Why do I keep putting things off?
When Jayda was handed the task of updating the company’s CRM system, she experienced a sinking feeling – this was going to take months. Her manager told her that this wasn’t a big rush, so every day she convinced herself that tomorrow would be a fine day to get started on this immense project. But weeks went by, and she still hadn’t begun; she just couldn’t find the motivation (here’s more on why we lose motivation).
There is nothing new about the phenomenon of procrastination, it’s something that us humans have struggled with for a long time.
The brain supports procrastination
Many perceive procrastinators to be lazy or they just don’t have the drive or desire to complete a task. But the reality is that procrastination is rooted in our brain and the constant battle between our old emotional brain which is always looking for the easy way forward, and the brain’s executive function which navigates our more complex behaviours such as problem solving and decision making.
Our old brain urges us to seek the instant gratification of doing ‘what feels good now’ and to leave a potentially unpleasant situation for another time. It needs a lot of motivating chemicals to overcome its resistance to the unpleasant or overwhelming task, so it convinces us that it is best to just leave it – for now! (Learn more about how the old brain seeks dopamine).
How do you overcome procrastination?
After weeks and weeks of avoiding the CRM project, Jayda finally confided in a colleague who gave her excellent advice. He adopted a pragmatic approach, advising her to chunk it into various categories – projects, clients, staff, accounts, etc. Staff information would be most readily available, so perhaps a good place to begin. Next, he suggested she dedicated no more than one hour a day to it and that she might try to do that first thing in the day and get it over and done with. He offered to be her accountability partner and encouraged her to offer herself a desirable personal reward on completion. Within two weeks she was halfway through and looking forward to not only completing the project but to an indulgent spa day too!
Helping the brain’s executive function take charge and reorienting the self-indulgent old brain is the route to overcoming procrastination. We do this by creating ‘feel good’ elements to the tasks in hand, through a series of steps, ensuring we don’t let ourselves fall back into paralysing overwhelm:
- Start small – start somewhere, anywhere. Getting something crossed off the list will be rewarding and motivating.
- Set aside some time to work on tasks or projects you tend to avoid.
- Create a list of the tasks to be completed and prioritise them.
- Remove distractions – put devices out of reach and turn off notifications, ask others to give you 30-60 minutes of uninterrupted time.
- Pick one (just one!) task off the list and work on completing just that one task. This focus will limit feelings of overwhelm.
- Once you get going with some of the easier tasks, get one of the more unpleasant elements completed as soon as possible. This will boost your feelings of accomplishment and your feelings of “I can do this!”
- Make agreements with others who will hold you accountable – being able to report in on your success can be motivating.
- Time limit yourself on the more stressful parts, e.g., only commit 30 minutes a day to unpleasant tasks.
- Reward yourself – make completing the task worth your while.
If you are a ‘serial’ procrastinator, take solace from the fact that you can retrain your brain to create new habits.
If overwhelm -piling too many things on your plate- is a challenge for you, consider these tips for keeping yourself out of overwhelm in the first place:
- Stop saying ‘yes’ to too many things (and read more about how you can be better at saying no).
- Implement a 24-hour rule – never say yes to any projects automatically, give yourself 24 hours before agreeing to something.
- Create boundaries – what will you say yes to and what will you say no to?
- Take care of yourself and your brain so you have the capacity to make great choices and the discipline to follow through.