You do want to stop procrastinating, don’t you?

I’m dead good at procrastination. So I thought I’d learn a bit about what’s going on in the brain when I’m procrastinating to see if there was anything I could do about it.

What’s happening in your brain when you procrastinate?

We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable. The idea of doing something we don’t want to do triggers a response in a part of your brain called the Insular Cortex. This is the same part of the brain that reacts to the anticipation of real pain. Guess what? The Insular Cortex also fires off when you’re in socially uncomfortable situations.

This means procrastination is justifiable in a way. You’d hesitate before doing something that was potentially painful or embarrassing. Of course you would, that’s part of being human, part of your self-defence mechanism.

But unfortunately this self-defence mechanism can escalate into cognitive dissonance. We end up narrate stories to ourselves that the hesitation, the avoidance, the procrastination is the right thing to do.

Once we get into these kinds of narratives, procrastination can turn into a habit. A habit is basically a subroutine that’s embedded in your brain like a piece of chewing gum dried onto a woolen blanket. Once it’s there, it’s very hard to get rid of.

Oh no! Procrastination is actually a habit? That’s bad.

Actually, habits aren’t terrible. They’re very energy-efficient ways of getting stuff done.

Look, if we didn’t have habits then doing everyday stuff like making a cup of tea or driving the car or crossing the road would feel like massively complex problems that would take inordinate amounts of time and energy to solve. Every time.

Fortunately when we think the same thinks time and time again (boil kettle, get cup, grab a tea bag, add milk etc) our brains turn these sequences of thoughts into easily-retrievable, easily-usable chunks. Whenever we need to use one of these chunks, they can be fetched and run with minimal brain effort.

This is why you can watch the telly and make toast while you’re making a cup of tea.

But, yes, unfortunately procrastination is also a habit. A habit we don’t want.

Wait. How does procrastination actually become a habit?

Good question. Let’s break it down a bit to understand the process.

  1. Cue
    This is the time, the situation, the place, the emotion or the circumstance that triggers the Insular Cortex. This cue is the Insular Cortex’s response to seeing or thinking about something we want to avoid – the homework, the pile of washing up, the first item in the to do list, the unopened email in your inbox.
    The cue can also be something positive – a friend messages you, so you want to reply. Someone brings cakes into the office, so you stop what you’re doing to go and get one.
  2. Routine
    By reacting to the cue, the brain flips into a kind of zombie mode where we’re following the normal pattern of behaviour that’s been established over time from being repeated over and over. Bear in mind that it only take a few cycles of repetition to burn the habit into the brain.
  3. Reward
    Habits persist because allowing yourself to submit to them actually confers an emotional reward. Avoid the unpleasant task, do the nice thing instead, feels good. This is a genuine sense of pleasure that our brains are sending out, and the Insular Cortex ensures that this mental reward is delivered quickly. Both of these factors, the reward and how quickly it arrives, serve to further embed the habit.
  4. Belief
    This is a kind of meta-process that goes out outside the main habit-reinforcing loop. Habits persist because we believe that they can’t be changed or that it’s too much effort to change them. As with the reward cycle, every time we revisit the idea of breaking a habit and then deciding that it can’t be done, we are actually reinforcing the habit.

The brain is pretty good at laying down habits. It’s how we learn stuff.

Yeah, fine, but what if I don’t want this habit any more?

Let’s imagine that you’re in a cue situation, about to drop into habit mode.

First, accept that it’s normal to feel negative about something you don’t want to do. Don’t want to do the ironing? Normal. Don’t want to not eat that doughnut? Normal.

Put your negative feelings about the situation aside and give yourself time to feel better. Literally, you need a few minutes for your brain chemistry to re-balance. This gives you a chance to avoid lapsing automatically into routine.

If it’s a task that you’re procrastinating about, you need to reframe. Rather than thinking about the end state of the task (all the washing up done, all the ironing folded, the email all dealt with), focus instead on process. What is the single next thing that you can accomplish that takes you one step closer to done?

Now, without thinking about end state and only focusing on the current flow of work, staying in the here-and-now, do that thing. Do the one step. Wash the one plate. Iron the one shirt. Open the email and read the first paragraph. That’s all.

What you’re doing here is disrupting the routine and preventing your brain from delivering a nice emotional reward for submitting to the habit.

Now proceed through the task step by step, small task by small task, until complete.

You can make this journey easier by making a deal with yourself: you’ll work on the task without distraction for a certain period of time, say 25 minutes. Then you’ll reward yourself with a 5 minute break. Maybe make that break even more rewarding by, I don’t know, a snack or a drink. Treat yourself in a small way.

This time-boxing of tasks with rewards at the end helps to establish a new habit to replace the unwanted one. The habit where the works gets done and you feel good about it.

(The time-boxing approach is known as Pomodoro; google it. There are apps that can help if you’re into that kind of thing)

I’ve got lots of habits. Should I change them all at once?

That’s a leading question isn’t it? I’m sure you know the answer. No. Don’t try to change lots of habits at once.

In fact, don’t even try to change everything about a single habit all at once. They’re too big and strong. Chip away at them bit by bit, one at a time, starting with dealing with your reaction to the cue.

This approach means that you only need to exercise a small amount of your valuable and limited willpower.

Please give me more tips! I need them!

Sure. Listen up.

Forget about trying to use pure willpower to fend off procrastination. Willpower is precious and in short supply, and you already know that procrastination and all the other habits are rooted in deep in your brain. Habit beats willpower every time when it’s a face-to-face match. You need to change the rules.

Plan ahead. If you know that a cue is lying in wait for you, make a plan ahead of time to avoid it. For example, if seeing all the ironing waiting in the basket triggers your cue, just bring one single piece of ironing into the room. Leave the rest out of sight. If you’re always snapchatting when you should be working, go and lock your phone in the car.

Beat habit rewards by finding stronger, better rewards for breaking the habit. You can even save up ‘credit’ towards something bigger. For example, every piece of finished homework equals ten credits. When you’ve accumulated 100 credits, buy yourself a quality burger. Or whatever rings your bell.

Rewards can also be beaten by turning the process into a competition. A lot of people get really emotionally switched on by the idea of winning something, so make a game of it. Beat habits for the win.

Belief that a habit cannot be broken can be hard to overcome, but it’s not impossible. These beliefs can be reinforced by lack of self-confidence, or having tried and failed to overcome the habit before. It can be beneficial to develop a community on or offline with similarly minded friends to support one another.

Improve your confidence by defeating a smaller, weaker habit first. Don’t go for the big ones when you’re just starting out on your habit-breaking journey. Choose a tiny habit and grind it under your heel. There, you’re already on the road to freedom.

(Refs: MIT, Prof. Ann Graybiel, McGovern Institute for Brain Research – 2010 and 2012)