It's not laziness, it's not a trauma response, and it's not a mental health condition. Procrastination is a perfectly normal self-preservation strategy for what behavioural psychologists call approach-avoidance conflict. It’s where you have a choice that has both appealing and unappealing aspects to it and the brain has to weigh up the pros and cons in order to make a decision.
Because its higher functions consume most of its energy budget, the brain seeks to eliminate tasks through a progressive, 5-stage decision-making process. It starts by deciding what to give attention to, which it does reflexively. Next it regulates how much time to commit, which it does impulsively. Then it calculates the amount of effort to allocate to something, which it does instinctively, before finally deciding what emotional and intellectual resources to invest. This process is what enables routine operations to be carried out while we have feelings and thoughts relating to something else
The problem modern humans have is that we’re working with a brain that evolved for short-term survival in a harsh environment, so our natural inclination is always going to be to choose the thing that offers the highest reward for the lowest risk. And because we’ve learned how to trick our neurochemical reward system with fake highs and cheap thrills, the reflexive, impulsive and instinctive parts struggle to make good decisions, while the emotional and intellectual parts are too busy trying to make sense of our bad decisions to be able to put us back on the right track. As a consequence, difficult but meaningful tasks get rejected early on unless there's a severe sense of obligation or when the stakes are really high.
So to help, here's a 'FORCE vs. AVOID' mindFRAME that shows you the 5 key steps of how approach-avoidance conflict plays out over 3 stages.
The 5 steps to beating procrastination
The bad news is that engagement, enjoyment and excitement in things that are worthwhile only come as a consequence of deep focus and hard work, not as a primary motivator of it. So, unfortunately, you're going to have to suck it up and FORCE your way beyond your initial resistance. The good news is that there are 5 key steps and some useful tips that can help you to beat procrastination forever. Follow these for stage 1 and stages 2 and 3 will happen automatically.
Step #1 - Focus (vs. Ambivalence)
Compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our lives are ridiculously comfortable, but the trade off is a lack of the urgency that might otherwise motivate us to pursue the things we really want. When you add non-stop digital distraction and overwhelming choice to that, it's no wonder that focusing on difficult tasks seems so hard.
So here are some tips to help you:
Visualise in detail the life you want and commit to making it happen. Do so knowing that getting started is the hardest but most necessary part.
Narrow things down. Make a list of the things you need to do, prioritise them and break them down into manageable chunks. Then attack them one by one.
Eliminate choices by removing temptation and making distractions inconvenient. For example, if your phone is a distraction, put it somewhere difficult to reach. The idea is to tip the scales so that doing the difficult thing becomes easier than the thing that distracts.
Many people find the 'Pomodoro Technique' helpful. Set a timer and commit to working for just 25 minutes without interruption. Keep repeating this process for as long as it works.
Take short 'movement breaks'. Research has shown that taking short breaks not only helps you to focus, but also improves memory and learning. A 5- minute walk every hour can help you to prevent decision fatigue and restore motivation.
Step #2 - Observance (vs. Vacillation)
"People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But it means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are."
As you might expect, the main reason people fail is because they don't make a start, but the second biggest reason is a lack of momentum, which all comes down to the repetition and refinement of a process.
Here are some tips for developing a cast-iron process.
Once you've picked the thing you're going to do, give yourself every opportunity to build momentum by learning how to say no to other things and making your project your highest priority.
Trust the process. Winning and getting results doesn't come from trying to win and get results, it comes from perfecting a process and sticking to it. Also, don't believe the hype; overnight success usually follows years of hard work.
Commit to learning. Find out what the people who inspire you do, then adopt and refine aspects of their process that could work for you. But be aware that learning without putting it into practice is just another form of procrastination.
Some aspects of a project, like thinking or discussing it, don't always seem very productive but are just as important as anything else. Allow yourself the necessary time for each part of the process, but also remember that you can't think or talk a project into existence.
If you're going in at all, make sure you go all in. Show up. Every day. No excuses.
Step #3 - Routine (vs. Occasionality)
Ideally, you want to get to a point where working on your project is as much a part of your life as eating or sleeping:
Allocate time for your project and stick to a schedule. Inevitably there will be other demands for your time, but make sure to schedule them around your project rather than the other way around.
Have some rules and obey them. For example, if you have to skip a day from working on your project, make it a rule that you never skip 2 days.
Develop a SMART plan for your project. Make your goals...
Specific - be clear about each milestone and what success looks like.
Measurable - put some metrics on it that allow you to track progress.
Achievable - be ambitious but also realistic.
Relevant - it needs to fit with your overall vision and values.
Time-bound - committing to a deadline that carries consequences for not meeting it will stop it from being de-prioritised. Committing to entering competitions or applying for funding can help to focus the mind.
A healthy lifestyle with plenty of rest and regular hours enables your chronobiology to develop a level of expectation and prepare you for upcoming activities. Conversely, ad hoc scheduling and a lack of routine can cause your chronobiology to malfunction.
Once your organism is able to incorporate your new habit into its daily routine it will learn to allocate the right amount of energy and resources at the right time, so respect your organism's schedule to ensure you're optimising your energy.
Step #4 - Consideration (vs. Indifference)
Once your work begins to bear fruit, your brain will begin to look for a return on the investment by measuring feedback and tracking your perceived status within what it recognises as a schema or dominance hierarchy. At this point you'll find yourself caring about the outcome and you'll begin to feel emotions designed to make you agonistic.
This is what happens when you share a post on social media. Because your brain understands the schema of social media it begins to anticipate engagement and provides you with an emotional responses commensurate with the outcome compared to expectation.
So here are some tips for optimising this part of your brain's process.
Incentivise completion. This can either be a reward or a forfeit or both, but make sure that you give yourself accountability for going through with it. Announcing that you're going to be delivering something and asking in advance for people to offer feedback can help.
Seek feedback rather than validation. Encourage honest feedback from people with no skin in the game and try not to be defensive or take things personally.
Remember that there is no such thing as negative feedback. Even no engagement at all is still feedback. Ask yourself why people aren't engaging or what's not working. What could do better?
Feeling an emotional response to feedback, good or bad, simply means you care. Try to leverage your emotions for guidance on how you can improve not for glory, self-pity or vindication.
The world's most successful people became successful by failing and perfecting, not by nailing it first time. So accept failure as a necessary part of the process.
Step #5 - Engagement (vs. Difficulty)
Even if you've never experienced it, you've probably heard of something called 'flow state', where you're so immersed and engaged in something that you lose track of time. This is essentially where the brain's functions are aligned and collaborating on one issue. For obvious reasons, achieving flow state is a tremendous aid to productivity, particularly when applied repetitively over a period of time, but switching it on and off at will is not so easy.
So here are some tips for becoming engaged and getting in the zone.
Try to perfect steps 1-4
The project needs to feel challenging but not so difficult that you struggle to make progress. If it's too hard try to break it down into progressive steps that take you more gradually to where you want to be, whereas If what you're doing feels too easy then it's probably time to level up.
Try to rise above your ego. Make your attachment to the project about the project itself, not about any wealth, fame or glory that might come from it. If you make the project a success the rewards will take care of themselves.
With that in mind, be clear about a service-based goal from the outset as the purpose of the project, and visualise what success might look like.
Share your vision with others. This will help you to connect with those who share it.
Every journey starts with a single step
To have read this far must either mean that you really want to do the thing or that this was another way of avoiding doing the thing but that feels related to doing the thing. It isn't. Go and do the thing, but make sure you subscribe for more virtuous opportunities to procrastinate in the future. And don't forget to check out my videos and socials.