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Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

The Secret to Kicking the Procrastination Habit: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Do This Instead

My husband: “Want to get lunch?”
Me: “I can’t. My deadline for the article on procrastination is due tomorrow to MD-Update magazine.”

My husband (laughing): “I can see why you were asked to write about that. You procrastinate like a pro.”

I can understand my husband’s reaction. He’s more what organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls a “precrastinator,” someone who wakes up with a compulsive need to get things done as soon as possible, even if the deadline is six months away

My husband and I have a running argument about how late I actually was for our first in-person date years ago. I’m sure I wasn’t more than ten minutes late, but he swears that he’d put on his jacket and was getting ready to leave because he thought he’d been stood up.

Me: Here’s why I’m writing an article on procrastination: It’s a sign that I’ve broken up with my perfectionism! I don’t have to be perfect to share what I’m learning as a “recovering” procrastinator, right? As they say in rehab, “Relapse is part of recovery.”

My husband: Keep going to your meetings.

Procrastination has a bad reputation. It can give you one, too.

But is true? Take my two-question procrastination quiz to find out.

Question #1: Procrastinating, the act of unnecessarily putting off decisions or actions, means you are:

  1. Lazy.
  2. Careless.
  3. Disorganized.
  4. Unprofessional.
  5. All of the above.

Answer: None of the above. You wouldn’t keep procrastinating if you weren’t getting something out of it. (That’s why stupid is not one of the choices above.)

You are using procrastination to help you escape the negative emotions that are triggered by things you need to get done.

Question #2: Is procrastination a problem with time management and willpower?

Answer: No. Procrastination is a way to manage unpleasant emotions. Procrastination uses a powerful emotion-focused coping strategy — avoidance — to feel better in the present moment. Future moment be damned.

Our Brains Are Habit Making Machines

One of the great things about your brain is that it is very efficient at forming habits. Once routine or mundane tasks become habits, they can run on autopilot and free up your grey matter to focus on other important stuff.

But there is a flip slide. Bad habits, like procrastination, go on autopilot, too.

Those unpleasant emotions flying under your radar (restlessness, boredom, anxiety, worry, etc.) can instantly and automatically, without your awareness or permission, trigger a procrastination habit behavior, like:

  • Checking your news feed
  • Catching up on your email
  • Snacking
  • Surfing the internet
  • Going on social media
  • Watching television or YouTube videos
  • Doing easier tasks or chores, like cleaning or organizing
  • Doing some other “productive” task rather than the project or task at hand

How Your Brain Can Get Stuck in a Procrastination Habit Loop

According to neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist, Jud Brewer, the discomfort of uncertainty affects your brain the same way an empty stomach rumbles with discomfort when you’re hungry.

When your stomach is empty, the discomfort alerts you to go get some food. If your stomach is really empty, you want to get food fast. Any food.

In a similar way, when you’re feeling the discomfort of a difficult task with an uncertain outcome, your brain knows that a little hit of certainty will make you feel better fast. Handy digital “certainty snacks” are at your fingertips. All you have to do is start scrolling.

Before you know it, this efficient way of quickly dismissing unpleasant feelings associated with unpleasant tasks goes on autopilot. Now you’re reaching for handy “procrastination bites” without even thinking about it.

The immediate problem (unease, anxiety, uncertainty) is solved … temporarily. But the real problem (the looming deadline) is not. Now you feel even worse.

Here’s the crazy part: The worse you feel, the more likely you are to start the whole habit loop again. Remember how procrastination is about trying to get rid of unpleasant emotions? Welcome to a habit loop that seriously sucks.

To Work with Your Mind, You Have to Understand How It Works

When you feel stressed at the prospect of an unpleasant task, your survival brain (the amygdala) responds by secreting chemicals that shut down your thinking brain (your prefrontal cortex). That leaves you with survival brain options only — fight, flight, freeze, or appease. When you find yourself acting impulsively, you’re probably in survival brain mode.

