This Brain Hack Helps Me Beat Procrastination Every Time
Tl;dr: procrastination is an emotional-based problem, not a laziness or time-management issue. It must therefore be treated from an emotional perspective.
I used to be a master procrastinator.
When I was offered a book to read, I wouldn’t hesitate to watch TV instead. When I had to clean my room, I would read the book. When I had to study for exams, I would clean my room.
Ironically, being such a procrastinator made me to some extent, bloody efficient in other areas of my life.
But efficiency is not a substitute for success. And the most successful people are the ones that get things done fast and well, disregarding the nature of the tasks.
Procrastination does not exist in their mind.
Why do we procrastinate?
Despite mainstream thoughts, procrastination is not about laziness or bad time management. It’s about emotions.
Maybe you noticed you only procrastinate on the tasks you don’t want to do. No one has ever procrastinated to get food. As such, you procrastinate because you know the task ahead will be a source of negative feelings (boredom, pain, anxiety, stress, difficulty) and you want to avoid that.
The origin of this habit comes from the wiring of our brains. Living in the wild, we learned to take care of the now. Survival was insured in the present moment, not in the future (since no one knew how it would be anyway).
As a result, human beings are extremely bad at projecting themselves in the future to the point that we tend to conceptualize our future selves as other people instead of ourselves.
When you procrastinate, your brain acts from the perspective that it needs to preserve your current happiness and well-being. Even though you know that putting off the task at hand will only bring on more stress into your life, your brain doesn’t hear it this way. The preservation of your happiness now is more important than some blurry rewards you could possibly get in the future.
Your brain just won’t budge and subsequently directs your actions towards something else – still important, but not as important. For a short moment, you’re relieved to have avoided the task you didn’t feel like doing.
You feel good. And this is bad.
Indeed, this instant of gratification makes procrastination particularly addictive.
Since our brain tends to repeatedly do that for which it is rewarded, procrastination becomes a vicious circle since the direct avoidance of a task makes you feel good in the short-term. If avoiding things triggers dopamine, the brain will be happy to do it again.
However, this nice feeling only stands in the short-term. In the long-term, procrastinating increases stress and anxiety, and you end up feeling worse off.
Like an addiction, it feeds off itself.
How to end procrastination
Procrastination is a problem of emotional avoidance. No one procrastinates to do something nice.
If we hope to tackle procrastination, we must therefore deal with it from an emotional perspective.
One way is to practice self-care. Self-compassion and self-forgiveness seem to help with procrastination and have shown results to decrease it.
Another way is to reward yourself every time after doing a task for which you have procrastinated. If somehow, the reward appears to your brain to be of higher value than the negative feeling attached to the task, this will motivate you to complete the task to get the reward – as soon as possible.
If you reward yourself every time you beat procrastination, your brain will interpret beating procrastination as positive and it will get easier.
Finally, the last strategy (that I have used many times) is to trick your brain into perceiving differently the task at hand.
As such, when I avoid doing something because I know it won’t be pleasant, I break the purpose down into smaller goals. I changed my focus from finishing the task, to starting the task, without any obligation to finish it.
This enables me to reduce the resistance by decreasing the size of the task.
All I need to do to win is to start. If I start and stop after 5 minutes, I have won. If I start and stop after 30 seconds, I have won.
The trick is that I know that once I start, I won’t want to stop because I will want to finish. I will probably have realized that the task is not as bad as I thought originally. Now that I have started, I might as well go to the end to get rid of it once and for all.
And this how, by lying to yourself, you can beat up procrastination.
The bottom line
Procrastination is a huge problem inherent to our society because the majority of the disagreeable tasks we need to do do not directly threaten our lives.
30 000 years ago, procrastinating to get food would have gotten you killed, so you simply weren’t doing it.
Today, procrastinating on answering that important email may get you fired. That would be annoying, but it would in no way threaten your life directly.
To summarize, it is through training your brain to fight and triumph over feelings of unease, difficulty, boredom, and awkwardness that you will beat procrastination.
To do so, practice self-compassion, reward yourself after each difficult task and break it down into smaller steps so it appears less daunting.
Don’t worry, you got this!
Now get to work.