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How to Stop Procrastinating

Have you done it? I know I have. Procrastinate, that is. The bigger question is, is it something you do often? What makes you start procrastinating? procrastinating | procrastination | to do list | perth business | neuroscience | leadership

We are ‘built’ for instant gratification. Our brain systems enhance this based on our survival needs from way back when. When we have a choice between doing something that is rewarding, quick and has immediate feedback, which one wins our attention? Here’s a wee clue – it’s not going to take us long to do it!

What this means, is that our primitive brain has cravings and wants them satisfied – now! This has been referred to as our System 1 and is based on our limbic/emotional brain system. Our System 2 uses our Prefrontal Cortex which is great at thinking and planning ahead; it’s more exhausting. It is an energy-hungry part of the brain making it a tougher way of deciding because our brains like to be energy efficient.

Recognising how our brain works around this, explains why it is sometimes so difficult to go ahead and just do it. Here we can look at some of the psychology of our behaviour patterns.

Learning to…Procrastinate!

First up, we learn to procrastinate! Yip, the more often we do it, the easier it is to do it again and again and again. It becomes a familiar pattern to our brain, meaning it costs us less energy to not think about it and just go with your normal Procrastinating flow. To change this ‘normal’ behaviour will cost you effort and energy. Realising this will help you set up new patterns of behaviour.

From a psychological perspective, how do we get into this Procrastinating pathway?

The further away a reward is from our current situation, the more we reduce the value of this reward. This is called temporal (time) discounting. The closer the proximity to the now, the value of the reward increases. This is hyperbolic discounting – in other words we exaggerate the importance and value of something which is closer in time to our current situation.

From a leadership perspective, we believe putting out the fires right now is where we need to focus. We discount the value of the long-term future whilst we focus on fixing the here and now. The Catch 22 is that we will always need to put out the fires because we haven’t valued the rewards our future will bring us enough to do something about it right now.

In many cases, when we procrastinate for long enough we end up in the stress and panic zone! The future has become the fire and needs immediate attention.

How do we get past Procrastination?

This is never going to be easy, especially as we know our brains like to conserve energy, and this will be energy-intensive.

Basically, we need to ‘know ourselves’. You may think you do, but are you being truly honest with yourself? Let’s look at your focus.

Are you motivated by achieving, that is gaining a reward, or is your preference to focus on removing yourself from negative outcomes, that is ‘pain’? It may depend on the situation. Let’s take report writing or doing your tax. Lack of completing your work to the required deadline could mean demotion or even loss of your job. Definitely a pain you want to avoid. And, with tax, it could be to avoid a fine if not completed on time.

For the motivation toward achieving, this is recognising a goal that will bring reward and value to you in the long term. This is about having a vision for the organisation and putting the strategies in place to achieve it. It could even be about saving toward buying your dream home. (Fighting the urge to go out with friends and colleagues because that is fun right now!).

Where do you sit on this spectrum?

Next steps
We know that if the ultimate goal is far into the future, we are likely to discount its value. Best way to get around this is to have micro-steps – small, achievable goals that allow us to realise our achievements, to make them rewarding and quick.

Remember, we are human, and we are still very much tied to our biology – ignore it at your peril. Your brain is looking for an ‘easy’ life, and if procrastination is well-established in you, this is going to be a tough gig.

When thinking about leaders, being a great procrastinator is not a good role model for those around you. As part of the forward-thinking, ‘let me show you the way’ people in the organisation, you do need to get over your Procrastinating tendencies.

Organise yourself to have a support system in place that will help you to do what you need to do when you need to do it. Recognise the reason for your procrastination – is it something that is about moving away from in the end, or towards? Plan your micro-steps according to YOU. Celebrate along the way. Give yourself the ‘feel-good’ factor for having your brain put the energy into helping you.

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