Procrastination, the tendency to put things off until tomorrow, is frighteningly common amongst Americans. Close to three quarters of the country identifies as a procrastinator. Are you one of those many that tends to delay the things you most need to do? Learn evidence-based strategies for overcoming this bad habit.
Meet Petra, the Procrastinator
Petra is one of the most industrious people I know. Just last week, she called me to tell me how much she’d achieved in the last 24 hours.
She’d organized her sock drawer. Color-coded her leotards. Wiped down the fridge and alphabetized the spice rack.
Coming across a set of wooden crates on the curb, she took them home to make more efficient use of space in her hallway. Stacking her heels up in one, she’d arranged her sneakers by frequency of use in the other.
If you’d taken an fMRI of Petra’s brain when performing those everyday tasks, critical thinking networks would have been firing away. Organizing a sock drawer takes focus and patience. Neural pathways that enable the brain to make concrete decisions turn on when you put anything in alphabetical order. It also takes a degree of creativity to turn a crate from the curb into a rack for your footwear.
Petra, however, wasn’t all that impressed with her achievements.
Sure, her kitchen looked like it had jumped out of the pages of Martha Stewart Living. When Petra got dressed, it was a breeze to find a matching pair of socks. The satisfaction in seeing her jars of cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin lined up (in that order) was a rare pleasure.
But for Petra, the realization that her productivity around the home came at a cost; they tainted any good feelings she had around her chores. The following day, Petra would be presenting a marketing pitch to an important client.
“Why, if I’m so active,” she said to me, “can’t I get anything done?”
As spruce as her sock drawer seemed, Petra’s inner world felt amiss. She knew her purpose in life wasn’t to follow in the footsteps of Japanese author Marie Kondo, (whose best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up had taught her how to fold shirts like a pro). Her primary goal at work is to move up to the executive level at her advertising firm. She knows that her upcoming presentation might lead to a promotion. That would mean a substantial raise for Petra.
“If I made an extra 30k more per year, it’ll be enough to move out of this cramped flat,” she said. “I’ll hire a cleaning lady to alphabetize my spice rack. I’ll turn the spare room into an office. When I make Zoom calls, I’ll no longer need to worry about dishes piling up in view of the camera.”
I nodded: We’d all been there.
“If I bomb this presentation,” she continued, “I may not get my raise, and we may lose this client.”
Petra was a mastermind at project management. She was inventive. Diligent. Determined. Her Achilles heel, however, has been to pour those talents in the wrong place at the wrong time. In no uncertain terms, Petra suffered from serial procrastination.
Why Do People Procrastinate?
The word “procrastination” comes from the Latin procrastinationem, which means to “put off from day to day.” The roots of the English word, pro (which means “forward”) and crastinus (which means “belonging to tomorrow”) mean deferring what needs to be done today. But procrastination means more than simply putting things off until the next day. The ancient Greek word akrasia, another root of the modern word procrastination, means doing something against your better judgment.
My pal Petra not only cleaned up her house instead of attending to important work priorities, she did so against her better judgment.
Staying tidy itself doesn’t lead inherently to negative consequences. In most cases, cleaning up generates positive outcomes. A sense of accomplishment arises after you’ve accomplished a household chore. It activates the brain rewards system and releases neurochemicals, including dopamine, which feed the brain’s motivation network. If Petra had prepared her pitch for the firm on Tuesday morning and micro-managed the contents of her chest of drawers later that day, it would have been a cause to celebrate and for her brain to guiltlessly feast on naturally-occurring dopamine.
By Wednesday, however, Petra had only glanced at her client’s file. She felt frustrated by her seeming inability to overcome her habit of avoidance. She sensed she would forever be a victim of her own idiosyncrasies. She never got a chance to feast on that dopamine. Anxiety had overridden it.
The Role of Self-Awareness in Overcoming Procrastination
Like many procrastinators, Petra knows all too well what she is capable of. She recognizes and admits to her flaws.
When Petra got up on Tuesday, she knew exactly what she had to do that day. At the back of her mind, she also knew that putting things off would lead to a build-up of stress, last-minute hustling, and a lack of sleep the night before the big day.
Trouble is, once Petra begins micro-cleaning, she has difficulty redirecting her attention to more important things. Organizing cupboards when she ought to be organizing case files is a coping mechanism that she can’t seem to let go of.
“I convince myself that a spotless kitchen will make me feel on top of things,” she tells me. “That conquering the closet will make me feel confident enough to get down to bigger business.”
Like Petra, most serial procrastinations are anything but lazy. They’re also far from disorganized. They work zealously. With precision focus.
But their talents and skills of self-awareness only go so far. They often neglect to notice the root of their procrastination. They lack self-knowledge of the underlying feelings that they’re avoiding by turning away from what they most need to do.
The Neuroscience of Procrastination
Dr. Fuschia Sirios, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, says it succinctly: “Procrastination is essentially irrational. It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences.”1
Most neuroscientists agree. A lot of the time, we behave out of irrational feelings: Anxiety, fear, avoidance. Procrastination arises from non-conscious habituated neural activity.
In its simplest terms, the brain naturally seeks things that feel pleasurable. It moves away from what it perceives to be painful. People procrastinate because something about their priorities triggers pain; their brains actively avoid that pain.
