I wanted to know if we procrastinate (put things off) because we are demotivated? Or is something else going on?
Neuroscience of procrastination
Dr Steel explained the neuroscience of procrastination and the brain’s two decision-making processes: the more primitive limbic system, which pays attention to the here and now; and the pre-frontal cortex, which can make decisions about the future.
When we procrastinate, the good intentions of our pre-frontal cortex are overwhelmed by the limbic system seeking immediate rewards. Our “Inner Chimp” grabs our attention. We find it more exciting to, for example, buy something online or watch the news, than get on with that important piece of work for next week.
It seems that we be both motivated and procrastinate at the same time. Although we may enjoy our work, we may still struggle to get on with it.
Dr Steel suggested that there are some personality characteristics that may make us more likely to procrastinate: the “people pleaser” who takes on too much because they don’t want to risk conflict by saying no; people who are naturally more impulsive and sensation-seeking; people who have ADHD; people who aim for perfection or feel impostor syndrome.
The reassuring news from Steel is that “everyone procrastinates a little”.
So how can we overcome our tendency towards procrastination?
I think there are at least three categories of things that we may procrastinate over and there are different solutions for each.
Things that we don’t want to do, even though we know we “should”.
The challenge here is to find something that will make us want to do it.
For me, jobs like tidying up the garage or sorting out my photographs fall into this category. I need to find a purpose that is meaningful to me to make me do jobs like these. I might tidy up the garage if I want to fit the car into it at night to stop it getting iced over on winter mornings. I might sort out my photos if I knew that they would be used for a big family event or something else that is important to me.
The Solution: Create a vision of an outcome that is important to you to motivate you to get on with the task.
Things that we want to do but can’t work out how to get started or don’t feel the pressure to get started.
The challenge here is to break down the elephant task into mouse-sized bites and set true deadlines for each stage.
For me, deciding to write my next business book would fall into this category. Such a big project can seem overwhelming, so working out the first steps to take, where to start, who to talk to, etc starts to make it more manageable. By breaking it down into doable actions, you make it easier to get started and to see progress, which motivates further effort.
There is a personality aspect to this challenge. Some people naturally want to get started early and often get the task finished within the deadline. Other people naturally feel they can’t get started without the pressure of an imminent deadline. Steel says “time constraint does wonders for motivation”. For the first group, the main challenge is to work out the first and subsequent steps. For the pressure-prompted people, the challenge is to have a “true” deadline which will make them get started. The deadline needs to be an external one that has some consequences if they don’t meet it, not an artificial one that they set themselves.
The Solution: Work out actionable first steps with timescales to get started and maintain momentum.
Things that we want to do but they don’t seem as exciting in the moment as something else we could be doing.
The challenge here is to remove the distractions and build up habits that take the decision-making away – be on automatic pilot.
Much of Dr Steel’s advice falls into this category. He suggests:
• Get through the “surface tension” of the task – start on it and don’t worry about how good it is.
• Make the task more enjoyable or promise yourself a reward when you have done it.
• Block off a certain amount of time for a task and put a time constraint on it – if you feel you have all day to do something, it will take you all day, while if you only have two hours, that’s all it will take.
• Make temptations and distractions less obvious – turn off notifications, tell others not to interrupt you.
• Create habits – do your work in the same place at the same time without distractions – Steel says “habit takes the place of willpower”. In other words, just do it, don’t think about it!
The Solution: Limit distractions and create routines and habits to keep your limbic system out of the decision-making process so you can implement the intentions of your pre-frontal cortex!
We all procrastinate to some extent, and it isn’t always a bad thing. Being on a relentless treadmill of tasks can take its toll; spending some time avoiding the tasks and instead doing a bit of daydreaming can re-energise. Take my SPICE quiz to find out how well you manage your energy.