The biggest irony in writing an article on strategies to overcome procrastination is how much I procrastinated on actually sitting down in front of my computer and starting the work. As a content writer, my personal nightmare is the daunting sight of a blank page accompanied by a blinking cursor and zero ideas on how to write a catchy intro. Soon enough, the dreadful feelings of self-doubt creep in, suggesting that maybe I am, in fact, not smart enough, interesting enough or funny enough to offer any kind of value to the world with my rubbish scribbles.
Would anyone benefit from what I have to say?
Who am I to speak on these topics?
What if I’m just making a fool out of myself?
Sounds familiar? Well, duh! News flash: we all procrastinate.
I don’t know a single person who doesn’t avoid their responsibilities at least once in a while. All humans on this planet have a little devil on their shoulder urging them to postpone work, think about it later, find millions of reasons/excuses to not approach some challenging or stressful projects and just chill out now. Without a doubt, I’m sure that we’ve all experienced the sad consequences of procrastinating. It’s no fun to anxiously try to finish a task right before the deadline. As far as I’m concerned, pulling all-nighters studying for exams is also not so much fun.
A perfect method for adding drama to life is to wait until the deadline looms large.– Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby
So, since we all procrastinate and we all hate the fact we procrastinate, why do we keep on repeating the same mistake?
What Is Procrastination Anyway?
On the contrary to popular beliefs and stereotypes, procrastination is NOT a result of:
- having poor time-management skills,
- being lazy/unorganised,
- a lack of willpower to tackle important responsibilities.
And let’s be honest here: the adrenaline rush that appears due to the time pressure of a looming deadline doesn’t make us work BETTER; it just makes us FINALLY do our work.
I hate to break it to you, but all these reasons are just excuses that serve as a form of self-protection. It’s easier, in a sense, to label yourself as “the forgetful one” or “the lazy one” and blame your lack of action on these traits rather than own up to the fact that you actually messed up.
Procrastination is, hands down, our favourite form of self-sabotage.– Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby
This realisation can sting our ego a bit, but the sooner we recognise it, the sooner we can actually apply strategies to overcome procrastination. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. First, let’s take a closer look at the issue itself…
Inside The Brain of a Procrastinator
To better understand the paradox of procrastination, I found out what happens to our brains when we delay, avoid, and waste our precious time. I found the work of Dr Tim Pychyl, who explains how procrastination is “an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem“.
This led me to a phenomenon called “the amygdala hijack”.
Basically, in the process of evolution, humans developed three brain systems. Aside from the primal brain, the oldest and most powerful one is called the limbic brain. Its primary function is to keep us safe and alive, alert in the present moment. It makes a whole lotta sense when you come to think about it – these of our ancestors who could focus on the here and now and stay away from dangerous or threatening situations survived. Later on in the process of evolution, we’ve been equipped with the neocortex. Now, this region is in charge of many neural higher functions such as reasoning, cognition, and decision-making regarding our future.
It’s pretty self-explanatory; when you’re hungry, your priority is to eat. When you’re exhausted, you want to go to sleep as soon as possible. It gets more complicated with the amygdala hijack, which boils down to the fact that our ability to make a good decision decreases drastically in stressful or anxiety-inducing situations. The amygdala interprets such a situation as a threat to personal safety and seeks ways to remove its cause.
And that’s where we’re in a pickle:
even though we understand how bad procrastinating is for us,
We are wired to put greater importance on satisfying our momentary needs rather than prioritising the best interest of our future selves. In fact, we see our future selves as strangers, says Charlotte Lieberman in her article for New Your Times. “When we procrastinate, parts of our brains actually think that the tasks we’re putting off – and the accompanying negative feelings that await us on the other side – are somebody else’s problem“, she continues.
The worst part of it all is how easy it is to fall into the chronic habit of procrastinating. Think about it. Whenever you felt like delaying a very urgent task, your decision to relax, binge watch Netflix or even reorganise your closet was a way to reward yourself with the act of procrastination, bringing you a temporary relief. As you can probably imagine by now, that behaviour becomes engraved in your brain as something desirable, preferably something to repeat in the future. And so, ladies and gentlemen, just like that, we unconsciously fall into the vicious cycle of chronic procrastination.
