We’ve never had so many reasons to procrastinate–Netflix, Instagram, Facebook and any number of apps on our phone can quickly whisk us away to a warm, comfortable and often fun place. We’ve become very good at distracting ourselves from the important things that need to be done. It’s easier now more than ever to procrastinate. But we can’t blame it on modern technology; procrastination is innately human and biological. Our brain is programmed to move toward that which gives us pleasure, and away from perceived pain.
It comes down to a hard battle between two parts of our mind: the limbic brain (the unconscious) and the prefrontal cortex (the conscious) in each of us.
The limbic brain is one of the oldest parts of the brain. It’s responsible for our automatic response to situations–those situations where we don’t need to consciously think. This is where procrastination resides. See, the unconscious mind avoids pain and moves toward pleasure. Always. It’s primary aim is to make you feel good in the short-term–the short-term meaning now. This part of our brain evolved from the first mammals and so it has no awareness of time other than this very moment. As such, it’s not the best decision maker for achieving long-term goals or to consider overall happiness.
On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is, evolutionarily speaking, a far younger, more creative, and more aware part of the human mind. Primates are the only organisms with this kind of brain development. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for language, abstract thought, consciousness, imagination, art and culture. These are the creative more progressive parts of our brain. It’s learning capabilities are infinite. It takes the long-view and considers not only the self but the welfare of others.
Because our limbic brain or unconscious mind is so old, it tends to have seniority in the mental negotiations with the prefrontal cortex or conscious mind. You’ve heard this back-and-forth in your mind before: “I could study for my exam right now but just one more episode of House of Cards before I begin.” Before you know it, you’re binge watching Netflix yet again!
Logically, we know we will feel better in the long-run if we start studying for the exam now: we will receive a better grade, feel more rested and have greater self-confidence. We also can predict the increasing distress we will feel if we continue on the path of procrastination: mental and physical distress, all-nighters, and likely a lower grade.
- More Pain, More Gain: Consider the negative consequences of procrastination. Luke says: “In most cases, pain is a stronger motivator. That’s why so many people wait until the last minute before finishing a task. The pain of failing to meet a deadline is more motivating than the pleasure of finishing a task. In this case, we might ‘push the pain button’ by describing the path of a mediocre life.”
- The Self-Compassionate Approach: Luke says, “Many people procrastinate because they’re afraid of making a mistake or being criticized, rejected or judged (in other words, they’re perfectionistic). In this case, we want to help the client to be more forgiving of themselves, and to take the attitude that “good is good enough.” As children, we are proud of even our most basic accomplishments. We also inherently trust we will get better and better with practice. Children celebrate each step in their progress. Yet, as adults, we expect perfection of ourselves when we find ourselves at the beginner’s stage. We need to see that simply starting is good enough.
- Pair Pleasure with Pain: The truth is, we have motivation but they may not always be directed in the areas we want them. Luke elaborates: “I don’t believe that anybody is simply lazy. Everybody is motivated to do something–it’s just that, sometimes, they’re motivated to beat the next level in a video game or to read the latest on the Huffington Post. It’s important to find out what factors motivate each client, and begin to associate those factors with the tasks that the client has been putting off.’ We can all agree we have motivation for that which brings us joy. Using this strategically, we can pair pleasure and pain. This is where we can use a reward during the activity. Or we can chunk a large project down and reward ourselves for level of progress we make. With enough repetition, we may even come to associate the undesirable task with pleasure after all!
Procrastination will always be a part of our lives. With these tips, we can harness our mental powers to beat it.