Why do we procrastinate? And how to cheat our brains into working!


If you’re reading this article right now to put off doing something else, then you’re not alone. Because if there’s one thing that pretty much all of us suffer from, it’s procrastination.

In fact, it’s such a common problem that we’ve already featured a number of articles and exercises designed to help you recognise and beat it! Now coach Lucy Barkas examines the reasons why we procrastinate, and shares some advice to help you control it.

Why do we procrastinate?

A couple of weeks ago I met a friend for a working lunch. As our lunch overran by an hour because we were enjoying chatting in the sun, she confessed that she couldn’t stop procrastinating. “If you could fix my procrastination habit I would be so much more efficient”, she admitted.

This got me thinking about the reasons why we procrastinate – and then feel so bad for doing it. And wondering if we could use our own physiology to break ingrained habits.

It’s a universal truth that everyone procrastinates. We have an internal monologue that we use to negotiate with ourselves. You have probably caught yourselves doing it as you rearrange your diary to shift back certain items, or decide that coffee with a friend or colleague is more urgent than the accounts that need to be updated. For me, I always negotiate the filing with some other really important tasks, like checking twitter.

So if you often find yourself putting off essential tasks for something more pleasant, go easy on yourself – you’re only human.

Why we’re hardwired to procrastinate

In fact, I have even better news. You see the human brain is actually hardwired to procrastinate. When we have a number of options, some of which may be distasteful or uninspiring, two parts of our brain start competing with each other.

Our unconscious zone which includes the pleasure centre (also known as the limbic system), and our prefrontal cortex (our internal planner) get into conflict and procrastination begins. And because by nature we’re a heart not head-centred species, our limbic system generally wins.

The limbic system is the oldest part of the human brain, and it controls all our unconscious activities, like emotion, behaviour, memory and pleasure. It gives us the instinct to move away from danger or things we don’t want to do. It also controls what we think of as our subconscious, gut feeling and instinct. It’s automatic and informs us even before our head starts figuring out what’s going on.

Our prefrontal cortex, meanwhile, is the analytical, logical, rational and planning part of our brain. It’s the newer part of us, and is what separates us from other animals. It’s also the less dominant part – so go easy on yourself when you procrastinate because, as you can see, it’s in your makeup!

How to over-ride your instinct to procrastinate

However, if we don’t kick start our prefrontal cortex, we wouldn’t achieve very much. So it’s important to learn new approaches to help control (not eliminate) our procrastination habits – and cheat our limbic system into wanting to work.

Work out why you need to do something

Why do you need to do the task you keep putting off? What are the costs of not doing it? What would you be giving up or risking if you don’t do it?

This ‘analysis’ will help move the task from a cold must, to an emotional want – and give your prefrontal cortex a fighting chance of letting you work. Otherwise, if there is no emotional impact to not doing a task, then your limbic system will win every time.

Give yourself deadlines

Many of us need to have a deadline to feel the focus, energy and determination we need to get something done. And in looking for deadlines and pressure, we are unknowingly creating emotional states to override our limbic system.

This is why we know working in groups is helpful. Committing to a group, team or boss and having a deadline creates urgency and importance. So create a group, join a team, or get a coach. Some people also Facebook their commitment to gain their own peer pressure. And when you do this, you are giving your limbic brain with a new emotion to achieve.

If you work for yourself at home or run your own business, it’s not always easy to get that external pressure to get something done. So maybe make yourself accountable by telling people what you do will do, and by when. Sometimes just making that promise (even if there is no direct consequence for breaking it) is enough to spur us into action.

Celebrate your achievements

When we have completed something we feel an emotion, such as pride, excitement, relief or happiness. Don’t overlook these feelings – instead find a way to celebrate what you’ve done. Have a drink, go for a walk, or share your success with your group/team/partner or coach.

This rewards your limbic system, and motivates you to complete whatever project is at hand to enjoy that sense of achievement at the end of it.

Give up the procrastination habit

If you’re a chronic procrastinator then you’ve probably tried all kinds of tips and tricks to break the habit before now.

But if none of them have been successful, maybe it’s time to take a different approach – start putting some emotion into your tasks and achievements, and give your all-powerful limbic system an excuse to let you work.

Need more help with motivation?

You can read more about finding the motivation to work in these articles:

You can find out more about Lucy’s coaching on her website.

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