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Why Do We Procrastinate?

The default setting in our brains is the instinctive scurry for instant gratification. That is why we tend to procrastinate when it comes to tasks that focus on longer-term benefits. To overcome the quick-fix habit pattern, we need to use our reasoning, our decision-making abilities, and our willpower.


In this blog, I will be exploring the force behind the drive for instant gratification. I will also look at some general strategies to overcome procrastination. In a second article, to be published next month, I will focus on additional strategies conducive to achieving long-term goals.


We need to look at the workings of our minds. The nature of personal productivity has two sides. Inside our brain, one part of us knows what we must do, knows that we should do it as soon as possible, and knows that, if we do it, we will benefit from it in the near and distant future. But a different part – the procrastinator – just wants to do nothing, or something else, or anything else.


The basic conflict comes down to anatomy. We experience a constant struggle between two sections of our brain: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.


The Prefrontal Cortex


This is an active, rich, and interconnected part of our brain and is what makes us human beings. Located right in the front of our head, the prefrontal cortex plans calculates, and makes decisions. This is the part of the brain that helps us to reason. It is a fireball of creativity that turns oxygen and energy into ideas, and then organizes them into plans, so we can improve any aspects of our lives. The thoughts that manifest inside our prefrontal cortex define our individuality.


The Limbic System


Often referred to as ‘the lizard brain’, the limbic system is the dominant cognitive feature in our brain. This is the procrastinating tendency, an ancient part of our brain that runs on autopilot all the time, managing our innate urges, moods, and emotions. The limbic system is all about ‘now, now, now’. It tells us that we are hungry, that we are in danger, that we are bored, and that we want to doodle for ten minutes for no apparent reason.


Asleep At the Wheel


The problem is that the prefrontal cortex is a lot weaker than the limbic system and has no autopilot function. As we all know, engaging ourselves with constructive and creative thinking is challenging and causes us discomfort. To avoid such feelings, we tend to switch off our active will. And, when we do that – when we are not thinking actively – the limbic system reasserts itself and we start a mental journey toward procrastination.


Given that the dominant part of our brains does not care about our plans, our goals, and our creativity, we might sit back in our chairs, just for a few minutes – relax. Pick up our pencil again. Doodle, feel slightly absolved of guilt about our laziness and lack of productivity.


But then, provided we have been making sustained efforts to overcome procrastination, our creative side might be reawakened. How can we provoke this response within ourselves more often?


Like anyone else, I have had to battle with relapsing into the limbic haze. It is certainly not a lost cause. We need to create the conditions that encourage our prefrontal cortex to work.


Make a Clear Task List


I find that the more focused I am on a task the more I achieve. Writing a to-do list in an organized way is a great way to support this focus. Transferring tasks onto paper reduces the ‘neural load’ that we carry, freeing up a bit more brain processing power for other things. For example, I find that a clear to-do list allows me more space to think about Pebbles Coaching, my business. It is also important to be clear about goals, and what are you trying to achieve in both the short and longer term.


Form Good Habits


Repetition is vital. The more often we exercise our prefrontal cortex, the easier it will be to ‘bring it to mind’. Our brain forms and reorganizes synaptic connections, in response to learning or experience. Just as our muscles grow when trained, the prefrontal cortex becomes stronger with more use.


We can reprogramme our routine to include any amount of heavy brain work, exercise, or any habit-making we desire, by the ‘slowly, slowly’ method of repetition.


Accomplishment


I have found that, after a while, a productive day’ becomes easier. Long to-do lists that demand too much of us are counterproductive. Understanding what we need to do today, and what we had the best leave for another time, is a huge step toward feeling good about ourselves and beating procrastination.


In conclusion, I have explained the constant battle in our brains between our creative frontal cortex and our slothful, yet powerful, the limbic system. I have also suggested three strategies that I find helpful in supporting the efforts of our prefrontal cortex: set clear goals, form good habits, and develop a feeling of accomplishment. Next month, I will be sharing my follow-up article covering a further five key strategies you can use to reduce the pull of procrastination and become even more effective.

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