“I’ll just do it tomorrow.” We’ve all had that thought and one point or another. As humans we’re actually very prone to procrastination, putting things off until the last second. There are people who can easily pick themselves up and just get something done, but for a lot of people it can be a lot harder. The question is, why do we procrastinate when it’s in our best interests to just do what we need to do?
Putting things off until we can’t put them off anymore leads to a crunch that gives you stress and impacts productivity along with the quality of your work. But in the moment we would rather focus on smaller things that we’d prefer doing. That can obviously mean doing something fun like watching YouTube videos, but it can also be work we would prefer to do that’s maybe not as important.
So, Why Do We Procrastinate?
Often times, the task we’re putting off may not be something we want to do. To our brains it’s easier to focus on simpler, more desirable tasks. Procrastination is usually not caused by distraction, but in fact causes distraction. It’s easier to get caught up in your Twitter feed or find yourself bingeing YouTube videos when you should be doing your taxes.
The human brain is actually pretty lazy, even those in heads of people who are anything but lazy. Our brains are hardwired to find the path of least resistance, which is why people develop habits. Habits are the brain’s way of streamlining its workload. It doesn’t like to put energy towards something until it absolutely has to, like when you’re in “danger”. Longer term thinking isn’t really the greatest strength of the human brain, which gets us into a lot of trouble both personally and as a society.
When danger is detected, that’s when the brain decides to go into overdrive. Wether you’re face-to-face with an oncoming train, or an oncoming deadline, the brain puts all its energy into keeping you safe. In the case of an oncoming train, the brain will figure out how to get out of the way. In the case of the deadline, the brain will all of a sudden get to work on your taxes. Two clearly very different situations, but they both engage the same“crisis mode”. This is why crunch time is so stressful, and so exhausting.
Beating Your Brain
If procrastination is a byproduct of how our brains are wired, then how the heck are we supposed to overcome it? Well, we can look at my oversimplified explanation on the psychology and glean a few things about how the brain works. Firstly, we know that the brain tends to prefer being lazy, and tackling simpler tasks. Secondly, we know the brain kicks into “crisis mode” when it’s crunch time. We can use these two facts to beat our brains, and overcome procrastination.
The first step is to break down our tasks into simpler steps. Going back to the example of “doing taxes”, that’s an overwhelming task in itself. Instead of looking at that as one giant task that will consume a lot of mental energy, break it down into less intimidating micro-tasks. Depending on what works for you, your list may be more general or more broad than somebody else who’s doing the exact same thing. What’s important is that each micro-task isn’t going to feel more overwhelming than reading social media. For example, in my mind filling out a 1099-MISC uses about the same amount of mental energy as catching up on my Twitter feed.
The next step is to use the brain’s “crisis mode” to your advantage. Instead of just saying “I need to finish these micro-tasks by April 15th”, you should create deadlines for each one. This seems counter-productive in reducing stress, but because each micro-task is much smaller you’re not going to be as stressed out (if you even get stressed out at all). The goal is to avoid these crunch times anyway, but at worst you’ll have a bunch of mini-crunch times that won’t even equal to a fraction of the amount of stress you’d feel if you had to do literally everything at the last moment.
Finally though, the ultimate tip for beating procrastination is to just get started. As lazy as our brains can be, they also don’t like leaving things unfinished. This can be an overwhelming prospect by itself, which is why the micro-tasks are important as well, but none of that matters if you don’t just push yourself to start.