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Imagine all the things you would accomplish if you never procrastinated. Maybe you’d have learned that instrument by now, or written that novel or would have that great beach body. If I never procrastinated I would have been done this video 6 months ago when I first started it.
So I set out to answer a simple question: Can I solve procrastination forever?
And honestly I thought defeating procrastination would be this straightforward thing. All I have to do is work out what’s going on in the brain to cause the effects of procrastination, stop that thing from happening and then I wouldn’t procrastinate anymore. But then when I actually asked a neuroscientist how to stop procrastinating and he said this:
“People think that you can turn on an MRI and see where something is happening in the brain but the truth is that’s not so. This stuff is vastly more complicated than people are saying. So procrastination is a human level subject that we do not understand in terms of the brain and we’re not even close to those things we’re not even in the league or in the century of those things. So we have theories.”
And at this moment it became extremely obvious why it’s such a hard thing to solve. Because we don’t actually know what’s happening in your brain when we procrastinate. All we have are theories and these theories that tell us what’s probably happening based on what we know about how the brain works.
So, in search of a way to help me understand my problem, I asked a psychologist, Dr. Tim Pychyl how to get over procrastination.
And what I got was a lot of theories different theories on how to stop procrastinating and why people procrastinate. But of all the reasons he suggested, the one that makes the most sense to me is this:
There’s one part of your brain that’s purely instinctual called the Limbic System. It’s your emotions, your fight or flight. All it cares about is keeping you alive.
Then, over here, there’s this other part that’s kind of wiser and more rational. It’s responsible for your goals, your dreams, your plans for the future. That’s your prefrontal cortex.
And the theory is that when you get that feeling of not wanting to do something your instinctual part springs into action right away. It doesn’t think about the future. it just tells you to avoid the task. And you listen.
The other side. The rational side, is slower to act. It thinks things through. So you procrastinate until that part can remind you that you’re not dying - you’re just trying to doing something that’s really hard.
And the paradox here about giving in to feel good is that it actually makes you feel terrible later. I don't know how to stop procrastinating and it’s really frustrating.
And with all of these design flaws in the way our brains work I can’t help but think that solving procrastination is a kind of a hopeless cause. There might not be any ways to beat procrastination. Except for this one thing that everyone I talked to kept bringing up: neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity means that your brain can change. It’s like gooey plastic. And the more plastic your brain is the easier it is to train it to do what you want. To make and break habits.
So you can develop your brain. And the best way to do it is actually thousands of years old.
“Really what we want to do is downregulate the limbic system and upregulate the prefrontal cortex. And mindfulness meditation is a path to that.”
The more you meditate, the better you become at making decisions, and the easier it is to keep on task when you know you have something important to do. That’s because it actually shrinks that amygdala - that instinctual part of your brain and it adds more grey matter to that part that helps you make decisions.
So that may be the way to overcome chronic procrastination. There’s probably hundreds of theories on how to deal with procrastination or tips on how to avoid procrastination. But there’s a way for each and every person to work out how to overcome procrastination in themselves.
So can you get rid of procrastination? Sort of but it’s not really easy and it does take a lot of practice.
The thing that I realized about procrastination was the one thing I hoped that I wouldn’t. That everyone deals with it. That there’s no simple solution. And that you have to experience pain to get through anything worth doing. And that the best way to stop procrastinating is to just get started.
Stop procrastinating and take action
Imagine the possibilities if you started something today
How to get over procrastination
Everything I’ve ever accomplished has played out in its final moments like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, deadlines achieved by slipping my work under the last remaining inches of a closing tomb door. Will I ever kick this procrastination thing?
Meh, I’ll think about it later.
If scientists could bore into your brain and track down that one neuron – that tiny one-in-one-hundred-billion brain flaw, the root cause of your procrastination – and squash it like an insect, couldn’t they solve the problem for everyone forever?
The truth is, the reasons people procrastinate (as well as the parts of the brain that drive those put-it-off behaviours) vary so widely. Naturally the mechanisms for tackling those causes are equally diverse.
In my colleague’s recent article (which I avoided reading until now), he dove into tactics to help entrepreneurs based on specific motivations for the their procrastination – “Thrill Seekers”, for example, could benefit from creating last-minute panic with fake deadlines. Is it really that simple?
