Psychology researchers define procrastination as the “voluntary delay of intended action with the expectation of a possible worse outcome.” Are you a procrastinator? For most procrastinators the problem began way back in childhood. There may have been a very specific incident that occurred the first time you procrastinated. For me I have a very clear memory of a major project I had to do for 3rd grade “Mining Day.” Mining day was a really big deal in my Boulder, Colorado, elementary school. We dressed up as miners, panned for gold and had a pancake breakfast. The culmination of it all was the project that we were supposed to be working on for months to get ready. Kids made miniature model sluice boxes, models of mine shafts, Native American pottery, and jewelry.
My project was a “TV show” about a Spanish family that came to settle in Colorado. They had all kinds of misadventures along the way: traveling over the treacherous sea, figuring out how to get supplies, and a covered wagon to travel to Colorado, and their daughter getting very ill. I had it all worked out in my head. The “TV show” was to be a series of pictures that were taped together and pulled through a “projector box.” I planned on having the dialogue for each scene written on the back and the show was going to be presented in front of my 3rd grade class. The problem was, here was the night before Miners Day and the project was still mostly inside of my head!
I started off pretty well. Getting a few scenes drawn and the story line was in my head, but that was about it. I had a moment of sheer terror and panic and I told my mom about what I still needed to get done. This was my first (almost) “all-nighter.” I drew like crazy! Of course I was not able to do the dialogue on the back of the pictures. My mom helped me put the projector together and finally it was morning and I was running on adrenalin and kind of ready to go. I was the only kid doing a presentation and somehow I pulled it off. I created the dialogue on the spot and the projector worked smoothly. My presentation was a hit with the students and the teachers were all very impressed! This was my first year in an English-speaking school and English was my 3rd language so they were especially impressed by my ability to tell a story. And thus, my first procrastination experience was extra reinforced and etched in my mind as an acceptable way of going about my work.
It had not always been like this. I remember being a dutiful first grader sitting at my desk and doing my homework assignment every night. I initially had good habits and worked to do tasks in an incremental way. I remember planning to give my dad a calendar for Christmas that I made when I was 6 or 7 years old. I started long before Christmas and worked on it every day. I presented a beautiful calendar with 12 original drawings as well as the number pages that I had also created myself.
So what happened? There was a large disruption in my learning when my family escaped Communist Poland. I left after half of first grade, went to 2 months of 2nd grade in Austria and then landed in Boulder, Colorado for the beginning of 3rd grade. In the interim, I had fun adventures with my mom and brother. We explored museums, went to parks and I read a lot, but I was not in school for some of that time and the habits I had developed early on were lost due to the upheaval of leaving our home and all of our possessions as political refugees.
Yes, I have a perfect procrastination story and excuse for what happened to me. I do believe that procrastination has its origins in some type of childhood disruption, some type of incident that invoked fear. Do you remember the first time you procrastinated? Is there something etched in your mind that happened to you?
The Science Behind Procrastination
It turns out that our ancient brain is set up for procrastination. Your old brain, also known as the limbic system or your “lizard brain,” just wants to protect you from feeling bad. Your prefrontal cortex is the new part of your brain that is involved in future planning and is the part of the brain that distinguishes people from animals. It is also the part of your brain that tells you to get things done. When there is something that needs to get done that you don’t want to do, a fight happens between these two parts of your brain. The lizard brain, which wants to avid doing unpleasant things, often wins! This is procrastination.
The limbic system is the part of your brain responsible for the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. It wants to get you to feeling better as fast as possible. It is an ancient and automatic part of your brain.
The prefrontal part of your brain is the part we “think with,” located behind your forehead. It is the part that gets work done, but it does not do so automatically. You have to kick start it to work. As soon as you stop being mindful of what you are doing, the lizard brain takes over and you get up to get a snack or check your phone. In other words you procrastinate.
Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder have found that there are people whom are more likely to surrender to the lizard brain than others. There are also people more likely to act in an impulsive manner. The impulsive people are more prone to distractions and giving into them for short term pleasure at the expense of their long-term goals. Not all procrastinators are impulsive, but researchers have found a correlation between the two traits.
Researchers call procrastination, “the ‘quintessential’ breakdown of self-control.” Procrastinators have trouble finishing even simple tasks due to lack of control. According to Eric Jaffe In Psychological Science, “A ‘perfect storm’ of procrastination occurs when an unpleasant task meets a person who’s high in impulsivity and low in self-discipline.” There is even a specific type of procrastination, called “bedtime procrastination.“ Researchers at Utrecht University found that”people who generally have trouble resisting temptations and adhering to their intentions are also more likely to delay going to bed.”
So How do We Get Our Frontal Cortex to Take Over and the Lizard Brain to Go Back to Sleep?
We are all unique and we have our own unique style of procrastination. It is important to understand your energetic nature when confronting your particular procrastination style. My Spiritual Coaching Program can help you pinpoint that style and the techniques that work best for you. For example, I am not a particularly impulsive person and there is nothing I like better than to go to bed on time, so that particular style does not apply to me. My procrastination style actually leads to more creativity if I harness it correctly.
