We all do it. And usually to our own detriment. There's not necessarily a pattern: sometimes the task is too hard, sometimes too boring. Sometimes it's too big or other times it's too trivial. Whatever the case, there are two real explanations for why we procrastinate. One is changeable and the other isn't.
The unchangeable reason: we are wired to be lazy
Human beings have an inbuilt, hard-wired tendency to do the easiest thing. This is an evolutionary throwback and one of our most useful survival mechanisms. Our need to survive taught us to preserve energy. After all, you don't want to be attacked by a saber-toothed tiger (or another human) only to find out that your fuel tank is empty and you are unable to run away or put up a good fight.
For this reason, we found ways to save energy physically. For instance, we found an optimal walking speed that allowed us to cover a good distance but which also left us with enough in reserve to run or fight if we needed to. Likewise, we also saved energy mentally by doing the easier thing. We still do this today - given the choice between two things our overwhelming tendency is to do the thing that requires the least energy. This natural tendency is impossible to change, but you can fool it - which is the topic for another post.
The Changeable reason: dopamine
The first thing that need to know here is that patterns of behaviour are reinforced by a chemical called dopamine. Whether it is a physical skill like swinging a golf club or a behaviour like your child tidying up their room, or even a pattern of thinking, the circuits for all of these things are strengthened by this same chemical. Dopamine is also called the reward chemical - it is responsible for the good feeling we get when we get something we like. This is the mechanical reason that positive reinforcement reinforces patterns of behaviour.
Procrastination Reinforces Itself
But why do we get a reward response when we choose not to do something? Especially when it's detrimental down the track? Well, every time we decide to do the easier thing, we can internally relax a little. We get that little notion of 'phew! Now I don't have to do that hard thing' and that is what creates the dopamine rush.
So, the unfortunate reality is that procrastination re forces procrastination. It gives us a little dopamine reward and therefore reinforces the behaviour for next time.
How do we stop this from happening? Here are two things you can do
- Reward the harder thing.
Plan a small reward for doing the harder thing - this might be a quick trip to the coffee shop or reading an article that you've saved and haven't had a chance to get to. It's important to set up the reward first because the expectation of reward produces dopamine. This way the dopamine is for doing the harder thing rather than the easier thing
- Set a short time limit to get the harder thing done.
Take a stopwatch or use the countdown timer on your smartphone and set it for no more than 60mins. Set yourself a target of completing the task (or part of the task if it will take longer that this) and then press the start button. This creates a sense of immediate deadline and produces both adrenalin and dopamine in small amounts. Again the dopamine is for the harder thing rather than the easier thing. It's important to use a timer rather than just looking at the clock. The clock doesn't give the same sense of urgency.
Whenever I run a workshop on High Performance and Productivity or speak about it in my Keynotes, the vast majority of people are trying to work out how to deal with procrastination. These are some simple fixes. There are other things we can do to beat procrastination. Try these simple ones first and then we'll deal with some others in a later post.
** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and its application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.