Our Studio Team, bent on solving all of the mysteries of earth and space, was not satisfied to hover at the surface. What if there was more to it? They slashed the do-it-later problem wide-open, relegating one of their own to lab rat status.
Dr. Tim Pychyl
Marco Patricio, the aforementioned human test subject and producer of this piece, spiralled down, down, down into a rabbit hole of research. The “ahas” and the juicy bits were edited into three minutes, but he learned so much more.
Let’s peek behind the curtain at the making of this film, and explore the producer’s own face-off with procrastination.
“The Happiness Theory” – also referred to as “giving in to feel good” – resonated with the producer. It says that human nature favours the easy, quick win. We’ll delay tasks that threaten our immediate happiness. (“Washing dishes would really kill my buzz right now.”)
In Marco’s own words:
“(The Happiness Theory) calls back to the history of our existence – to what it means to be human. We’ve been trained through thousands of years of evolution to seek instant gratification. It’s what’s helped us survive as a species – it has driven engineering and innovation and it’s something that’s uniquely human. When something is difficult we seek to make it easier. When something is expensive we seek to make it cheaper. When something is wasteful we seek to make it more efficient.
This natural element doesn’t fare well in our modern society, with schedules and deadlines and intangible goals. When we avoid things, it’s not because we don’t want to do it necessarily, it’s because we want to feel good. If you can be mindful, you can reframe the aversion you’re feeling in context of your goals. What do you actually want from your life? It helps you to see it not as a personal failure, but as something that’s hardwired into us and something that can be overcome with practice.”
But what about the other theories? There is so much scientific speculation around why we procrastinate.
Quick side note…
Most of the data that we do have about procrastination and other emotion-based human experiences come from fMRIs and the way that fMRIs measure brain activity makes drawing any real, provable and testable conclusions extremely difficult. So the techniques to overcome procrastination that many people offer are based in scientific theory but can't be proven yet. That's what makes overcoming procrastination so difficult.
The issue with MRIs
The human brain is estimated to make about a trillion (1,000,000,000,000) calculations a second. And this happens all over the brain simultaneously. You’ve heard people say that you only use 10% of your brain - but that 10% isn’t local. It’s not a little corner of your brain that does one thing or another thing. Your brain shoots signals all over your brain all the time to do anything.
The issue with MRIs or fMRIs is that they measure the brain activity over a second over a relatively large group of neurons (about 10,000). It’s a digital camera that lumps every 10,000 pixels together. So instead of having a very clear, granular image of the brain activity you have a vague idea of where the activity is taking place.
How do they measure activity in the first place?
fMRIs measure a signal called BOLD: the blood oxygen level dependent contrast. It’s a highly disputed system of measurement that basically shows what areas “light up” when humans are exposed to certain stimulus or are performing certain activities.
That “lighting up” occurs when oxygenated blood flows into a region of the brain at a rate that is higher than the baseline. So the whole system is based on the idea that increased blood flow means increased neural activity. The process which causes neural activity requires oxygenated blood - so oxygenated blood flowing to an area most likely means that the oxygenated blood in the area has just been used up as the result of a neural process.
But the assumption is exactly that. We don’t know the fine details of how any of these processes work. Why the blood flows where it does, what relation it has to neural activity in that area or what the activity in the area is actually doing are all things that we’re working towards understanding but don’t have a strong grasp of quite yet.
All this to say that we don’t “know” very much about why things in our brain happen the way that they do. We don't know how to beat procrastination. But we do know the psychology of procrastination. Anything that we do “know” is very much correlational and there’s very little causational evidence when it comes to matters of the psychology of the human brain.
As we concluded in the film, no one really knows the answer, but our expert, Dr. Tim Pychyl touched on three additional theories that are worth exploring:
Intransitive Preference Structure (Loop)
What is it?
“If I tell you that B is greater than A and C is greater than B, by transitive relation, you know C is greater than A,” Dr. Pychyl explains. When stress is applied, however, we become irrational in how we rank our preferences.
