Procrastination.

No one feels good about it, but we all do it sometimes, or maybe all the time.

I’ve been procrastinating a lot lately.

I procrastinated in writing this blog. Left it ’til the last minute.

Juggling a lot? Check.

Feeling tired and overwhelmed? Check.

Not enough time in the day? Check.

We may each have different ways of procrastinating, but we can find some common ground in understanding why.

So from there, we can make a plan.

Not to get rid of procrastination altogether – let’s face it, we all need an escape route sometimes. But so we can make more mindful choices about when we really want or need to procrastinate, and when we don’t.

What’s your energy level?

As I say in my trainings and with clients all the time, our brain is in charge of our body’s energy. Psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett calls it the “body budget.”

And when our body’s energy is low – maybe we’re sick, tired, stressed or just doing a lot – the brain is going to read that energy and guide our decisions and actions towards conserving what’s left of our energy.

Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, the brain is constantly assessing our body budget to make sure we don’t overspend.

So if it’s not a life-or-death situation, procrastination may seem like a pretty good option to conserve that body budget.

What’s the task?

Whatever it is we’re procrastinating on, how much energy is your brain predicting it will take to get it done?

We’re not just talking about physical energy, like exercising or cleaning the house. We’re talking about mental energy too.

The brain literally burns about 20% of our daily calories to function on a normal day. Throw in a lot of complicated mental tasks in addition to that, and that’s a lot of energy.

Because planning, problem-solving and decision-making can take a lot of cognitive energy. Those cognitive tasks also require the prefrontal cortex, which research shows is very difficult to access when we’re stressed or overstimulated. 

Quick fix, longterm problem

When you procrastinate, what do you do instead?

Do you turn to something that is an easy feel-good fix? Maybe it’s food, maybe it’s calling a friend, social media, your fave Netflix show.

Sometimes we might turn to a task that still needs to get done, but doesn’t take that much mental energy. Like doing the dishes or laundry.

But often we turn to that low-energy, feel-good fix that might temporarily soothe the stress in the limbic brain. We might even get a little hit of dopamine to activate the brain’s reward system which reinforces the quick fix solution.

Of course, the real problem is that we’re still left with what’s undone.

That’s when the tension, stress and even shame can mount. And those feelings activate the limbic brain, when what we really need to access for executive functioning and cognitive tasks (e.g. decision-making, planning and problem-solving) is the pre-frontal cortex

This is how procrastination can activate the limbic brain which then compounds the problem. 

So ultimately the short-term solution of procrastination becomes a longer-term problem for our brain and body budget. And the brain holds onto it because we haven’t closed the loop on what remains undone.

6 steps to start to getting #$%! done

All right, now that we have some understanding about why we might procrastinate, and that it can lead to a longer term problem, let’s look at some ways to shift away from the habit and start to get #$%& done!

  1. Stop shaming yourself for not doing it. Shame and self-blame keep us in the limbic brain and compounds the problem. So invite some self-compassion which research shows is actually more motivating than shame.
  2. Be curious about your energy level. How much energy does the task really require? Do you have the energy to get it done? Do you first need to do something to boost your energy (e.g., a nap, healthy food, or exercise)?
  3. Be curious about your state of mind. Are you stuck in a negative emotion or mindset? Can you shift – even if temporarily – to something that’s more positive or motivating, like tackling a challenge, closing the loop and getting it off your plate or mind? Maybe you just really don’t want to do it! Maybe you don’t need to, or someone else needs to…
  4. Make a choice. Given your energy and state of mind, make a choice – whether that’s acting, not acting, or choosing your attitude about it.
  5. Start small. Whenever we’re trying to change a habit, it’s best to start with smaller, do-able steps that won’t overwhelm or take too much energy to tackle, at least not all at once.
  6. Accountability and reward. Whenever we can be accountable, we’re more likely to follow through. If you can be accountable to someone else, that’s ideal. But even creating a deadline for yourself can create some accountability. And of course creating a reward for getting it done gives you both an incentive and positive reinforcement to do it again.

What have you been procrastinating on? Try these steps and let me know how it goes!

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash