Everyone procrastinates. Everyone, at least once in a while, puts off something important. Everyone, some of the time, avoids doing the things they really want or need to do.

And everyone who procrastinates can't stand the fact they procrastinate (except maybe Adam Grant, who actually taught himself to procrastinate.)

Procrastinating, like many human behaviors, doesn't make sense. Why would anyone find ways -- passively or actively -- to avoid starting the tasks they feel will make a huge difference in their professional or personal lives?

Because we're human: We're built that way.

The Science of Procrastination

The limbic system was one of the first the part of your brain that helps control behavioral and emotional responses. (It's what Seth Godin calls your "lizard brain.")

In evolutionary terms, many scientists think the limbic system is older than other parts of the brain, playing a key role in survival adaptation. (Deciding between iOS or Android is irrelevant unless you have the whole fight or flight thing down.)

Which means your limbic system's only focus is now. Hungry? Eat. Scared? Run away. Anxious? Take a step back.

About to do something hard or difficult? Put it off. Even if your neocortex has decided that doing something hard or difficult will be really good for you. 

The neocortex is the "newer" part of human brains that deals with higher-order brain functions like cognition, spatial reasoning, language... and making decisions that affect your future. 

Which is why you put off firing an underperforming employee; while your neocortex realizes he's dragging the rest of your team down, your limbic system hates the thought of confrontation. (Because firing someone, no matter how deserved, always sucks.)

Or why you put off crafting your pitch deck. Or making cold calls. Or exercising. Or countless other things that you know -- at a higher level -- will pay off down the road... but seem too hard, or daunting, or painful for your limbic system to allow.

That's why you procrastinate: Not because you're lazy, not because you lack willpower, not because you don't have what it takes... but because your limbic system and your neocortex are engaged in a constant battle -- one that the limbic system, because it's a core (and sometimes almost automatic) function, often wins.

How to Stop Procrastinating

Unless you find ways to take your limbic system out of the equation. Or fool your limbic system into thinking it's winning.

The key is to align future outcomes with present outcomes -- to make something you know is good for you in the long run also feel good in the short term.

How?

1. Shift the focus from the future to the present.

You know exercise will someday be good for you. But right now, in the moment? Exercise kinda sucks.

Unless you make it more fun. Or find ways to trigger the "now" portion of your brain.

If you hate running, find a form of cardio you do like. (Even if it's less effective, that's okay: Regularly doing something that is 80 percent as effective is better than never doing something that is 100 percent effective.) Or find a workout partner. Or save your favorite music or podcast or that audiobook you've been dying to listen to for your workout. 

2. Change your goal.

Say you want to make 500 sales calls this year. That's a lot of sales calls: A lot of hearing no, of getting doors shut in your face, of being rejected... your limbic system hates the idea of making 500 sales calls. 

But making 4 sales calls a day? And checking off each call, or at the very least each day's worth of calls on your calendar? That's a "now" thing: That can make you feel satisfied and fulfilled now. Your limbic system loves that.

If you want, call it the Seinfeld Method. Early on, Seinfeld decided the way to become a better comedian was to write better jokes. Which meant writing jokes every day. So he got a large calendar, hung it on the wall, and every day he wrote a new joke, he put a red X over that date.

As Seinfeld told Brad Isaac

After a few days, you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt.

Your only job is to not break the chain.

Not breaking the chain feels good. Not breaking the chain is a now thing. Since your limbic system loves now things, turn long-term goals into short-term tasks you can accomplish.

That's why so many people find themselves walking around their living rooms while they watch TV at night -- they're trying to finish off their 10,000 steps. Not because it will make them healthier someday, but because they love checking off that task today.

3. Avoid your limbic system altogether.

Decisions are willpower killers, which is why your limbic system loves decisions -- especially decisions that involve future outcomes. 

But if you pack your lunch the night before you won't have to make a decision about what to eat. If you automatically withdraw money from every paycheck for savings, you won't have to make a decision about transferring money to your investment account. If you turn off alerts for a couple of hours, you won't have to make a decision about whether to peek at a new text or email.

If there are recurring tasks you often put off, find ways to automate them. Then your limbic system won't ever get involved. And the things you want to do will always get done.

4. Adopt the 5-Minute Rule.

Say you've been putting off pulling together a proposal for a potential client. 

Do what Instagram founder Kevin Systrom does and make a deal with yourself. "If you don't want to do something," Systrom says, "make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you'll end up doing the whole thing."

That's all you have to do. Commit to only doing five minutes. Just five minutes. Your limbic system hates the idea of five hours. But five minutes? No problem.

And once you get started, something magical will happen. You realize that what you were afraid of starting isn't so scary after all. The endorphins kick in. Your mental muscles warm up. 

Think about a time you've put off a task, finally gotten started, and then once into it thought, "I don't know why I kept putting this off. It's going really well. It isn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be."

Your limbic system loves that feeling.

When you're struggling to get started, don't think about all the work involved. Just commit to putting in five good minutes. That will quiet your limbic system.

Then, once you get started... it's all downhill from there.

Published on: Sep 9, 2019
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