Procrastinate? Train Your Brain

One of the great things about living in this modern age is that we can readily assign all the goals we fail to achieve to something else. “It’s not my fault I didn’t eat healthy; I just couldn’t let the grilled flatbread and cheese spoil.” “It’s not my fault I didn’t finish this essay; there were other things on my to-do list to get done.” …and on and on and on. The truth is that most of these excuses are merely ways we procrastinate.

A great many personal development gurus have written dozens of articles and books, created videos, TedTalks, podcasts and the like, which attempt to help people like me to hurl myself over the procrastination hump and into the realm of intentional living, authorship, or whatever the measure of success or completion of a goal. Miracle Mornings, 5-second rules, atomic habits. Been there, done that (sort of).

In this struggle to overcome my procrastination, I have quite blithely convinced myself that whatever goal I set will be accomplished at some point, but when, at the end of the day, I find myself no closer to completing an essay, or an article on health, the usual ingrained excuses are there to let me off the hook. It is not a place I want to be; it is not a place I want anyone to be.

The latest of my attempts to circumvent my procrastination comes via The Great Courses series. I found this add-on to my cable bill which was free for a week, and thought many of the 193 course offerings interesting (and likely something I could add to my procrastination excuses, because I just had to see that 35-episode course on Mesopotamia). Well, I was hoist on my own petard when, ironically, I chose a particular course title — Outsmart Yourself. I didn’t know what I expected, but was intrigued and fascinated with what I discovered, because the course was about the brain, habits, and ways to outsmart ourselves to achieve our goals.

In one episode, Peter Vishton, Ph.D, from the College of William and Mary, sheds light on how our conscious mind is pitted against the unconscious mind, which can result in procrastination, which (as we know) is one way we don’t achieve our goals. He points out roughly 80%-95% of us procrastinate on a regular basis. Glad to know that I am not the only one.

Procrastination: a self defeating behavior that involves putting off actions that should be performed promptly given existing goals and information

It is interesting that all along I never saw procrastination as a behavior. To me it was just another term for avoiding something I knew had to be done, but I just didn’t want to do. Like going to the dentist.

Understanding in the light of it being behavior, procrastinating can be overcome, and Dr. Vishton starts with three simple actions.

I know. I thought this unusual myself. In the course of 15–20 minutes my mind can go from one thing to another until I forget why I was sitting quietly in the first place.

However, doing nothing intentionally keeps us from doing the avoidance behaviors.

In this way, we are less likely to jump from avoidance task to avoidance task while the real work we want to do recedes into the background, and, never gets done.

As we sit, intentionally thinking about what we are going to be doing, take some deep breaths. The anxiety abates as we focus on what we want to do and why, which helps build the motivation to do it. I liken it to visualizing the task being completed; the good feeling that will come as the goal is met.

It is all a balance act. Dr. Vishton cites the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which in a nutshell states that motivation results in better performance, but only to a point.

He gives the example of asking a group of people to see how many baskets each can sink out of 10 attempts. On average, they may sink about four.

Tell them, then, that you will give them a dollar for each shot they sink, and the average may jump to six or seven.

Then say you will given them $10 for each shot they sink, and the average drops back to four or fewer.

The takeaway is that too much motivation can result in too much pressure (or anxiety) which potentially lowers the outcome.

Another way to state this is really to keep the task in perspective, and acknowledge the limitations — especially if the task in large in scale.

Breaking down large projects into smaller segments does several positive things. First, it helps us keep track of the accomplishments toward our goal. When, for example, say our goal is to increase our water intake to optimal health recommendations (half our body weight in ounces of water daily), and we need roughly 80 ounces of water but only consume 48. Rather than attempt to down the 32 ounces we need all at once, set a goal to add 4–6 ounces each day until the 80 is achieved.

The small achievements create a sense of pleasure — a dopamine rush for our brain — which makes it more likely that we will repeat the action until it becomes a habit and we hit the goal.

One other way to look at it would be to create a checklist.

Never underestimate the power of checking off a task on your to-do list

I can attest to the wonderful feeling I get when I have taken the time to create my daily list of things I need to do, and do them. There really is a tremendous satisfaction in seeing what I have accomplished at the end of the day. It many times is the motivation I need to stay on track not only throughout the day, but building for the next.

Beware, though, of the desire to add to the list as the day unfolds. I have been caught in that trap many times. Don’t just add tasks so you can cross them off. Often these distractions are nothing more than the pesky procrastination behaviors we want to avoid.

Understanding that procrastination is a behavior that can be overcome by employing some simple strategies should be encouraging to all of us who desire to set and achieve our goals.

Certified Health Coach and freelance writer, striving to do what really matters in life…one day at a time.

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