Set Up Routines
Setting up routines is a great way to beat certain types of procrastination. I love routines because they do become automatic over time. For example I have a day when I wash all the towels in the house, I have two days on which I water all the plants, and a day when I do all my filing, along with a cheesy slogan: “Friday File Day!” My morning and evening routine not only set me up for a successful day, but it is also a time to get a chunk of my writing done. The routine also creates an image of myself as a “writer,” which feels good even though I have not completed a book. Here is a link tony article on creating perfect routines: http://www.amateinstituteboulder.com/creating-a-golden-morning-routine-for-optimal-mental-health/
Focusing on the process feels positive and productive and improves ones self image, but it does not have the stressful pressure of having to get something done. Routines, such as an evening routine, also get rid of some of the distractions that can get to us, especially those that are working from home. Distraction such as dirty dishes, laundry or yards that have to be worked on. When the distractions are cleared it sets you up for a productive day. It actually takes sixty-six days to cite a new habit and establish the new pathways in your brain to make it automatic, so give yourself some time.
Break the Project Down into Smaller Parts
Breaking the project into smaller pieces also goes a long way to helping it not be so overwhelming. It does not seem very scary to your limbic system to write a paragraph or page a day, while a 100 page paper is quite terrifying. Break down your project into smaller pieces and make sure you are giving yourself plenty of positive “self-talk” or encouragement as you complete the smaller tasks.
Set a Timer
I am a person who, though not diagnosed, tends to have a bit of an ADD tendency, so I work with my nature, not against it and set a timer, for 20 or 30 minute intervals of writing. After the time is up I have 5 or 10 min for another task. Another task would likely be something more physical. So I may write for 30 minutes and then go down and change the laundry or put clothes away for 5 minutes or even do squats. The physical movement helps me focus again and get my energy flowing.
Of course it goes without saying that distractions have to be eliminated! The biggest one these days that previous generations never had to deal with is social media. Studies show the average person checks their phone 2,617 times a day. The reality is we are all lab rats in a giant experiment pushing that lever to get our pellet. Our electronics are designed to use every method in the behaviors psychologists trick-bag to get us addicted. So if you actually want to get something done you will need to turn off your phone and put it in another room. Yes, actually put it in another room. Next to you turned off is not enough.
Every time you step away from your project there is a readjustment time to get back to it, so eliminating as many distractions as possible will lead to more consistent and quality productivity. Avoiding distractions is another reason why I love to use the early morning time to get things done as this is my best energy time. Checking emails or looking at Facebook posts can be done at times that are not your optimal energy. Learn to understand when you are most productive and use that time to get your hardest tasks done first. This is called “swallowing the frog.” I will be doing a whole other talk on overcoming distractions in the coming months.
Micro-checks and Micro-Adjustments
“Micro-checks,” and “micro-adjustments,” are great tools to return yourself to mindfulness when you have become overcome by fear and the lizard brain is telling you to click on Facebook to get out of that unpleasant state. Check out my article here to get further details on this method: http://www.amateinstituteboulder.com/free-easy-use-mental-health-hacks-mood-boosters-help-get-life/
My Favorite Tool For Ending Procrastination
In my coaching practice I developed a tool that has been a tremendous help to my clients in beating procrastination. It is a guided visualization on seeing how happy your Future Self is when you have completed the tasks that you were meant to complete. We visualize giving the gift of a finished report or a clean kitchen in the morning to that Future Self. See how happy she feels when she gets up in the morning knowing the work is all done and she gets to enjoy the day. In this way, one develops empathy for your Future Self to get things done.
Have a Vision
In the end you have to ask yourself what is the meaning and purpose of it all? Why do I do what I do? A good why will make everything so much easier. Place your goal someplace where you can always see it. Under your goal describe how you will feel when this goal is completed. Keep that feeling clearly in mind as you do your task. Your Future Self will thank you!
One Area Where Procrastination Can Pay Off
There are those who are called Pre-crastinators. Their anxiety actually causes them to work too quickly to get things done. There has been some buzz lately about how the “right kind” of procrastination is actually part of the creative process for some and leads to greater creativity. There was research done on college students that had them each completing a creative task. One group was asked to delay their task by playing a computer game. The group that was asked to delay ended up with more creative results.
I was elated when I heard about this study! Now I realized why all those essays written in the wee early morning hours on the day they were due were so good and creative, though plagued with errors. It was my procrastination! I was exhibiting the behavior of a creative genius! I was thrilled. A behavior that I was exhibiting lead to more creativity. I was implementing a delay in my final product from the moment I started to work on it. The delay did lead to creative thinking about the essay I was formulating. Such a delay is productive and beneficial. Leonardo da Vinci started the Mona Lisa in 1503, but he did not finish it until 1519. In the interim he worked on his optical experiments. What he learned during the experimentation phase and incorporated into the final painting, is what made the work a masterpiece. His procrastination really paid off!
There is definitely a benefit to starting a project early, then setting it aside as you work on other things. The project will continue to “marinate” in your brain and often new, more creative ideas will come that can be incorporated into the final version. This definitely happened with my essays. However, the product could have still been much better with at least a day in between where I could have done the editing and fine-tuning to eliminate errors and produce a really polished piece.
So ultimately there are some benefits to starting a project and putting it aside for a few days or even months and then returning to it. But for the best result and to not be overwhelmed by fear, stress and guilt, I highly recommend implementing the strategies presented here to get it done now!
To learn more about what can work for your type of procrastination and create a program tailor-made for you, call me at 303-242-7824 for your free consultation.