What’s that one thing that you know you have to do, but you keep putting it off? Maybe you keep procrastinating about cleaning the garage or organizing the closet. Maybe your goal is to write a book, but you just can’t seem to get it done.
We all procrastinate sometimes. Recent studies indicate that procrastination isn’t just bad for our goals; it also impacts our health. Putting off important tasks makes us feel guilty and that guilt increases stress. That stress contributes to a host of health issues such as poor sleep habits, higher anxiety and depression, and lower immunity. Research maintains that 20% of us are chronic procrastinators who are even more prone to cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
And, and what is the most common excuse? Time! There is never enough time in the day! The thing about time, though, is that it’s one of the few resources that we all get the same amount of. Twenty-four hours. Every single day. Some people spend that time doing amazing things to reach their goals. Others bounce between the distractions that keep those goals just out of reach. For the most part, we all get to choose how to spend a certain percentage of our time.
Soon is not a time and someday is not a plan.
New studies indicate that our brains are actually wired to procrastinate because we see our present selves and our future selves differently. Research conducted at UCLA analyzed fMRI scans of people’s brains as they thought about themselves in 3 different states. Of themselves in the here and now, as a celebrity like Matt Damon or Natalie Portman, and of themselves in the future. They found that people process information about their present and future selves with different parts of the brain. Their brain activity when describing their self in a decade was similar to when they were describing Natalie Portman.
Even though intellectually we know that our future self is the same person we are today just a little older and hopefully a little wiser, we tend to view our future self as a separate person who doesn’t benefit or suffer from our present actions.
All of this happens because of a battle between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system (also known as the instant gratification seeker – it lives in the now and loves pleasure and reward). Your limbic system is one of the most dominant parts of the brain. It generates cortisol when you’re stressed out about something and dopamine when you experience pleasure. And it all kind of happens automatically.
The prefrontal cortex is the rational decision maker that can visualize, plan, reason, identify the benefits of reaching the goal and the consequences of putting it off. There’s nothing automatic about the rational decision-maker. You have to intentionally activate it. And the moment you’re not consciously engaged in a task, your default mode is to put your limbic system back in charge. You give in to what feels good for your present self. Psychologists call this present bias. It just means that we tend to give stronger weight to payoffs that are closer to the present time. The farther in the future the reward is, the less value we put on it – even when the value is exactly the same.
Here are six simple hacks to help keep the rational decision-maker in charge:
1. See the progress. Put a glass jar on your desk and add a paperclip or a marble every time you follow through on your goal. Or, print your calendar and highlight the tasks you complete as you complete them. It sounds simple, but visually seeing your tasks get done right before your eyes will release enough dopamine to satisfy your need for instant gratification and motivate you to keep going.
2. Start small and be consistent.Break the task or project down into smaller chunks. If you want to write a book, commit to writing one page every day. Once you get into it, you’ll likely find yourself writing more.
3. Redefine the rewards. Amelia Earhart once said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure. The process is its own reward.”
4. Get an accountability partner. The best way to stay committed to anything is to ask someone you trust to help keep you honest. If it is someone who shares your goal, then you’re helping each other. Agree to provide updates such as a quick text or phone call or maybe a regular coffee date once a week.
5. Learn to say NO. One of the most valuable skills you can develop to stay focused and motivated toward reaching your goals is ability to recognize the requests, distractions, and interruptions that will inevitably become time stealers. Just say no.
6. Eat the Frog. Mark Twain was quoted as saying, "Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day." What is your frog? What is that big scary thing that looms on the horizon? Tackling it first - even if you just make a few small steps of progress - will make it seem less scary and much less intimidating.
The next time you think about putting off that thing that you really need to do, remember that if your instant gratification seeker always wants to be in charge. But you have the power to outsmart it.
Want to learn more about how the brain works and how you can make it work better for you, check out my book Happier Hour with Einstein and the full-color companion Gratitude Journal available now on Amazon!