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Procrastination is like a flight simulator, the difference being that procrastination doesn’t convince your brain that you’re flying a plane, it convinces your brain that you’re doing something that triggers negative emotions, like being at work.
What does this mean? When the brain runs into a task that evokes negative emotions, it’s important that it gets rid of the negative emotions associated with the task, not the task itself. But just postponing the task isn’t enough. The thought of unfinished work remains present in the back of the mind and continues to produce negative emotions. The only way to solve the problem is to find an interesting task that becomes a source of positive emotions.
For instance, we sometimes drown out stress with something more interesting or appetizing using this very same cognitive process. This something ‘Interesting’ and ‘appetizing,’ means that you get a dose of the happy dopamine hormone while doing another activity, which you need to drown out those original negative emotions. Here are the three key elements of how we deceive and distract ourselves with procrastination:
These are the three main parts of a strategy to fight procrastination.
Control your Negative Emotions
Anxiety, reluctance to feel stress, and fear of failure are the most common negative emotions that a task can cause. To keep them under control, you need to use target specific areas.
Calm the Amygdala
The amygdala is a dual-structure automated stimulus-response anxiety center within the limbic system of the brain, (say that five times quickly) and it is beyond conscious control. Your amygdala urges you to ‘run’ when faced with a threat. And you do this before even knowing why or what threatens you. If it’s a predator, the amygdala will save your life. But if it’s a social risk that threatens you, like the threat of loss due to work failure, it can actually trap you.
Scientists have found that in people prone to procrastination, the amygdala is larger and less connected to the rational areas of the brain in the prefrontal cortex, which are meant to calm it down. But don’t fear, because the prefrontal cortex has something called turbo boost. For instance, if you have an urgent task to finish, but your hand is reaching out to open YouTube, use ‘coherent breathing.’ This is a proven breathing technique that stimulates the rational parts of the brain. Just inhale and exhale through your nose for five to six seconds without stopping. Focus on every breath. Just a couple of minutes are enough to calm the amygdala and return to a productive mode of work.
Simplify your Task
One of the causes of procrastination is that we give ourselves too many tasks. The brain forecasts any situation beforehand. If you’ve organized a serious project with many subtasks, the brain immediately predicts how much energy will be required to complete everything, while, incidentally, also trying to avoid the task. To prevent your brain from procrastinating right then and there, choose one simple goal that can be done at that very moment. Take a look at this example: instead of the overwhelming task of ‘learning Spanish,’ give yourself a simple and concrete task, like ‘learn five new Spanish verbs.’ This will make fulfilling the plan a far less daunting prospect. Also, our degree of motivation depends on the ‘psychological distance’ to the goal. The closer the goal, the stronger our desire to reach it. As social psychologist Nira Lieberman explains, when the goal is close, even the smallest efforts can be effective.
Lighten the Load
Another common cause of procrastination is the fear of failure. It is especially powerful if you’ve done well on a previous project and are now applying the same high standards to your next task. How can you alleviate this fear? Well, don’t sweat.
University of Cambridge researcher Olivia Remes suggest that you do it badly. Instead of pursuing perfection, don’t expect anything but average work, but make sure you do finish it. Adopt the IT concept of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Just imagine that you only have to create a beta version that can be fixed and improved later, not an actual final product.
Control Your Distractions
To procrastinate in the first place, you need access to distractions and activities that can actually distract you from the task at hand. And don’t forget, if you’re easily distracted by something in your spare time, this tendency will increase many times over while you’re actually working. Well first, there are two types of distractions. The first one is universal: external noises, notifications, phone calls, and hunger. Overcoming them is very easy. (Yes, it’s best to eat before a big task). Individual distractions are harder to manage because you first have to identify them, or find them.
The Unschedule is a method for identifying individual distractions developed by psychologist Neil Fiore, the author of Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination. Essentially, it’s scheduling in reverse. In other words, instead of a to-do list, you add up all the other activities that you spend time on like scrolling through your social media feeds, lunch breaks, talking on the phone, or watching ‘just a couple of minutes’ of videos in Fortnite. Basically, everything but your work. In this way, not only do you find out what distracts you the most, but you also identify those critical moments during the workday when you’re most vulnerable to distraction, allowing you to prepare for them.
