You crack your knuckles, ready to focus on that all-important document.
Suddenly, you have the urge to check your inbox. Reorganizing your Trello seems strangely appealing. There's even a siren song emanating from your laundry basket, enticing you to humdrum household chores…
Left untamed, procrastination is destructive. Indeed, regular procrastination impairs your career growth and impacts your mental health.
By harnessing procrastination, you can become even more productive. Here's how…
The war inside your brain
Knowing you should do one thing, while being helplessly drawn to another, is an age-old malaise. Ancient Greek philosophers described it as akrasia, acting against your better judgment.
Nowadays, we understand procrastination as a battle between your prefrontal cortex and your limbic system:
- Your prefrontal cortex. This governs executive function: your goals, values, and ability to make complex strategic choices.
Example: Quarterly planning demands tough conversations and uncomfortable trade-offs — but getting it right can change your trajectory. Your prefrontal cortex helps you prioritize quarterly planning, weighing its temporary discomfort against the long-term benefits.
- Your limbic system. This is your primordial pleasure center, or "lizard brain": it's short-termist, and always prioritizes your physical and mental comfort.
Example: You try to focus on quarterly planning, but your eyes glaze over. Your limbic system is kicking in, you're itching for a gratifying rush of dopamine… hmm, maybe I'll make some edits to my next blog post! 🙃
Of course, the pleasures of procrastination are short-lived and unsatisfying. Tim Urban describes this as the "dark playground" — when the relief is tarnished by guilt.
When procrastination beckons, how do you respond? First, identify whether this is passive or active procrastination — they have radically different outcomes.
The 2 types of procrastination
- Passive procrastination. If your primary impulse is to withdraw from the task, you are passively procrastinating.
Diagnosis: You feel hesitant and indecisive, bargaining with yourself about when and how to complete the task. Cue anxiety, scrolling through Twitter, and potentially missing your deadline.
- Active procrastination. If your primary impulse is to redirect your energy elsewhere, you are actively procrastinating.
Diagnosis: You feel energized and purposeful, but can't bring yourself to complete the task. So you leap into another project with gusto — you'll get back to the original task later, right?
You might actively procrastinate over one task, and passively procrastinate over another. How can you optimize your productivity in each case?
The brain's reward-based learning system has 3 components: trigger, behaviour, and reward:
- When you passively procrastinate, the trigger is your feeling of discomfort — perhaps your anticipation of the difficulty or tedium of completing a task.
- Your limbic system steers you to a behavior that's easy and comforting — like browsing YouTube, or making another coffee.
- Your reward is a fleeting dopamine rush — until you remember your task's fast-approaching deadline.
When we yield to our limbic system's pursuit of pleasure, we reinforce this loop. That means we're more likely to procrastinate in the future.
The technique: Summon mindful curiosity to reframe your reward.
Mindfulness reduces procrastination. So acknowledge the trigger, consider your craving, then reframe the reward.
Visualize the reward of procrastinating: momentary amusement or distraction, followed by guilt. Then visualize the reward of completing the task: satisfaction, and a feeling of progress.
With practice, procrastination's guilty pleasures will shine less brightly. You can then focus on the greater reward: completing the challenging task!
What about active procrastination, where you feel energized but your brain simply won't focus on your intended task?
Perhaps you need additional time to ruminate, or you're delaying because you work more effectively under pressure. This is strategic procrastination, and it's easy to optimize.
The technique: Allow yourself a period of time-boxed procrastination.
Procrastinating before a task encourages divergent thinking, which leads to your most creative ideas. So when your mind bolts from a task, let it break free! Take a walk outside, indulge in social media, or peruse a favorite publication — just set a time you'll return to your task, and stick to it.
Similarly, unplugged vacations inspire creativity — time them strategically, before your biggest decisions. When you come back, you might just unlock your best ideas…