5 Simple Strategies To Overcome Procrastination
A bit unsettling, isn’t it? Well, don’t you worry about it. There’s plenty of actions we all can take to tackle this issue. Here’s my list of top 5 strategies to overcome procrastination today!
- Awareness is the Key:
In order to solve a problem, we have to know what we’re up against. In the case of procrastination, my guess is that we’re all rather painfully aware of committing this “crime”. What I invite you to do is explore the nature of your procrastination more. Go deeper, peel the layers and look at the root of your problematic behaviour.
Contemplate these questions:
- When do you feel more/less inclined to procrastinate?
- What is your most frequent reason for procrastinating?
- Is the task itself super difficult or extremely dull?
- Maybe it’s connected to underlying feelings related to your job, such as anxiety, self-doubt, insecurities etc.?
2. Focus on the present moment:
Since our limbic brain makes us value our state in the present moment more, you need to find a way to trick it into thinking that there’s a better reward than avoiding or delaying your responsibilities and achieve your long-term goals at the same time. Dr Judson Brewer calls this idea a BBO = Bigger Better Offer. He explains how applying effective strategies to overcome procrastination is super tricky since we literally have infinite ways of procrastinating. Therefore “the solution must be internal, and not dependent on anything but ourselves”.
Next time you struggle to approach a dreaded task, find a way to make completing it more attractive to you in the present moment. Try to have fun with your task, make it enjoyable. For example, if you absolutely hate exercising even though it’s good for your health, try these:
- test out different sports
- find a workout buddy
- listen to your favourite podcast while exercising
3. Set Action Steps:
Big goals are intimidating, even scary, I’d say. A great way to make them more approachable is to chop them down into small, achievable tasks that can be accomplished daily, aka Action Steps. Read all about this method here. For example:
- If you have a 50-page thesis to write this academic year, set a weekly goal of writing 3 pages. Focus on the present, not on the future. No need to get overwhelmed.
- If your side project takes 5 hours weekly, commit to spending 10 minutes on it right now. After these 10 minutes, see if you’d like to continue or not. A great perk here is that frequently we realise that the avoided task was not as hard as expected and endorphins, or in other words, the feel-good hormone, kick in! That is absolutely great for our limbic brain – we’re rewarded in the present moment!
- Whenever you complete a task – cross it off of your to-do list! It will also boost endorphins in your brain!
4. Remove/Add Obstacles on Your Way:
Remove all obstacles and potential distractions standing between you and your end goal and:
- foster a smooth workflow
- put yourself in an environment that facilitates deep focus
Add as many obstacles as you can between you and your favourite way of procrastinating to:
- make procrastination as inaccessible and unattainable as possible
- add friction and an element of discomfort to your procrastination habit
5. Treat Yourself with Kindness and Compassion:
Last but not least, please remember that procrastination happens to us all. It’s tricky and challenging to overcome, so treat yourself with love and respect.
Science actually shows how self-forgiveness and self-compassion shield us from stressors, help us recognise our maladaptive behaviours and boost our motivation to keep going rather than look on the past. Dive deep and explore this topic with this blog post.
I also invite you to reframe the tasks you dislike by finding/adding a positive aspect to them. It’s much easier to actually work when we focus on the positives, isn’t it?
Procrastination is opportunity’s natural assassin.– Victor Kiam
What’s mostly sad about procrastinating is that we fall into mediocrity. We lower our standards, we give up on big dreams, and we become complacent. Sooner or later, we just slide from one day to another, from one week to another, without realising that we’re wasting our potential and missing the many opportunities that life gives us. I think none of us would like to wake up one day and realise that the years have gone by and we still haven’t started working on this novel we wanted to publish or gone on the trip overseas we dreamt of.
This blog post is just the first step on the journey of actively tackling this issue, this internal struggle which we all have. Naturally, there will be days when we don’t feel like doing anything productive or challenging when we just want to take a break. Nevertheless, each time we recognise the limbic brain trying to run away from the discomfort, each time we choose to confront it and dive deep into the uncharted territory, we break the vicious cycle and develop a new habit.
A better habit.
One that brings us closer to our dreams, pursuing our passion and supporting our wellbeing.
My final message to you is: don’t overthink it, don’t second-guess yourself.
Whatever it is that you’ve been avoiding – try out these strategies to overcome procrastination and the results might surprise you.
There’s only one way to find out, right?