What’s that thing you really want to do but you just can’t seem to make it happen? Maybe you want to lose weight or exercise more or save money. We’ve all been there… “I’ll start next week” or “someday… “
Procrastination isn’t a new concept. In fact, it dates back to Aristotle and Socrates. It is referred to as akrasia which, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is defined as “the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgement through weakness of will.”
Thousands of years later, we know that weakness of will is the result of a tug of war for control between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system – also known as the instant gratification seeker – is one of the most dominant parts of the brain. It lives in the now and loves pleasure and reward. It’s what generates cortisol when we’re stressed out about something and dopamine when we experience pleasure. And it all happens automatically.
The prefrontal cortex is the rational decision maker that can visualize the future and plan, reason and take steps to reach goals. There’s nothing automatic about the prefrontal cortex, or the rational decision-maker. The activity here is conscious and intentional.
The instant gratification seeker is responsible for what psychologists call present bias or the urgency effect. It simply means that we tend to value immediate rewards or payoffs that are closer to the present time than those farther in the future. The farther in the future the reward is, the less value we put on it – even when the value is exactly the same. And that skewed thinking is often to blame for not doing what we should do or doing what we shouldn't do.
The good news is that we can outsmart the instant gratification seeker to keep the rational decision-maker in charge. Here are six simple ways to do that.
1. See the progress. Actually seeing an accomplishment is a reward in itself. It’s kind of the brain’s way of tricking the limbic system into thinking it has won while the prefrontal cortex continues to focus the task. 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 just like Jerry Seinfeld’s calendar, 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. Turning a chore into a habit is all about making that behavior or activity as routine as brushing your teeth.
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.” Learn how to find rewards in the process as well as the results.
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. So many times, we say yes to something before we think about the trade-off we’re making. Learn how to pause and think before committing to something that takes time and energy away from your goals. And remember… “No” is a complete sentence.
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." Identify your "frog" - that thing that looms large or the thing you never seem to find the time for. Even if you only take one bite, getting started makes it a little less daunting and lets you begin your day with a big sense of accomplishment!