Basically, layman to layman, this theory says that our brain becomes math-blind. Say you write a to-do list in order of urgency. Procrastination reorders that list, assigning priority to things you prefer. “Do it tomorrow” seems insignificant (it’s just one day!) but over time, several tomorrows add up to “too late”. Our brain doesn’t do that math.
Here’s an example: it’s Monday and you’re launching a new product on Thursday and you need to shoot and edit product photos. Your brain makes day to day preferences for starting it later: do it today < do it tomorrow < do it Wednesday. But now it’s Wednesday night, and you haven’t started. Suddenly, at the last minute, you wish you had started it on Monday, and the preference now loops back: do it Wednesday < do it Monday.
How to Deal
A commitment device is a means to “lock” you into doing things that are difficult (you know, those tasks you typically procrastinate). A simple example is setting up monthly deposits into a savings account via automatic withdrawal. Commitment devices might be tools, apps, or automated tasks. Even peer pressure can be effective: take your intentions to the streets! Write them in a public forum or share them in a group to provide accountability outside of yourself.
During the producer’s own journey, he found success in being mindful:
“For me this worked by making a tangible list of things to accomplish, in the order that I want to accomplish them, and then using the pomodoro technique to actually get the work done. Every time I procrastinated doing something, I’d write it down, which would reminded me of that task’s importance (very, very low) in relation to the one I set out to accomplish.”
What is it?
“Affect is just a fancy word for feelings,” Pychyl tells us. When it comes to feelings, it turns out that the crystal ball is pretty murky. We assume we’ll be less exhausted or more positive in the future (and thus more capable of the procrastinated task), which isn’t always the case. He explains:
“You might say ‘I should go for a run today. I don’t feel like going for a run today. I’ll go for a run tomorrow at 5:30’. You feel good because you’ve kept that intention, that noble intention to go for a run, but you’ve never gotten up at 5:30 to go for a run. That’s how predictably irrational we are. We’re not very good at predicting the future.”
How To Deal
Just get started. Eye roll emoji, am I right? We wouldn’t be in this mess if we could just get started now and not the day after tomorrow. But what if “doing it” just means doing one little part of it? One of the core messages in David Allen’s Getting Things Done is to list the next step. Break up that massive beast of a task. See? Less scary.
What’s that thing that you procrastinate a lot? For small business owners, taxes tend to fall into the “tomorrow” pile over and over. “What’s the first step?”, asks Allen. Maybe it’s just finding an accountant, downloading an app, or simply organizing receipts in a folder. Step one is the catalyst for step two and so on. Momentum!
Conversely, the “eat the frog” approach might work better for you. Pychyl reminds us of this famous quote:
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”— Mark Twain
What is it?
Affective forecasting negatively impacts future self. This gets a little Marty McFly, but bear with us.
Dr. Pychyl refers to a study conducted by Hal Ersner-Hershfield in which he used magnetic resonance imaging to see the brain in terms of blood flow (and essentially which part of the brain is active). The assumption made is that blood travels to the place in the brain that’s important in that moment. The participants were asked to think about their present selves, their future selves, and then a stranger. When thinking about present self, one part of the brain is active. When thinking about a stranger, blood flows to a different part. Makes sense, right? The interesting observation made was this: while participants were thinking about future self, the part of the brain highlighted by stranger-thoughts lights up again.
Our brain treats future self like a stranger, and we therefore have less empathy for that person.
How to Deal
Pychyl says, “Having empathy for future self can be very important for closing that gap and making present self realize, ‘This isn’t the best choice in the long run because that’s me and I care about that person.’"
Researchers found that people who looked at age-enhanced images of themselves allocated more money to a hypothetical retirement savings plans, versus those who looked at images of their current selves. Most of us don’t have a buddy down at the Bureau to whip off a digitally-aged rendering of our likeness, but the same effect may be achieved through imagination.
Connect to your future self through mindfulness meditation. Visualizing yourself in the future, in the third person, can improve connection to future self as a tool to reduce procrastination habits. Mindfulness also helps us find awareness, then acceptance, of the negative feelings we have towards a certain task.
“Mindfulness can be a real resistance resource against procrastination, because we learn to take a non-judgmental stance towards our emotions.”— Tim Pychyl