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How to train your brain not to give into procrastination

It will likely require this simple shift in mindset.

How to train your brain not to give into procrastination
[Photo: Huber & Starke/iStock]

I often teach a course on behavior change in the workplace, and when I do, I start by asking people what behavior they want to change. Often people tell me they want to stop procrastinating.

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While I appreciate the desire, this sort of negative framing often dooms people’s efforts from the start. There is hope, though. Here are three things you can do to coach your brain to minimize the influence of procrastination on your productivity.

Focus on action

The problem with saying that you want to stop procrastinating is that brains aren’t well suited to inaction. As I explore in my book Smart Change, the brain has an efficient “go system” that engages goals and drives behavior. When a goal is engaged, this “go system” leads people to pay attention to information related to that goal in the environment—and to act on it.

When someone engages a goal that they don’t actually want to achieve, they can prevent themselves from acting by engaging a second system that I call the “stop system.” This is a set of brain mechanisms that are much less efficient than the “go system” and that inhibit a behavior the “go system” is encouraging. Unfortunately, this braking system is fallible, and so it often fails.

That means that you should never frame an attempt to change behavior in terms of actions you don’t want to perform. Instead, you want to focus on the actions you want to perform in order to succeed. To get started on this, though, you need to understand a little more about the motivation behind procrastination.

Shift your motivation

Procrastination might seem like the exception to the rule that brains are designed to act. After all, procrastination seems to be about not doing something.

At one level, that is true. Procrastination is about not doing a particular thing, such as preparing a big presentation you need to give next week. But that doesn’t mean that your “go system” isn’t driving you to do anything. It just isn’t driving you to do the something that you know is really important.

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Often, you procrastinate about actions that have some negative outcome associated with them. You avoid calling a colleague you have to inform of bad news. You have a fear of public speaking, so you don’t want to think about that presentation. You aren’t sure how to write a key section of a report.

When there is some potential negative outcome in the environment, you engage avoidance motivation. The avoidance system is set up to help you deal with potential problems in the world.

One great strategy for avoiding a negative outcome is to flee it. With physical danger, for example, it is often safer to run away than to face it. Even when the threat is social or cognitive, a typical strategy when avoidance motivation is engaged is to, well, avoid. The way you avoid doing something you are supposed to do is by engaging your “go system” to do something else. So, you answer emails, set up meetings with colleagues, or take care of menial tasks rather than addressing the big thing that needs to be done.

An alternative is to look for something exciting in the task you’re avoiding. Most things aren’t all bad. Even calling a colleague to deliver bad news may give you the chance to move forward with a stalled project. Find those potential positive outcomes and focus on them. That helps you to engaged approach motivation rather than avoidance motivation. In an approach mode, the “go system” will help you seek out actions to fulfill the goal. And then you’ll start making progress.

Get in a “doing mindset”

One strategy many people use to procrastinate is to decide to think about something further. This strategy takes advantage of another aspect of human motivation. We have two distinct motivational modes—a thinking mode and a doing mode. We even have language for talking about these modes. We talk about moving forward with a project to refer to that doing mode, while we talk about stepping back when we want to think more.

Many sales tactics take advantage of these modes. Car dealers encourage you to test drive a car for many reasons. Chief among them, though, is that a test drive is an action. It puts you in a doing mode. Their hope is that you will stay in that doing mode until you perform that final action of signing a contract and driving off with your new car.

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If you find yourself hiding in a thinking mode, then you need to put yourself in a doing mode. Find a small action you can take to move the project forward. Reach out to your colleague and send an email to schedule a call. Open up a document for that report and start to outline the troublesome section. Practice your talk to the wall of an empty conference room.

By getting started with just one action, you shift your motivational system into a mode of doing, which makes it easier to do the next thing and then the next. Just as it takes a locomotive a long time to accelerate, it is okay if you ease your way into a troublesome project—as long as you keep doing the next right thing.

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