The benefits of procrastination
I hate getting gas in my car. As I was driving to work yesterday with less than a quarter of a tank of gas, I was wondering how far I could push it. I really don’t like getting gas by work since the prices are so much higher but it was unlikely that I could drive the 45 minutes to and from work on my current tank of gas.
Still, it was probably worth trying. It’s annoying to stop for gas, the prices are much higher by work and there aren’t really any gas stations DIRECTLY on my route midway.
As I predicted, my gas light went on not too far into my commute home. I could probably make it. I was too tired and too hungry to stop. And I did make it the 30 miles back home,(I have experimented with this before, just how far I could go) my anxiety getting higher and higher, in proportion with my hunger and fatigue.
And let’s not even talk about how annoying it is to get gas the next morning, at 6am, when you are flying to work.
SO WHY DO WE DO THIS?
I am a grown-ass adult! Of course I know all the benefits of not procrastinating. I mean it’s pretty obvious to anyone that my decision was stupid, even though thankfully I got home.
But in order to really make any headway, we need to look at the benefit of procrastination. We need to look at it not as a character flaw or a weakness of will but as a protective function of the brain (I can hear all the procrastinators cheering right now).
So a few quick sentences on neurobiology…
don’t skip this, it will make you feel good about yourself.
The act of procrastination is a result of the wiring of the oldest and most dominant part of your brain, the limbic system, or if you want to get fancy, the paleo-mammalian brain. Two functions of this part of the brain are emotional regulation (what feels good) and fight/flight (what is safe right now and how do you get there and stay there.) The problem however, is that discomfort of any variety can trigger this part of the brain to engage the fight/flight response and/or to seek out pleasure. So when I think about how annoying it is to stop and get gas and pay 50 cents more per gallon when I am tired and hungry, this part of my brain interprets it as danger.
ABORT MISSION! GO HOME INSTEAD AND HAVE SOMETHING TO EAT!
It tells me procrastination is necessary for survival. The brain has done this for millions of years, just ask Aristotle, he wrote about it too. This part of our brain is on autopilot, running the show based on programming that unfortunately is outdated.
The good news is we aren’t animals and we have a prefrontal cortex, an evolved part of the brain that allows us to plan and make our own decisions. It’s our weapon against the outdated programming of the limbic system. Unfortunately, it is much younger and weaker and unless we give it some direction it won’t win the procrastination battle, This is where neuroplasticity comes in. With repetitive exercise or training we can get the weaker, Luke Skywalker, prefrontal cortex part of the brain to win battles against the stronger, more dominant, Darth Vader, limbic system part of the brain.
One tank of gas at a time.
So how do we do that and where do we even need to do it in our lives? Of course running out of gas would be annoying but it isn’t going to have catastrophic outcomes in my life. But what else do we procrastinate on? Work? Fitness? Going through the mail?
Or maybe there are things that we don’t really see as procrastinating but certainly fit into this framework.
Eating healthy (it’s too expensive, too much work to figure out how to do it cheaper)
Maintaining relationships (I am too tired to call, too busy to spend time)
Starting a business (I don’t have all the skills yet, it will be too hard)
Establishing a self-care routine (my family will be annoyed with me)
Exercising (it takes time away from my family, I have to lose weight first, I don’t have time, my back hurts)
Having a great marriage (we can spend time together when the kids are at college, or when I have less to do, or when I get some help)
Losing weight (I will start on Monday, or when I have less stress, or when my family member isn’t sick)
The question then is how do we overcome this? We like to give ourselves the out of “I don’t have the motivation.” Good news/ bad news? It’s not about motivation. Call it what it is, it’s faulty wiring, and we can find a way to re-circuit around it.
The truth is, while the brain is trying to protect us from discomfort, the exact opposite is what actually happens. We either postpone the discomfort or we compound it by dreading the upcoming discomfort. When we procrastinate on something important, the discomfort doesn’t, in fact, go away. The idea stays in the back of our minds zapping us of mental energy. It’s like having too many apps running in the background, draining our battery while we try to do other things. It’s like wearing a too-tight pair of jeans to a party, and then trying to have a good time while you are distracted all night by the painful wondering of if you are causing permanent damage to your internal organs.
Procrastination doesn’t protect us from anything,
it just delays us from the completion of discomfort.
Pretty messed up- right? How could your brain do that to you?
(it doesn’t know any better)
So, now that we are on to this trickiness, what can we do about it?
1. Use the limbic system against itself by giving yourself a reward.
This is a super fun approach to procrastination. It’s like hijacking the limbic system. Instead of framing the task as dangerous, frame it as a means to a prize. Now I am certainly not suggesting you promise yourself a new bag every time you clean the house (hmmm, I’m not suggesting against that either), but maybe you decide that when you sit down to plan your meals for the week you do it with a delicious cup of pumpkin spice coffee. Or maybe when it is done, you spend some uninterrupted time with your kids, or your friends, or your dog.
2. Don’t commit to the whole task, just commit to starting.
This is a super hack. Once we start a task, our prefrontal cortex takes over. Our higher level thinking turns on and procrastination starts to waver. Luke Skywalker has been given his first light-saber. Don’t believe me? Try it. Just start whatever you are putting off and see what happens.
3. Get rid of all the shiny objects.
This seems like common sense but this is where a little planning can go a long way. Don’t sabotage your progress by allowing avoidable distractions into your life. Stop running after all the shiny objects. It may not be enough to turn off your ringer, flip your phone over so you can’t see the notifications popping up (I may or may not have just had to do this myself). Don’t plan to spend the quality time with a friend at the same time you are going to be bombarded with work emails. Set things up in your favor so you can get this stuff done! The shiny stuff will still be there when you are done, I promise, and it may not seem so shiny then.
4. Sneak the goals/tasks in under the radar.
Deconstruct the task into smaller, less terrifying or annoying (aka dangerous) components. This way, they may sneak in under the perception of the limbic system like a trojan horse. This is one of my favorites. Instead of an overwhelming project, try one little component. Instead of freaking out about your daughter’s college essay never getting done, maybe the first step is to post on Facebook looking for recommendations of how other people approached this. This is even more fun if you make a list of these small components and then cross them off in sharpie when they are completed (yes, this can double as the reward we talked about in the first step. Sharpies are so satisfying on a to do list).
5. Plan a time to do it- engage the prefrontal cortex and stop being an animal.
Planning is the super skill of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that separates us from the animal kingdom. We don’t need to just react to our circumstances, we get to decide on how our life is structured. Planning doesn’t have to be elaborate. Any plan will cut down on that immediate fight/flight response. It takes away the drama that happens when we try to make a decision in the moment. It gives us a chance to “get our head around it” without the emotion. How much in your day to day life do you actually plan for and how much do you just go from thing to thing? Spend a minute thinking about it, I know the answer will surprise you.
6. Call yourself out on your own crap.
The reason we give in, against our own plans and goals, is to feel good in the moment, not for any of the other made up reasons. This is true for the whole human race. It is in our neurobiology. When we realize this, we can choose to delay feeling good for a bigger, better purpose. We can choose which part of our brain to listen to. We can start training ourselves for the lives of our dreams.
The brain is a powerful tool, use if for yourself, not against yourself. You may not always win the procrastination battle, but with more and more practice, the death star can start to crumble and a new world can begin.
Who knows, maybe I can even get gas,
and a pumpkin spice coffee,
any time I pass my local WAWA...
regardless of how low the tank is.
I may never see that gas light go on again.
Comment below if this rings true for you:)