I recently came across a study where researchers postured that the brains of procrastinators differed from those of “doers” and reasoned this was why procrastinators tended to put off things. MRI imaging pointed to procrastinators having a larger amygdala and weaker connections between it and part of the cortex that blocks emotions. They reasoned this combination might make procrastinators more anxious about the negative consequences of an action, and thus more likely to hesitate or put off things.
I disagree with this assertion. It infers that the brain is fixed, that a person with a larger amygdala is at the whim of their emotions when it comes to accomplishing their goals. Such a narrow view of the mind’s abilities plays into the stories we tell ourselves about how much we can achieve and reinforces beliefs that limit our experience.
A static mind, unable to grow or change could not be farther from the truth. On the contrary, forty-years of research has firmly established concept of the brain’s plasticity, including:
● Adult volunteers who learned to juggle showed structural change in brain areas that are associated with the processing and storage of complex visual motion.
● Twenty experimental studies published between 1986 and 2013, indicate video game training produces positive effects on several cognitive functions, including reaction time, attention, memory, and global cognition.
● Adults and adolescents with ADHD enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness training program that resulted in the majority of participants reporting improvements in self-reported ADHD symptoms and test performance on tasks measuring attention and cognitive inhibition, as well as improvements in anxiety and depressive symptoms.
These and other studies point to the brain’s ability to improve its structure and strengthen cognitive connections when we routinely engage in tasks. The more difficult the activity, the more we learn, and the more the brain adapts to allow us to perform activities better the next time.
In the case of procrastination, even if we have a proclivity towards an enlarged amygdala, it doesn’t have to prevent us from doing what we want. We have the power within us to address our behavior, calm our emotions, shift our habits, and change the structure of our brains, as long as we have the willingness to put in the effort. When we do this, we beat the amygdala at its own game.
It’s well understood that the primary purpose of our mind, especially the “critter brain,” is to survive. The amygdala plays a significant role here. If this primitive part of our brain senses a situation is threatening (either physically or mentally), the brain uses emotions to trigger us to act in a way that will protect us from harm. When it comes to achieving specific tasks that might be challenging to us, the brain’s subconscious reaction is to release feelings of anxiety, fear or other negative emotions to keep from doing the thing it thinks is unsafe. All of this is compounded if the brain doesn’t readily see a positive result of taking action immediately.
To overcome procrastination on projects big and small, try out this two-step process the next time you feel yourself putting things off.
Step One: Determine if You Really Want It
Maybe the reason you keep putting something off is that you don’t really want it. Take the time to sit down with yourself and write down all the reasons why you want to accomplish a particular goal or dream. You can also speak with a friend or family member about it, and attempt to convince them that you want what you say you want.
If through the course of this process, you recognize you feel like you “have” to do it, you may be coming from a victim mentality and not taking accountability for the action. You can shift this mindset by connecting what you feel like you “have to do” with a larger driving want, where you have already chosen to go in a specific direction. For example, if your job is requiring something of you that you are resisting, connect the accomplishment of that activity with the more considerable want you have to keep your position or gain that promotion.
Step Two: Establish Reasonable Milestones
Often we put off things because they feel too overwhelming. However, if we chunk down our goals into smaller, more reasonable milestones, our plans may feel more doable. In this step, detail out some initial benchmarks required to get to your goal. For example, playing guitar in a band may feel like too daunting a goal to provide real motivation for you to practice. Instead, identify a few songs that you would like to learn, and focus on one of those.
Step Three: Work the Plan
Take the first milestone and determine what steps are required to accomplish it. Then, detail each step. Next, take the first three steps of that milestone and focus on only achieving those. Don’t worry about anything else. Limiting your outlook in this way will help protect you from feeling overwhelmed. Once you’ve crossed those three off your list, focus on the next three.
It’s also important to make a firm and personal commitment to achieving the goal and the present milestone. Put a completion date on your calendar for both the overarching objective and the current milestone. Next, enroll others to help you track your tasks and progress; the pressure from your social circles will drive you towards completion. Celebrate each milestone once completed; this will provide positive reinforcement for your mind and make accomplishing the next one slightly easier.
When we exhibit habits like procrastination, quite often we are witnessing symptoms of a more systematic problem. Usually, it’s not that we genuinely want to put off that task or goal, it’s that we haven’t taken the time to understand what we can do to motivate ourselves, or we haven’t taken the time to establish the groundwork that sets ourselves up to win.
Procrastination is like being asleep at the wheel. We are letting the motivations of our subconscious mind drive our life, instead of directly taking charge, looking at the map, setting the destination on the navigation system and driving the car ourselves.
The people who are most successful in life are those who take full responsibility for their own experience, identify their desires, establish plans to reach them, and address their challenges head-on. When you do this, you’ll see that everything you do matters and every little task you’re engaged in is meaningful. Achieving your goals then becomes as straightforward as working your plan.
This week review all the items you are putting off, big and small. Pick the top three that you want to tackle right away. Take each through the steps above, identifying the negative and positive emotions associated with them. Then, organize a plan and system of social accountability to help you make it to the finish line.
“How much of human life is lost in waiting! Let him not make his fellow-creatures wait. How many words and promises are promises of conversation! Let his be words of fate.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet (1803-1882)