So, I should probably be working right now….but….
What is it that makes us procrastinate? Is it because we’re lazy? Or does it have roots in our evolutionary development? As Dr. Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor states, procrastination “is not a time management problem; it’s an emotion-management problem.” This has to do with our brains: specifically, the ancient part (the limbic system) and the relatively younger part (the prefrontal cortex). Another name for the limbic system is the paleomammalian brain because of the role it plays in our survival: the flight-or-fight response being the most familiar to us. Our emotions and the act of pleasure-seeking have their roots here too. Essentially, this part of the brain is linked to impulsive behavior and a desire for instant gratification. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is responsible for more complex behaviors, like planning for the future.
When strong emotions – like fear and anxiety – become overwhelming, the impulsive limbic system can occasionally win out. Instead of facing challenging tasks, we opt for temporary relief doing something more pleasant (Netflix, anyone?). When it comes to the pandemic we’ve all been enduring this past year – where our work space and home space has been mixed, this has led to more procrastination in some cases and an inability to clearly break up our time between work and relaxation. Lack of structure is really detrimental to people who struggle with procrastination and we can clearly see how the pandemic has worsened this. We are experiencing prolonged stress and, thus, falling into habits that bring us good (temporary) feelings instead.
There’s something called “productive procrastination” which includes doing other tasks – chores around the house, for example – to avoid a work deadline. Yes, you’re completing a task and yes, you’re achieving some level of productivity. But putting off the work deadline simply adds to the stress. So, how do we overcome these instincts of putting things off for temporary relief/pleasure and avoiding negative emotions? Mindfulness and self-compassion are two ways, where mindfulness can be defined as a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. A 2020 study in the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology found that people who practiced even brief mindfulness exercises were more likely to stay on task.
But on a practical level? Don’t overburden yourself with an entire project, but figure out a “next step.” Just by taking a small step towards completing something towards a project, you trick your brain by looking at an action and not the associated emotion. What works for me, personally? I focus better on getting a task done when I know that afterwards I can spend an hour or so outside. On sunny days, this is an even greater factor. I also use the app “Todoist” to be able to “check” things off my list and watch them disappear I find that very satisfying! I set up micro-tasks within bigger “projects” on the app and compete with myself to not have any “overdue” tasks by the end of the day. But there are days I fail and this is where self-compassion plays a big role.
Now back to work….