In Part 1 of this article I explored the psychology and neuroscience behind procrastination to help us understand why we procrastinate. I also discussed the high cost that procrastination can have in our lives and businesses, especially in preventing us from setting and keeping goals.
Our health, happiness, finances, self-worth, relationships and our dreams are all negatively impacted when we take little or no action on our hearts desires and the things that really give us meaning and fulfilment.
As previously noted, numerous books and articles have been written on this topic. Strategies to overcome procrastination abound including daily exercise, meditation, mindfulness, eating healthily, having meaningful, emotional and achievable goals and so on.
In Part 2 of this article, I will share some strategies that I have found to work for my clients and me.
Your brain is trying to “protect” you
Gaining success from implementing these will be largely dependent on recognising that your brain is trying to “protect” you. I suggest once you acknowledge and accept this, you will be more capable of dealing with procrastination and able to move forward positively with those things that are important to you.
The key is to notice your urges and emotions initiated by the limbic system; thank the brain for wanting to protect you; acknowledge that you usually have nothing to be fearful about and wait for your neo cortex to bring perspective and logic to the situation.
This will enable you to MOVE and ACT.
M = Move
So, the first step in overcoming procrastination is to stand up. Move!
Although procrastination might not be life threatening, the brain can misinterpret it as such. When you are procrastinating you are usually sitting down! So, taking action by standing up is your number 1 step.
For example, one of your goals might be to rise early to have an early morning daily success routine. This might consist of going for a walk, cycle, paddle or jog; investing time in mindfulness or meditation; reflecting on your goals (or ‘big rocks’) and planning your day. Accordingly, the alarm goes off, but your amygdala warns you that you may fail, and you are “not safe” going outside of your comfort zone and so you stay in bed. It discounts future rewards (positive habits to keep you physically, mentally and spiritually fit) in favour of immediate gratification (staying warm and safe in bed so you can conserve your energy for self-preservation).
By taking meaningful action, you will experience renewed motivation
Understanding what the limbic brain area is doing and why it is doing it, will enable you to focus on the long-term gain for short term pain. At this point, I suggest you put your alarm well away from the bed), so you must ‘move’ (i.e. get up) – to turn it off. You have just taken your first step to beating the amygdala! This first step could result in a regular early morning start, time to walk, meditate, reflect and plan for the day.
By taking meaningful action, you will experience renewed motivation and feeling good about yourself. Action leads to motivation which leads to more action as seen in this diagram.
But moving means more than that. It involves a choice point. Basically, you either move away from the outcome you want and continue to procrastinate and behave unlike the person you want to be or move towards the outcome you want, acting effectively and behaving like the person you want to be.
Goals are best broken down into small steps then prioritised
This means that your goals are best broken down into small steps then prioritised. Next, set up milestones or mileposts, and organise an accountability partner or buddy.
Being able to take one small step is critical to breaking the procrastination cycle.
O = Observation
The second letter in MOVE is about practicing observation.
Procrastination involves self-absorption while successfully moving forward with your ‘big rocks’ involves the practice of self-observation.
As the diagram below shows, we have two minds – an ‘observing mind’ and a ‘thinking mind’.
People who procrastinate typically attach to or “fuse” to their negative thoughts.
Relevant at this point is to understand that the ‘thinking mind’ has up to 60,000 thoughts per day and that 80% of these are negative. Learning how to manage approximately 40,000 negative thoughts per day may seem daunting and most of us don’t know how to do so.
Jennifer Read Hawthorn, author of Change Your Thoughts, Change Your World claims that we are creatures of habit because as many as 98% of our thoughts are the same as we had the day before. (See also Sharon Begley’s book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain)
Whether these numbers are accurate or not, the point is that the ‘thinking mind’ produces an enormous number of thoughts each day and the majority of these are negative.
Negative thoughts are particularly draining and lead to procrastination
Negative thoughts are particularly draining and lead to procrastination. They diminish our self-worth, deplete our energy and produce corresponding neurotransmitters or chemicals that weaken our physiology. No wonder we feel exhausted at the end of the day! More than anything, they rob us of confidence and the belief that we can achieve our goals and heart’s desires.
Sometimes, the difficult thoughts and feelings show up in response to a challenge or achieving a goal and go something like this … ’Life is hard so I don’t want to do hard anymore’; ‘I don’t have enough energy to achieve my goals’; ‘I should be doing more’; ‘I can’t do this’; It’s going to be difficult’; and ‘I’m not productive unless there is something tangible to measure productivity’.
You get the idea. When we fuse to these negative thoughts we ‘become’ them thereby blinding us to engaging purposefully, proactively and productively with life. With attachment or fusion to negative thoughts and unhelpful thinking come unpleasant feelings. These rob us of our confidence, fuel procrastination and prevent us from stepping outside of our comfort zone.
Watch, notice and detach from unhelpful thoughts that fuel your procrastination
In contrast, by taking a ‘helicopter’ view and practicing self-observation we can watch and observe what our thinking mind is doing. As humans, at any moment, we have the capacity to observe our thoughts and thinking patterns. Instead of fusing or attaching to them we can notice what is happening. Instead of fusing to the thought “I’m not good enough” we can notice the thought and detach by saying to ourselves – “Ah, thank you thought, I know you. You are trying to protect me but I don’t need you right now.” You can decide what technique to use.