The “pain” associated with avoidance behaviors, however, is imagined. It’s an illusion, a memory, of something difficult that may have existed in the past. The procrastinator projects that possibility of that pain into the future — it’s a function of prediction, and a poor prediction at that.
More often emotional than physical, that pain from the past may involve psychosomatic symptoms, like stomach pains and headaches, which is why some people experience those physical pains when they put things off.
Like many serial procrastinators, however, Petra hasn’t yet learned how to manage the feelings that are leading her to put off important tasks.
When Petra has to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, her brain recalls emotionally-charged memories about presentations past. On a nonconscious level, Petra harbors fears of public speaking.
As a kid, she spoke with a stutter. The embarrassment she felt in relation to that speech impediment lives on in her long-term memory. By the time Petra had turned seven, she’d overcome the stutter, but she’s never learned to overcome the shame of it.
Further, Petra worries that if she fails at winning over this high-stakes client, she may be out of a job. Without a stable income, she fears she’ll lose her current comforts and her long-term financial security. Her tiny apartment only exacerbates her obsession with tidying up, which feeds into her tendency to procrastinate further. It’s a vicious cycle, and for Petra, all roads lead to hesitation.
”I’ll tidy up this counter because it will clear my mind,” Petra rationalizes. Meanwhile, she suppresses her fears of failure. She acts from non-conscious feelings, biases, and debilitating negative beliefs about her worth.
Petra’s amygdala, which has been trained to link certain stimuli with adverse consequences, associates PowerPoint presentations with her memories of feeling inadequate, of feeling embarrassed, of not “being enough.”
Those associations in her memory networks trigger her stress and anxiety in the present. This vicious cycle often works against Petra’s best efforts to get things done. The more she puts a task on hold, the harder it becomes to carry it out.
What’s a Girl Like Petra to Do?
If you’re a serial procrastinator, there’s hope. Repurpose a well-known commercial slogan for exercise into an acronym for an Innercise: J-U-S-T D-O I-T!
You may be familiar with judo, which like akido and sambo, derives from the family of martial arts jiu-jitsu.
Jiu-jitsu trains the body and mind.
“Jiu” is a concept in Japanese that means “to be gentle.” Jitsu means “skill” or “art.”
As you combat any tendency to procrastinate, be gentle with yourself. Bring in your skills of attention, courage, and choice to face the things you most need to do in life — without the shame and the blame.
Understand Your Habits of Avoidance
When you put important things off, remember: You’re only skirting away from the uncomfortable feelings those tasks trigger. It’s the feelings — not the work — that you’re evading. You can overcome those feelings.
Practice the 4R Innercise: Recognize, reframe, release, and retrain your brain.
Recognize that your feelings exist. Notice any discomfort you may feel when it comes to your priorities (For example: giving presentations, setting goals, and engaging in important conversations). Name the feeling that is giving you discomfort. Is it fear? Shame? Guilt? Recognize that feeling is not you — plus, it’s only temporary.
Reframe the situation. If you have fears of public speaking, and you notice they are linked to memories from childhood, tell yourself that you’re now safe from ridicule and embarrassment. Be kind to that inner child. Your adult self is neither trapped nor defined by those past experiences. Focus on the things in the present that you enjoy about your work.
Release any perspectives that are holding you back. Let go of self-defeating feelings that have gotten entangled in your memory. Let in and cultivate new positive associations around your priority tasks. Experience new, positive feelings. Form new memories, new neural connections, new habits.
Retrain your brain. Now that you’re aware of your neural habits, train your brain to consistently recognize, reframe, and release. See this Innercise as you would any physical exercise. Practice it daily. I promise you, with consistency, you’ll reap the rewards!
No matter how much you’ve procrastinated in the past, approach your goals and aspirations with a beginner’s mind. Let go of any fixed ideas you’ve gathered around your own tendencies to delay what needs to be done.
Time Your Procrastination
Sometimes you really do need to clean the kitchen before you dive into working on that PowerPoint presentation. To avoid taking your tidying up too far, set a timer. Know that you can always come back to alphabetizing your spice rack when you’re on top of your priorities.
Decide on Clear Actions
Keep track of the things you must do every day, each week, each month. Even if you don’t commit to your plan 100% of the time, get clear on which activities require your undivided attention now.
Studies of the brain suggest the human brain works optimally within the first eight hours of waking up. Schedule high-priority actions for the first three hours of your day. You’ll need that extra brain power to overcome any mental or emotional resistance you may have to perform them.
Do you find objects in your environment trigger your procrastination? Place those distractions out-of-sight. If it’s your smartphone, turn it off or tuck it away. If it’s the fridge, move out of the kitchen to do the things you most need to do.
Imagine What’s Possible
Never underestimate the power of your imagination. Visualize yourself overcoming serial procrastination. What lies on the other side of avoidance? A published book? A successful entrepreneurship? A renewed love relationship? See that accomplishment in all its refinement and detail. Move towards that vision. Align your day-to-day actions in the world with your vision.
Teach Others What You’ve Learned
You know the old adage: The best way to learn something is to teach it. Take what you’ve learned from this article and pass it onto a friend. Volunteer to coach your teenager or parent or partner to overcome their own tendencies towards procrastination. You’ll both reap the rewards!