But it’s true procrastination can be A Thing.
It’s very often characterised as being a sign of laziness or fear, but that isn’t necessarily true. And it’s not a helpful perspective.
After all, one sure way to make procrastination worse is to fall into self-condemnation and judgement, so understanding what’s happening in your brain is WAY more useful.
Procrastination is often simply a product of our super smart, super protective brains.
- step 1 – you are given a task to do – by yourself or by someone else
- step 2 – your brain assesses whether the task will have a positive or negative effect – and if there is no immediate and obvious positive result expected, anxiety begins
- step 3 – since a positive effect is not immediately expected, your brain decides that this situation is ‘out of control’ which increases anxiety, sometimes to the point of dread
- step 4 – this high anxiety about the task makes your brain feel afraid of, humiliated by and aggressive towards the task.
Phew – that task has become something your brain actively dreads…. no wonder you avoid it!
But wait… what?? Your brain is doing all this stuff? How come you’ve never noticed it?
Because your amygdala – that superpowerful part of your brain, the part which keeps you safe via the fight/flight response – takes a mere 1/32nd of a second to make that decision of ‘not doing that!’
Your modern human brain – the part with the power to choose – takes three whole seconds to even understand that there is a task for you to do.
Basically, this decision happens before we’re fully aware there is a task to do. Yikes.
Is procrastination always a bad thing?
Sometimes that initial assessment can be part of our gut reaction, our instant and very reliable intuition.
We’ve all had occasions where delaying something ended up being the best outcome, because perhaps we didn’t have all the information we needed yet, or some pieces weren’t yet in place.
And conversely, we’ve probably all had situations where we pushed ahead with something and only found out later it would have been better for us to take it a little slower.
How can I break through procrastination?
Your best allies are mindfulness and non-judgement – which feels so counter-intuitive when popular wisdom is full of memes based on ‘do it now!’ or ‘ignore the fear!’
Those memes might be right, but if they are triggering shame or criticism, or worse increasing the dread, then they are not helping – so we begin by ignoring them.
In fact, the very first step is to let go of any shame or criticism we might be feeling towards ourselves.
Then we approach the situation with a spirit of genuinely wanting to know what is the next step to take.
Pause and evaluate.
Allow a little breathing space.
If it helps to minimise anxiety, set a date for beginning to move ahead again.
Give yourself a week or a few days, during which time you’re not allowed to fret about the task.
At the end of that pause, you can start planning how you’ll achieve the task.
And meanwhile, during the pause, you can soothe your brain’s anxiety and uncertainty around the task, by ensuring it knows that the task will bring a positive outcome.
You can keep this as simple as a straight out bribe (write the first 100 words of that essay, and you can have a chocolate).
Or it might mean using your ability to imagine what completion will feel like (that room is going to look fabulous once it’s painted).
Procrastination is rarely a time-management issue or a product of laziness.
Sometimes it’s inner guidance telling us ‘not yet’. And sometimes it’s merely a product of our super smart, safety-oriented brain systems.
And perhaps next time, just knowing that could take the pressure off and give you back the feeling of being in control.