The point is watch, notice and detach from those unhelpful thoughts that fuel your procrastination. They’ll come back again because that’s what thinking minds do – they have thoughts. So, keep observing yourself as if you were watching someone else.
Freedom happens when you practice awareness.
V = Values
The third letter in MOVE calls for us to embrace our Values.
Moving in the direction of and being in alignment with our chosen values is another key to overcoming procrastination.
Our values are what are important to us and play a major role in governing our thoughts and behaviour (notwithstanding our personal style). Values are our heart’s deepest desires for how we want to behave as human beings. They are what we want to stand for in life, what sort of person we want to be and what sort of strengths and qualities we want to develop.
Values are not goals – goals have a start and finish, but values are enduring and never end – like travelling ‘west’. They are fundamental to business success too.
The solution is to know and connect with your Values
To use a metaphor, our values are like a compass. A compass gives you direction and keeps you on track when you are travelling. Our values (together with our Purpose) provide the same function in our business and life journey. We use them to choose the direction in which we want to move and to keep us on track as we go.
If you have not revisited your values recently or cannot state them effortlessly, then I strongly recommend that you do. For example, you might identify values such as Quality; Growth; Trust and Fulfilment. If you are a self-confessed, habitual procrastinator you can clearly see that procrastinating takes you away from your values.
The disconnect will be a major source of frustration. Perhaps your values are Nourishment, Growth, Possibilities, Belief, Responsibility and Persistence. In this case procrastination might cost you recognition and self-worth (contrary to Nourishment); achievement of your goals (contrary to Growth), no visible sign of change (contrary to Growth, Possibilities & Responsibility) and your freedom (contrary to Possibilities).
You get the picture! The solution is to know and connect with your Values (and your Purpose as I have written on many other occasions). Visit and review them daily when you rise and retire and ask the questions – How will I live out my values today and how did I live out my values today? Is procrastinating moving me in the direction of my chosen values?
E = End in Mind
The E in MOVE is inviting us to focus on the End Game.
Most of my readers will know Stephen Covey’s call to develop the habit of ‘Begin with the end in mind’. This is about actively and effectively moving towards the outcome you want and being like the person you want to be. It’s about having a razor-sharp Vision.
Your Vision should inspire you to move towards the picture you have painted
Most people I work with find it exceptionally difficult to have a crystal-clear picture of where they want their business to be or what it might look like. While ‘knowing’ and ‘being’ your Purpose gives you meaning and fulfilment, your Vision should be so strong that it inspires you daily to move incrementally towards the picture you have so vividly painted.
Somehow, without an energising Vision, we seem to shrivel into a meaningless existence. Our business becomes routine, boring, reactive, disorganised, unfulfilling and so too does our personal life.
As the old Proverb says: “Without vision the people will perish”.
Summary of Strategies
As we are moving well into the second part of the year, I’m encouraging you to finish it strongly.
To procrastinate or not, is a choice
As humans, we all have let ourselves become the victim of procrastination from time to time. But ultimately, unless we have a diagnosed medical issue which drains our energy and motivation or some other calamity, to procrastinate or not, is a choice.
Here is a summary of practical steps to help you MOVE from procrastination to purposeful progress.
- Take action – stand up and take the first step.
- Move away from the thoughts and behaviour you want to avoid.
- Move towards the outcome you want, acting effectively and behaving like the person you want to be.
- Break down your goals into small steps, so you know you can take your first steps and not fail. Being able to take one small step is critical to breaking the procrastination cycle.
- Understand that action leads to motivation which leads to more action.
- Practice self-observation. Watch yourself as if you were watching another person.
- Notice when you are procrastinating and the negative thoughts that are present.
- Let the thoughts pass and don’t fuse or attach to them. Defuse and detach using self-observation.
- Remember that your thoughts are just that. They are not reality. They only have the meaning you give to them.
- You are not your thoughts.
- Self-Observation is the key to awareness.
- Rewrite or revisit your Values.
- Recite them so you know them.
- Observe them in practice daily.
- When you notice yourself procrastinating, ask yourself am I acting in alignment with my Purpose and Values?
- How important are your values to you … really?
- Can you continue life and business meaningfully when violating your values?
End in Mind
- Focus on your End Game.
- Draw or find inspiring graphics that represent your Vision (both for yourself and your business)
- Be able to visually see your Vision Board daily.
- Talk about your Vision to key stakeholders.
- Revisit it (together with your Values) at every team or management meeting
- Celebrate your ‘wins’ and milestones daily and at team meetings that are moving you towards your Vision.
Finally, even with just four strategies to help you overcome procrastination, there is a lot to think about and implement.
It’s tough trying to get “unstuck” on your own and remember to exercise some self-compassion along the way.
While you need to MOVE, you will also need to ACT (Accountability, Commitment, Target).
I strongly recommend that you have an accountability partner to whom you can make your commitments and who can powerfully assist you achieve your targets.
Bessel van der Kolk, a leading (trauma) psychiatrist supports the need to MOVE and ACT. He says: “Taking action is the core issue … it’s in action that people take back their power and words cannot substitute for action.”
If you have resonated strongly with anything in this article, or if you would like assistance in overcoming procrastination, please give me a call.