Separate Your Tasks
The brain is only able to stay focused on a single task for 45 minutes, and then it starts to get distracted. As research has shown, if you include breaks in your work schedule, you can prevent distractions and increase productivity. To do this, break up a large task into separate parts and dedicate no more than 45 minutes to each part. Less is more when it comes to being productive. To keep track of time, you can use a simple timer like ‘Horo’ or ‘Be Focused.’ The main thing is not to try finishing what you started in the allotted time. If you don’t have enough time, carry the rest over to the next sprint. In doing so you trigger the Zeigarnik Effect, whereby our brain remembers interrupted actions better. If a task remains unfinished, the brain will be even more eager to finish it after the break.
The Power of Limitation
We used to believe that limitations prevented us from developing, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, by artificially narrowing the range of possibilities, we help ourselves focus on priorities, to become more effective and even more creative, as counterintuitive as it may sound. There are two types of limitations, simple and complex.
Try to perform the most time-consuming tasks while standing. We’re less likely to be distracted by watching a series while standing than while sitting in a comfortable chair.
Set a fixed schedule. For example, the creator of the Deep Work technique, Cal Newport, works from 9 to 5 on weekdays and, only as an exception, in the morning on weekends. What’s important is that you stick to this rule and stop working at exactly 5pm because work that needs to be completed by a certain date seems more important than an undefined task with no time limit. This time constraint forces the brain to up its efficiency and prevent being distracted.
The most radical form of self-imposed limitation is the word processor app Flowstate, which really knows how to make you work. As soon as you begin the built-in timer (5 to 60 minutes) you’re not allowed to stop. You can’t stop typing for more than five seconds, since all of your text will disappear if you do. You can’t save and you can’t copy. Your only option is to write.
Channel those Positive Emotions
Motivation is very important in the fight against procrastination. The brain rewards us for being distracted from a task, which causes negative emotions, with a dose of dopamine. To break this cycle, you need to turn the task at hand from a source of anxiety to a dopamine generator.
Activate Your Curiosity
The easiest way to make a difficult task enjoyable is to introduce an element of novelty. For example, use your work as an opportunity to test out new apps or new tech like a new word processor, a new browser, a new keyboard, or a new way to organize your workspace (see our guide). The desire for new experience is one of our innate neuroscientific traits. Novelty is so valuable to our brain that our brain is willing to pay liberally for this novelty with the very dopamine that we lack.
Just Do It
Instagram founder Kevin Systrom says that just do it is an effective trick to help you get gradually involved in anything you do. Just open your work file for a couple of minutes, try to work on it a bit, just do it. Honestly, you can start anywhere, from the middle, or even the end. Often, a few minutes turn to ten minutes, twenty minutes, until suddenly, it turns out the task has been completed somehow. The truth is the most difficult point of the job is at the beginning. When this barrier is overcome, the task begins to fascinate you. And interest is a pleasant emotion, or the opposite of what causes procrastination.
Hack Your Procrastination
Procrastination doesn’t always have to be opposed, sometimes you can collaborate with it. Our tendency to procrastinate doesn’t have to be our enemy, it can be our friend. In his book ‘The Art of Procrastination,’ philosopher John Perry writes that procrastination may become the new benchmark for productivity. You just need to know how to unlock its positive potential. Here are two ways:
Active procrastination is a technique that helps turn procrastination from a waste of energy into a way to stimulate it. The bottom line is that as you notice your productivity decline, you consciously decide to direct energy towards another task. It’s essential that you direct your energy towards something useful that you actually want to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be work related. Going for a walk, taking out the trash or folding your laundry might be enough. The main thing is that you use your desire to satisfy the brain’s need to divert its attention, effectively.
The essence of procrastination is a tendency to be distracted from the task at hand by something irrelevant. Well, no problem. Simply ensure that all possible tasks are relevant. And in case you might get distracted again, consider creating more and more possible task in advance. In other words, have several ongoing tasks prepared and be ready to switch between them at the first sign of procrastination.