Think about all the stuff you've been putting off—really, go ahead. Chances are you've been putting off thinking about the stuff you've been putting off, right? It's not that you don't think those things are important, or even that you believe they’ll go away if you ignore them. So why are you procrastinating, and how can you stop that?
For starters, you probably procrastinate far less than you think. If we stop to think about it, there are lots of things that need to get done that almost always do get done, some way or another: eating when we’re hungry, drinking when we’re thirsty, going to sleep when we’re tired—you get the idea.
No one has to nag us to eat, drink, or nap. These are all things that are good for us in the long run. But so are turning that report in on time and changing the oil in the car. In other words, not every beneficial behavior causes us to procrastinate.
There’s only one factor that seems to separate the good behaviors that we do easily from those we routinely put off doing: how good they feel. In other words, we seem to have no problem doing things that are in our our long-term interest as long as they feel good in the here and now. It's only once those behaviors impose upfront effort or unpleasantness that the jig is up. It’s as if all our brains care about is whether something feels good right this moment than whether it will turn out to be good for us later.
And indeed, that's pretty close to the truth, cognitively speaking, and it matters when we get down to figuring out a lasting solution to procrastination. To simplify things slightly (but only slightly), there’s a part of the brain that accurately weighs the benefits of a behavior against its costs. This is your neocortex, and it’s one of the newest and shiniest parts of our brains. Very often, the neocortex comes to quite reasonable conclusions—that, for instance, the benefits of exercising outweigh the costs.
But there’s another part of your brain that’s been around for millions of years—the limbic system—and it only seems to care about what’s happening right now. So if a behavior incurs more upfront hassles than upfront benefits, the limbic system isn’t interested in participating.
It's usually only when something that’s good in the long run is also good in the present that these two systems agree with each other. Hungry? Eating seems right to both systems—no problem. When they disagree, the neocortex plays the role of the angel on one shoulder ("Exercise, it’s good for you!") while the limbic system plays the tempting devil ("Relax pal, that exercise sounds like a lot of work").
Things get even more interesting when you look into how the brain works when it's planning on good behavior later. For example, when you’re making a decision about whether to exercise in the future, the limbic system couldn’t care less, and leaves that issue up to the neocortex. But when it actually comes time to make good on that choice, the limbic system is suddenly very interested—and usually not too happy.
The interplay and occasional competition between these two systems explains why we earnestly plan to behave better and just as earnestly put off doing so when the time comes. When it comes to planning, the neocortex calmly notes that the benefits outweigh the costs, while the limbic system takes a nap. And when it comes to doing, the limbic system screams so loudly about the present costs that the neocortex has little chance of pulling through.
So how can you give your neocortex a leg up over a recalcitrant limbic system in order to break the cycle of procrastination? Try these three strategies.
1. Outsource the upfront hassles of a beneficial behavior. Sometimes it's easy: If you're always late paying your utility bill because it just never makes it to the top of your to-do list, sign up for automatic billing. Ditto when it comes to saving for retirement. The more routines and processes you don't look forward to that you can automate, do it.
2. Change the present-day stakes. Remember: As far as one really powerful part of your brain is concerned, it’s all about the present. Make the right behavior more attractive in the here and now, and the tempting but undesirable choice less so. For example, to boost your chances of exercising, listen to music while you work out, join a group that exercises together, or play a sport where your team relies on you. That way the beneficial behavior—exercise—becomes a side effect of something inherently fun. You can also try to make a contract with a friend that will force you to pay a penalty each time you fail to engage in the behavior you desire. Don't want to enlist a friend? Just download an app like stikK, Pact, or Beeminder.
3. Aim low, then ramp up. Reduce the upfront cost of doing the right thing by scaling back the immediate goal a little bit at first. For example, if your plan is to run four miles, and you’re having a tough time rolling out of bed and hitting the pavement, focus instead on running just two. That can increase the likelihood that you’ll get started and decrease the amount of pain you'll experience that might make you fall short. You’ll also find that once you’ve started down the path, re-upping the goal (a couple extra miles after the two you committed to) will be a lot easier.
Bob Nease, PhD, is the former chief scientist of Express Scripts, and the author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results (HarperCollins) as well as over 70 peer-reviewed papers.