If you love procrastinating…if you wear your procrastination like a badge of honour…if you revel in your war stories about how you left it all to the last minute and then pulled it out of the fire with a flourish…then this article is not for you.On the other hand, if you are tired of the frenzy that results from putting things off…if you are sick of feeling the weight of your commitments as you engage in some mindlessly entertaining task…if you are ready to be done avoiding and apologising when you miss a deadline…then read on.
Procrastination – avoiding tasks that have a negative association in favour of tasks that have a more positive association – actually makes a lot of sense when you look at how the human brain works. You have a part of your central nervous system that is focused on what is comfortable and familiar. This part of your brain (limbic system, basal ganglia, and nucleus accumbens) almost always encourages you to do what you have done in the past. This is because past behavior is associated with survival. In other words, if you did it yesterday, and you lived to see the sunrise today, then it must be worth repeating. Each time you engage in a habitual behaviour, you are rewarded with a small amount of a brain chemical called dopamine. This chemical produces the internal experience of “this is how it is supposed to be.” The more you do something, the more likely it is to become an unconscious habit. The result is that you always towel off the same way when you get out of the shower, you always sit in the same chair in your living room, and you always procrastinate the same tasks.
So, how do work with your brain so that you are not a victim of this tendency toward procrastination? The first step is to be mindful of how your survival brain triggers avoidance behavior. There are sensations in your body and thoughts in your mind that show up when you think about engaging in any task. Pay attention and you will see that thoughts about putting something off are connected to unpleasant sensations – perhaps feelings of heaviness or tightness across the shoulders or in the chest, throat, or stomach. This is the trigger. You may have never noticed these sensations before because they are subtle or perhaps you just haven’t practiced looking for them.
The next step is accepting that these sensations and thoughts are just part of the process of getting this particular task done. It is your resistance to the trigger that leads to procrastination. If you can accept the feelings that your survival brain associates with the task, then you can simply begin the task. You can conserve all the energy that normally goes into avoidance and all the clever rationalizations of avoidance.
Some of my clients give this trigger a name and create a response that helps them stay on track. “Oh, there you are Henry. I thought you might show up. You are welcome to hang around while I pay my bills, but I don’t really have time to entertain you.” By first identifying the trigger and then seeing it as nothing more than something that shows up when you think about the task, you will find that you are free to do whatever you choose to do when you choose to do it. Like any skill, this takes practice, but if you are tired of procrastinating, then a little practice will go a long way.