So how do you get your thinking brain back online?

Procrastination is a problem with emotional regulation, remember? So the first place to start is, well, with your emotions.

Don’t worry. Whether you’re someone completely dissociated from your feelings, constantly overwhelmed by them, or swinging wildly from one extreme to the other, there’s hope for you.

How do I know this? As a recovering procrastinator (I’m a lifetime member), I stumbled upon Dr. Jud’s groundbreaking research on habit change. It’s been shown to be effective with heavy-hitters like smoking, overeating, anxiety, and worry. My results so far are promising.

How to Hack into Your Brain’s Autopilot

Don’t get upset with your brain for going on autopilot and taking you on detour after detour.

The problem is not that there’s something wrong with your brain or its wiring.

The problem is that your brain’s autopilot is operating on outdated, incomplete information.

It’s time to hack into your brain’s autopilot programming; install some updates and add in some real-time input.

Start with a simple formula (an abbreviated form of Dr. Jud’s habit change process) to break down one of your own procrastination habit loops: When I do ______, I get _______. It costs me _______.

Here’s an example:

When I: Put off finishing the current chapter in my book by doing something else “productive.”

I get: Brief relief from feeling lost and confused about how to organize the concepts in this chapter.

It costs me: An inner critic attack for another other delay in getting the book finished and into the hands of people who could benefit from it.

Remember the crazy part? Because now I feel even worse; I’m at risk of reentering the habit loop and starting another spin cycle of procrastination.

Remember how procrastination uses a powerful emotion-focused coping strategy — avoidance — to feel better in the present moment?

Fortunately, there’s an antidote to avoidance.

Curiosity Is Your Superpower in Your Quest to Quell Procrastination.

Because curiosity intrinsically feels good, it can have an undoing effect on those unpleasant emotions that triggered you in the first place. Curiosity also has the capability to increase your distress tolerance. This ability to self-regulate can help shut down procrastination or help you ward off an inner critic attack when you do screw up.

The next time you realize you’re in a procrastination habit loop, try a bold, counterintuitive move:

Instead of trying to avoid, ignore, or overpower the bad feelings, tap into your natural curiosity and turn toward the unpleasant emotions as you answer the questions below. You don’t have to be brave. Just be curious. As author James Stephens wrote, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”

1. What’s it like?

Example: What’s it like to make no progress in getting your book done? It feels awful. I’m so mad at myself. It’s a helpless feeling.

Hint: Tap into your sensory experience (for example, This doesn’t feel good is a more powerful motivator for behavior change than simply thinking I should/shouldn’t do this.)

2. What do you tell yourself?

Example: My publisher is going to be so frustrated with me and disappointed. He’s probably going to give up on me.

3. What are you getting from this now?
How about later?

Now: Right now, I get the illusion that I can scare myself into getting this done

Later: Then I freeze up and get nothing done. And have another inner critic attack.

4. Is there a better way to handle this?

The feel-good chemicals generated by curiosity will help you seek out and experiment with different behaviors that may work better. Dr. Jud calls this process looking for the BBO (the bigger, better offer). Is there a better way to handle this? What can I try that may produce better results?

Example: Want to try something radically different? Procrastination researcher Timothy Pychyl found that self-forgiveness when you procrastinate was related to less procrastination in the future. Pychyl concluded that “This finding reflects the power of forgiveness to move us from an avoidance motivation to an approach motivation.”

As you explore and experiment with different behaviors, your orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) will fire up and do what it’s uniquely designed to do: compare the relative reward value of various behaviors, determine which ones are most rewarding, and shuffle them to the top of your greatest hits list.

And try savoring the good feelings associated with any wins and success experiences. (Yes, that’s radical, too. Do it anyway.) It will help your OFC reinforce the new habit behavior. You won’t need to resort to force, shame, or scare tactics in order to get things done.

I’ve shared here a very abbreviated version of Dr. Jud Brewer’s habit-change process. If you want to do a deeper dive, please contact me!