At a glance
Checking Facebook, watching funny cat videos or rearranging our desk drawers – most of us lose at least some portion of our workday to procrastination.
Sydney-based performance coach Kristen Hansen describes the tendency to procrastinate as a “design flaw” that is part of being human.
Inside our brain, there rages a battle between two vastly different components: the limbic system, the pleasure centre that rewards us with immediate gratification, and the prefrontal cortex, the sensible voice in our head, focused on long-term outcomes and goals.
Blame the brain for procrastination
When someone is in a “threat state” – for example, faced with a difficult or boring task – the limbic system kicks in, seeking to maximise immediate rewards and creating the ideal opportunity for procrastination.
“When we are overwhelmed, we think, ‘I can't possibly do all of this – and so I won't do anything. I'll just check social media or clean the kitchen’,” says Hansen.
Even though we may know that a particular task must be completed, and that good things will follow from it being ticked off our to-do list, the threat state associated with doing something even slightly unpleasant can send our brain in the opposite direction.
The threat state undermines performance, because it makes us problem-oriented, and that affects our ability to make progress on a task.
“We may be in a fight, flight or freeze state,” says Hansen, “where we're weighing up the pros and the cons.
"We could forever weigh up the pros and the cons of doing something.”
Procrastination is not all bad, Hansen says. After all, it may provide an opportunity to obtain more information or clarity on how to move forward.
In most cases, though, it is an impediment to productivity.
Escape the vicious cycle
Serial procrastinators experience a significant amount of stress on a daily basis, says productivity expert Cyril Peupion.
“The stress of procrastinating is huge because you'll constantly be in ‘last-minute-mode’. You're constantly catching your tail, which means you have no time to think. Being so stressed all the time is torture.”
Hansen adds that procrastination can create a vicious cycle of never really getting anything done.
“Some people are big procrastinators and the downside is that they beat themselves up about it. If you procrastinate for a whole morning, it can create a spiral effect, because then you feel bad about yourself.
"That can lead to a threat state, which can lead to more procrastination.”
Procrastination can stem from indecisiveness, avoidance or thrill-seeking.
Most people have a tendency towards one type, although a blend is also common. Working out what is at the root of your particular procrastination behaviour can help break the habit.
“Some people are natural avoiders, but they may also require a bit of adrenaline and cortisol to get going,” explains Hansen.
“And some may be forthright about their needs and requirements in their business, but they may not have tough conversations at home with their partner, because they want to avoid conflict.”
Thrill-seekers rely on having a deadline; without one, they often fail to deliver.
“Thrill-seekers say ‘yes’ to everything, but they haven’t worked out how long something will take and when they will do it,” says Peupion. “
They are lovely to deal with, but they are also infuriating, because they haven’t worked out the consequences of saying ‘yes’ all the time.”
Eat frogs first
If you are serious about beating procrastination, Peupion suggests starting your day with the most difficult, procrastination-triggering task.
American motivational speaker Brian Tracy spells out why in his 2001 bestselling book Eat That Frog.
“His logic is to start the day with the biggest priority when you are still fresh.
"Your top priority is the frog, because they're not the easiest thing to eat. As the day goes on, you get tired and your willingness to do more difficult tasks decreases,” Peupion says.
Hansen says that verbalising why a task needs to be completed can work wonders for boosting motivation. Try talking about the task to a colleague or coach – or even writing it down.
“What would it look like and feel like to achieve the task? Set a clear goal and bring it to life – that will help create a reward state,” says Hansen.
Breaking up the day into smaller chunks of time and providing rewards for completing mini tasks can also fuel progress and appease your limbic system.
Ultimately, beating procrastination is all about giving ourselves the tools we need to start a task, no matter how difficult it seems.
As German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said 200 years ago, “Just begin and the mind grows heated; continue, and the task will be completed!”