Procrastination is a trap many of us fall into, often out of fear. Fear of failure or of success which often holds us back and results in us self-sabotaging creating a self-fulfilling prophecy because what happens? We fail to meet that deadline, put ourselves in the ring or do the thing that was so seemingly important and then we fail because we didn’t even start or finish, thus failing in the end anyway.
For people that don’t have issues with procrastination it can be frustrating. Procrastinators can seem flaky, lazy, unable to meet deadlines, finish things or follow through. However there is usually an underlying positive, unconscious intention behind procrastination, and usually that is self-preservation.
Neuroscience has taught us that decision-making is done by the rational part of our brain, also known as the primitive brain. Our primitive brain also happens to be the oldest part of our brain and its job is simple, to keep us out of danger, whatever it perceives that to be. Which is on the one hand good, and yet also problematic because the primitive brain hasn’t evolved and kept up with the modern day, equating any and all danger as life and death level danger.
The primitive brain makes decisions quickly and instinctively based on our emotions, resulting in fight or flight. So whatever the situation or circumstance, if you have feelings about it, whether conscious or unconscious your primitive brain is going to act on it. Which might explain why you may find yourself procrastinating when you’re confronted with something that you haven’t done before, or something you aren’t sure how to do or feel overwhelmed by.
Whilst you can’t stop procrastination in its tracks overnight, you can condition your brain so that it becomes a thing of the past. Here’s 10 very practical techniques you can try if you’re struggling with procrastination:
1. Make lists. Write down what you need to do so that you have everything down and out of your head. This is a simple but effective way of reducing noise and distractions and maintaining focus in an organised and logical way.
2. Prioritise what you need to do not only by importance, but by the way that you work best. Some people work better first thing in the morning, others late at night. Your energy and focus will be different at different times of the day so structure your schedule according to your energy and attention.
3. Eliminate distractions. Set yourself up with everything that you’ll need whilst you’re working and move or switch off everything that could be a distraction. Every time you are tempted to step away from the task at hand, count to 5 in your head or out loud. This will help the part of your brain that is good at planning ahead, making decisions and strategizing (the prefrontal cortex) get more focused and less easily distracted.
4. Break tasks down into chunks and sequences of activity that you can pick off one at a time. Procrastination stems from our brains need for reward and instant gratification which it doesn’t get as quickly from longer, focused tasks. So by breaking up big goals into a set of smaller tasks or activities your brain will start to see progress more quickly and learn the value of continuing with a task rather than defaulting to procrastination mode.
5. Set deadlines and goals. Try a productivity technique like the Pomodoro technique which works by tackling the hardest tasks first, working in 25 minute bursts of activity until you complete your task.
6. Follow the principle that done is good enough. Because perfectionism doesn’t exist. The law of diminishing returns show that after a point, more effort will not produce significantly more gains. So learn to spot the point that you have got something as good as it’s going to get and move on. Don’t allow yourself to keep finessing and tweaking things that aren’t going to make a substantial or noticeable difference, call yourself out on your procrastination and move on.
7. Reward yourself. Our brains thrive on the dopamine hits that come with the feeling of gratification and achievement. So find ways to reward yourself when you achieve tasks, goals and milestones. Whether that’s crossing things off of your list, giving yourself a little social media break, doing a quick workout or enjoying one of your favourite treats, find ways to reward yourself that are fun, sensible and sustainable.
8. Ask for help. One of the biggest reasons for procrastination is overwhelm from not knowing where or how to start. So ask for help from those in the know or if you can afford to outsource the tasks to others.
9. Get yourself an accountability buddy. We often push ourselves a little bit harder and faster when we know someone else is going to be checking in on us. Find someone that you can regularly and periodically check in with to keep you on track.
10. Meditate. Studies have shown that meditation can help to reduce anxiety (a procrastination trigger) and improve concentration (a procrastination improver). By conditioning your mind in this way you can tap into the neuroplasticity (changeability) of your brain.