My name is Samantha, and I am an addict.
No, I don’t drink to excess, smoke or do drugs – all the traditional behaviors we associate with addiction. Instead, I am addicted to procrastination. Those who don’t know me might call it laziness or lack of motivation, but the labels simply don’t fit. Only recently was the idea of addiction presented to me as an answer to my chronic bad habit – and the brain science finally explained why I procrastinate.
The section of our brains responsible for instant emotional reactions – the amygdala – provides a fight or flight reaction to overwhelming situations. Both responses are forms of procrastination as we avoid uncomfortable tasks. And our brains reward us with eased anxiety when we respond. Those temporary feelings of comfort are preferable to anxiety, which causes us to repeat the procrastination over and again – even if the long-term results are harmful. Shouldn’t there be support groups for this condition?
Despite how evolved we might consider ourselves, our brains aren’t very far removed from our primitive ancestors – and that doesn’t mesh well with our modern hectic lives.
“We really weren’t designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now,” UCLA professor and psychologist Hal Hershfield told the New York Times.
And so we avoid and delay. I am one of those people who has left out my Christmas tree until July – not exactly a beneficial quality for someone who is self employed. After all, there is no boss breathing down my neck making sure I finish a task – only my empty bank account.
Still, I’ve convinced myself over the years that procrastination helps me achieve. After all, if I work best under pressure, then isn’t waiting until the last minute going to add that extra pressure I need to complete my best work? Looking back, I realize how closely that concept resembles excuses offered by other types of addicts.
Therefore, like other types of addictions, I’ve realized overcoming procrastination must require a multi-faceted approach. It’s not enough to simply learn better time-management techniques, nor is it sufficient to reduce distractions and nothing else. Instead, my recovery plan includes the following five techniques:
Ah, the Internet. We love it, it’s a blessing to the modern world. What could be bad about having a world’s worth of information at your fingertips? True, but like much in life, you can have too much of a good thing.
For procrastinators, the Web also provides a world’s worth of distractions. Feeling discouraged? Check Facebook. Aggravated? Send a tweet. Hopeless? Take another look at opportunities on LinkedIn. Just desperate for anything to take your mind off the task at hand? Google provides some relief.
Fortunately, technology is now offering distraction antidotes. Tools like Zero Willpower offer website blockers that can block mobile users from their greatest distractions, including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and many more. Likewise, Stay Focusd helps Chrome users to avoid distractions by locking them out of their favorite online distractions for set amounts of time – and it even offers a Nuclear Option that can’t be undone by temptation.
The first and most important step to stop procrastination is to simply get started. But with a laundry list of tasks to complete on any given day, knowing where to begin is easier said than done. Do you tackle the 200 unread emails, do you create a budget, do you write an article or do you return phone calls? Sometimes the number of tasks you face is enough to make you pull your hair out. It’s so much easier to just put them off until later.
Creating a to-do list is a great way to organize your tasks, but 1-3-5 List goes a step beyond and helps you prioritize them. Just choose one big project, three medium tasks and five smaller ones to complete each day, then check them off as you go.
Not only does the app hold you accountable, but it also emphasizes prioritization. By breaking your to-do list down into tasks based on priority, the app helps you avoid feeling overwhelmed and getting nothing done because you can’t get everything done. Plus, the satisfaction of visually seeing your tasks accomplished help break the cycle of mentally rewarding bad behavior.
Understanding a bad habit is essential to breaking it, and procrastination is no exception. We might know we waste a lot of time on social media, but if we really knew exactly how much time is nonproductive, it might incent us to change our habits. A variety of tools are available for this purpose.
Time Doctor provides a full account of time spent on various activities in an easy-to-read report. Automated screenshots help ensure you don’t cheat, plus it helps nudge you toward production by reminding you when you visit social media sites that you are not working.
Stop trying to keep track of all appointments and tasks in your head. It’s inefficient, and you’re bound to miss an important deadline. Plus, the mental chaos created by relying on your brain as your calendar will only lead to overwhelmed feelings and more procrastination.
Fortunately, plenty of calendar tools can help you to become more productive and organized. Google even offers a free calendar that can help you plan your days wisely, and pretty much any smartphone features a calendar app, as well.
Some of us, however, have too much going on for a basic calendar. Multi-faceted projects, in particular, can be difficult to track using a standard calendar. Gantt charts, special types of bar graphs used to diagram projects and schedules, offer an ideal solution.
The use of colored bars of varying lengths reflects not only a project’s start and end dates, but also important events, tasks, milestones and their timeframes. Time-management tools like Teamweek help procrastinators take control of their schedules. The free software lets users define activities and visualize them on shared calendars. Instead of a list of daily entries, the calendar tools feature vividly colored bars to mark timelines and deadlines, as well as designate what team members are responsible for which assignments. Users can quickly understand their progress with time estimates, project views and task checklists.
If procrastination results from my brain rewarding itself for a negative habit, then the best way to overcome that is by offering it a different reward, right? Scientists tend to agree.
“Our brains are always looking for relative rewards. If we have a habit loop around procrastination but we haven’t found a better reward, our brain is just going to keep doing it over and over until we give it something better to do,” Brown University neuroscientist Judson Brewer told the Times.
How can I achieve self-compassion? That’s something I’ll have to save for another day – but I’ll forgive myself for it!