor for few seconds right now, this would be it! Voila! You just did a micro mindfulness meditation. It is proven to significantly reduce the stress and anxiety – to calm down our limbic brain.
  • Retraining your brain. It means breaking the habit/the association and replacing it with a powerful alternative through repetition. Each time when you find yourself wanting to procrastinate instead of making a phone call, look for that negative emotion/feeling associated with the task. Is it fear? Did you know that fear and excitement present themselves in the body exactly the same way? You may be excessively sweating, shaking etc. Using this knowledge, what if you told yourself that you are excited about making this phone call, you are excited about getting to know this potential client and their needs. Change the meaning. The more you do it, the faster your brain starts associating that feeling of slight fear and discomfort with being excited.
  • Taking control. Dr Joe Dispenza uses meditation as a powerful tool to take back the control. If we are able to sit in silence on our meditation pillow for 20 minutes through discomfort, through wanting to stand up and go do things, through whatever comes up in our mind during this time, this is us claiming the power back from our limbic brain. We said we are going to do it and we are doing it. Start meditating every morning and watch how much more effective you will become. We are our greatest enemies, not our boss at work, not our spouse, not our annoying neighbour – it’s us who jeopardise our own success. Take back the control of your life.
  • 5 Second Rule. Mel Robbins suggests using 5 Second Rule which helps us to switch the operating system from limbic brain to prefrontal cortex. Each time you want to procrastinate, count backwards from 5 to 1. Mel started using it with waking up in the morning. Once the alarm rang, she would count 5-4-3-2-1 and jump out of the bed. Otherwise, the limbic brain would take over and tell us hundred reasons to stay in bed longer. Prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex cognitive behaviour – counting is a part of it. When we start counting our prefrontal cortex gets fired up. It is that same part of the brain where we made a conscious decision to wake up earlier in the first place.

Get into the habit of not negotiating with yourself, simply start doing what needs to be done. There is a great chance that once you start doing it, you will complete the task. Whether you use a 5 Second Rule, you practice taking control by meditating, you change the meaning of that unpleasant feeling or become a little bit more mindful, it is up to you. Every single one of these tools has the power to get you from thinking about the task to actually doing it.