Do I know people who are worse procrastinators than me? Yes, but only a handful. I’m pretty extreme. Example? I started writing this post more than a week ago, and had to absolutely FORCE myself to sit down and finish it today (and who knows – I still may not get it done).
The April issue of Real Simple magazine has a terrific article on procrastination, written by Amy Spencer (FYI – it’s accompanied in print by the best illustration on the topic I’ve ever seen, by Paula Scher). This article wasn’t the usual blame game. You know – those articles that basically make you feel like a lazy schlub who wouldn’t be a procrastinator if only you tried harder. Write a list, break big jobs into little jobs, reward small accomplishments….yeah, yeah, yeah – I’ve heard it all before.
Spencer’s article focuses on the science behind procrastination, and explains that those of us who wait are not just being lazy. Our brains are actually wired for procrastination. It turns out everyone’s brain has two main sections.
The limbic system works without us really being aware. It makes us pull our hand away from a hot stove, sidestep a big patch of ice in front of us, come indoors from the rain. The limbic system protects us from pain and turns us toward something pleasurable. Like a puppy determined to please you, it directs you away from the “pain” of doing a boring or difficult task because it knows you might be unhappy, and will distract you with pleasurable alternatives.
The prefrontal cortex is the taskmaster – it figures out how to do things and keeps us on track. It measures a situation and helps us make decisions. But it is not automatic or intuitive like the limbic system. It turns out the prefrontal cortex is a relatively new part of the brain, and is even considered by some to be what separates us from other animals. It’s not as strong as other parts of the brain. It needs direction. I’d sum it up this way – the prefrontal cortex plans, while the limbic system reacts.
Our prefrontal cortex says “you should clean the kitchen,” and the limbic responds by saying “Wouldn’t you rather read that new magazine?” “Fix a sandwich?” “Check your Facebook page?” “Watch a movie?” “Oh, look! A squirrel!”
My limbic system and prefrontal cortex have apparently developed a close partnership over the years, so I use my whole brain to procrastinate. My limbic system pulls me off task, and when I realize what’s happening, I put my prefrontal cortex to work thinking up excuses of why it’s a good thing to do. “I won’t be so tired tomorrow.” “I’ll dive into it tomorrow right after work, and that still gives me plenty of time (if nothing goes wrong).” “I really do need to do some more research/preparation/practicing first.” “I work better under pressure anyway.” “What could possibly go wrong?”
The hopeful part of the Real Simple article is that our prefrontal cortex can be strengthened. It will never become an unconscious response to situations (at least not for me), but we can control when to put it to work. We can force our mental planner to take charge for a while and help us get things done.
And that brings us back to those tricks and tips that I hate. My prefrontal cortex is very, very good at making excuses (it’s had plenty of practice), and it is also very good at seeing through a to-do list and “rewards”. I think rewards are the funniest approach to procrastination. Gee, I’m going to let myself have an ice cream after I get this blog done. Really? There’s ice cream in the ‘fridge? Why don’t you just take a little break right now and enjoy it, and then you can finish the blog as soon as you’re done…
The article suggests doing the worst thing first. Well, duh. That’s way too logical. If I decide to do the worst thing first, I’m dooming myself to an entire day of excuse-making and time-wasting. A related tip is to make the job smaller. Yeah, it works, but my limbic system is on to me. It will allow me to get three of four little jobs done, and then it lies in wait for the fourth. And the battle is on – one hour to get three tasks accomplished, and a day and a half to get through the last one.
But there were a couple of good tips mentioned that I’ve tried with some success in the past. The tried and true is to make a commitment to a third party. Ask a friend to hold your feet to the fire because you have a job that needs to get done this weekend. Ask them to call and check in to make sure you’re staying on task. Give your boss a due date for a project, even if he/she didn’t set one. Guilt is a powerful motivator, and you won’t want to let your friend or boss down, or have them think poorly of you.
Another good tip is timing yourself. I used to do this, and I’ve gotten out of the habit. Instead of telling myself “I’m going to organize my closet today” (a monumental and painful task that will surely keep my limbic system busy), I can set my cell phone alarm to go off in 30 minutes, and tell myself “when the alarm goes off, I’m done.” The idea is that the concept of perpetual motion will keep you going forward after the alarm rings, and even if it doesn’t, at least you got 30 minutes of work done. It works.
And the primary suggestion is to avoid interruptions. When you have a limbic system as strong as mine (have you noticed how proud I am of my procrastination skills?), avoiding interruptions is nearly impossible. But the article does suggest a few intriguing online tools to help control web surfing, or at least track it and get a realistic perspective on how much time we’re truly wasting. I think I’ll give them a try. I should probably do that right now.
But first I have to proofread this post and publish it. And then I should reward myself with some raspberries and yogurt. And I have to finish the laundry. And then I might watch my favorite TV shows. And I should call Mom. I can check out the sites tomorrow night. But I’m meeting a friend for dinner tomorrow and won’t be home until late, so it will probably be Tuesday. I have a church meeting Tuesday night, but I should be home in time to go online. And if not, there’s always Wednesday………….right?