Hopefully, you've enjoyed a bit of relaxation and fun this summer. Alas, it's time to get back into full gear to create a stellar fourth quarter. 

For many business owners, there is a tradeoff for time away from work and the resulting laundry list of tasks can quickly become overwhelming and stressful. Hence, it's common for the tendency to procrastinate to kick in at this time of the year. 

Sadly, many individuals feel flawed or refer to themselves as lazy when this happens, but procrastination is not a character flaw--it's a stress response. The first step to recovery is to understand that procrastination is not a reflection on your attitude, work ethic, or competence. It's a perfectly natural and normal response to life's stress.

With so much to do, your jumbled thoughts can lead to high stress levels, which cause the amygdala (the part of the brain that sends out the call for adrenaline production) to jump in to save the day. Only it doesn't, because adrenaline spikes the stress. 

So, what can we do about procrastination? The answer is so simple that people dismiss it, but simple does not always mean easy. Nike's iconic tagline says it best: "Just Do It." 

Stop the eye-rolling! Neuroscience backs this up. There is a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex that prompts us to speed up--follow our gut instinct you might say--when we need to act. For instance, if your child is too close to the street as a speeding car is barreling near, you wouldn't even think about reacting, you'd just do it. But guess what? The prefrontal cortex takes a back seat to stress. When you are in procrastination mode, you need to reactivate this part of the prefrontal cortex to break the cycle. This is where "Just Do It" comes in.

Make a split-second decision.

A fast decision is contrary to the stress response and doesn't give your amygdala the chance to send out a stress message. Instead of getting into a mental battle over what to do next, act within five seconds and commit to beginning your most dreaded task immediately. 

In her book, The 5 Second Rule, Mel Robbins calls this a decision of courage. Since what we are avoiding isn't the task, but rather the stress we associate with the task. Use your courage to make that dreaded phone call, or whatever you might push off for later. The five seconds is critical in triggering the fast-acting part of your brain, as well as limiting the influence of the slow-acting part of your brain. So, don't stretch it out--decide and act, not decide and think.

Isolate your smallest tasks.

Get those jumbled thoughts out of your head and organize them into two lists. One is a master list, the other is what I call a ten-minutes-or-less list. The benefit of the ten-minutes-or-less list is that it eliminates the time-consuming and frustrating process of deciding what to do next when you have only a few minutes to fill. Otherwise, by the time you figure it out your ten minutes is gone; it's stressful and wasteful.

Prioritize your master list each day and then transfer those ten-minutes-or-less tasks to a small list. Then devote large chunks of uninterrupted time to the other priorities. This will keep the stress at bay and lower the risk of procrastination kicking in.

Celebrate your wins.

Entrepreneurs are notorious for dismissing their achievements. It's difficult to reflect upon them when so many projects and deadlines loom over you. Again, this stimulates the stress response, so it's important to acknowledge your accomplishments. 

Commit to acknowledging your achievements. This will combat the feeling that you can't get ahead. I always cross off the tasks as I do them because it gives me a visual of my achievements, which I find very satisfying. I'll go so far as to add the little things that didn't make it to my list originally, just so I have more to cross off! 

Procrastination has an irrational hold on those who engage regularly. The good news is that with consistency and persistence, most people can break free of it. 

Published on: Aug 27, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.