Hacking Your Brain to Beat Procrastination

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Hacking Your Brain to Beat Procrastination

“Procrastination: The art of making the possible impossible.”

Gordon Tredgold

The word “procrastination” comes from the Latin “procrastinare” (deferred until tomorrow) and the Greek “akrasia” (acting against one’s better judgment). Even the word itself suggests that procrastination is an active choice: we choose to do something other than the task at hand, despite knowing that its delay will cause us to suffer in the future.

In fact, as Ted O’Donaghue and Matthew Rabin pointed out in their article “Doing It Now Or Later”, our brains are hard-wired to procrastinate. This means that it is much easier for our brains to process concrete things (efforts we make now) than abstract things such as potential future benefits of our efforts. Therefore, the short-term effort is more likely to dominate the long-term benefits in our minds. Behavioural scientists call this phenomenon a present bias of which procrastination is a perfect example.

Despite popular belief, procrastination is not caused by laziness, poor time management or a fear of failure. Numerous studies have established that procrastination is a result of self-regulation failure and a poor ability to manage emotions. According to psychologists, procrastination is the brain’s emotional response to a distressing issue. It protects us against fear of failure, judgment by others and self-criticism.

Research published by Fuschia Sirois and Natalia Tosti (Bishop’s University in Canada), show that people who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and lower well-being because their brains keep nagging them.Postponing tasks is an unconscious way the mind tries to take away the anxiety of judgement and self-doubt. But this relief is short-lived, because the avoidance of pressure actually amplifies the pressure. Therefore, in the long term, procrastination erodes our productivity and adds to chronic stress.

According to organisational psychologist Adam Grant, everyone is somewhere on the spectrum that runs from precrastination (starting tasks as soon as possible even earlier even if it costs extra effort or the quality of the outcome deteriorates) to procrastination (regularly putting off work despite knowing that delays will come at a cost). 

What is interesting, both procrastination andprecrastination arew driven by emotions. The anxiety of doing inferior work or the fear of not completing their assignments on time often motivates people to start working on their projects straight away. A 2014 study discovered, that precrastinators may struggle to plan their efforts rationally, deal with interruptions and stay focused.

You can take a free quiz to find out where you are on this spectrum and to get some useful tips on how to make you more productive, taking into account your position on the precrastination/procrastination continuum.

Here are a few brain hacks which you can use to beat procrastination.

– Recognise and tackle anxiety-induced procrastination. Anxiety and procrastination go hand-in-hand. When you are anxious about a task, remind yourself about all your knowledge, skills and experience which helped you to complete other similar tasks successfully in the past. Think of how you can use them to complete this task successfully too. Ask yourself what else and who else can help you with this task if needed. Realising that you have more resources than you initially thought, will help you to reduce anxiety and feel more confident.

– Adopt an attitude of curiosity. An attitude of curiosity helps us to observe, explore, and grow. It also helps us to reassure our worry-prone brains that a task in hand is manageable and that its completion will be enjoyable. Ask yourself: “I wonder how easy it will be to complete this task? I wonderhow quickly I can complete this task? I wonder how much I will enjoy having completed this task? What could be the first step I can take now?”  When you ask yourself, and answer, these questions you will notice that your mental state is changing to a more positive and resourceful one which, in turn, helps to move from thinking to action.

– Visualise how you will feel when your task is completed successfully. Scientists discovered, that this will make your future-self feel more real and will increase your perception of value of future benefits. It will also associate completion of the task with pleasure – a great motivator, because our brains are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

– Confront your omission bias. According to research, we have an aversion to proper evaluation of the status quo. This is called an omission bias and means that we are more likely to weigh the pros and cons of doing something new as compared to considering the pros and cons of not doing that thing. By deliberately thinking about the downsides of putting off the task you are not keen on, you are more likely to start (and continue) working on it now to avoid future pain. 

– Split long deadlines into a sequence of short onesResearch published in 2018, shows that long deadlines create a perception that a task is more difficult than it really is and leads to procrastination. Other research demonstrated that, when faced with multiple deadlines for tasks that vary in importance, people regularly pursue less-important assignments with shorter deadlines than more-important assignments with longer deadlines. These studies support the idea that splitting a big task with a long deadline into a series of “bite size” actions with short deadlines will create an urgency effect and spur us into action. As an extra bonus – we can celebrate the completion of each small task which will make us feel good about the overall big task thus tricking our brains hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

– Restrain your perfectionismGive yourself permission to do an imperfect first draft (writers often use this tool to trick the emotional brain that says the quality won’t be perfect enough). This will reduce your subconscious resistance to completing the task, unblock your motivation and help you to make a start and keep moving.

– Use “The 5-Minute Rule”. It is an old cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) trick where you force yourself to work on a task for just five minutes, with the understanding that you can quit after five minutes if you wish. Interestingly, more often than not, you will be motivated to keep going because getting started on a large task is often the hardest part. As psychologist Andrea Bonoir wrote, “we’re scared of the big, amorphous blob of a task precisely because it is so big and ill-defined, and because we worry that it will take two hours or two days to get to the bottom of it.” But overcoming the psychological barrier of getting started will energise you and help you to keep the momentum going. In addition to this, thanks to the Zeigarnik Effect, we remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones because our brain deems these interrupted tasks more important. This will stimulate you to progress beyond the first step – all the way until your task is completed.

– Practise self-compassion. According to research, there is a direct link between self-compassion and success. For example, a 2010 study shows that self-compassion and forgiving ourselves for previous delays protect us against self-recrimination, reducesdistress and boosts motivation which, in turn, reduces procrastination.

You can find more about the neuroscience-informed approach to beating procrastination in this article, this video and the Huberman Lab Podcast.

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