I procrastinate. I procrastinate a lot. Sometimes if an important task has no due date, I’ll put it off indefinitely until something forces me to consider that it cannot wait any longer. I think that’s the “thing” with procrastination in general – our brains didn’t evolve for things like deadlines or bureaucracy. Generally, needs were met when we had them, because why would pre civilization humans need to plan more than a day or so ahead? We were made to panic at the moment a dangerous animal was looking at us and seeing dinner – and not a moment sooner.
But now most of us have refrigerators and grocery stores and housing that is generally sparse in scary man-eating animals. And with the changing modes of production have come changes in civilization that are far, far too new for our brains to adequately adapt to. It’s really not surprising that most people procrastinate sometimes.
Am I saying that you should give into yourself and let procrastination take over? Heck no! But I think that we have a tendency to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of procrastination. Think back to a time when you procrastinated on something you knew was absolutely crucial. How did you feel in the time leading up to the last minute? Were you anxious or stressed about it? Were you thinking about it to an absurd degree? Or did you simply not care about it at all until the last minute hit, and then the panic set in?
See, most people regard procrastination as a form of laziness, but I would disagree with that. Laziness is a reaction to feeling relaxed, and usually does not result in stress. For instance, you might dawdle on cleaning up your meal in order to finish a conversation or TV show, or some other insignificant task that isn’t time-sensitive. You do this because there’s no real consequence for your lollygagging; you just don’t feel like doing it yet.
Instead, I think most procrastination is a form of anxious avoidance. Even when you don’t consciously feel that anxiety until the last minute, it’s simmering inside of your subconscious, which is why it boils over at the last second. This leads to a psychological phenomenon known as executive dysfunction – to put it as simply as possible, you’re putting the keys in your brain’s ignition, but the engine won’t start. If you’ve ever been “just about to” do homework for hours at a time, you’ve experienced executive dysfunction.
If you experience executive dysfunction a lot, you’re not alone. Most people experience it from time to time, and for some it can be a disabling feature of day to day life. It’s somewhat more common in people with mood disorders, anxiety, and autism, and is the primary feature of ADD and ADHD. Executive dysfunction can even happen with relatively simple tasks, such as showering or eating. It’s not a sign of weakness or stupidity to experience executive dysfunction, no matter what for – our brains evolved to handle certain conditions, and modern life contains almost none of them.
A lot of tips about procrastination acknowledge that the problem is not laziness, but most overlook or ignore the realities of executive dysfunction. It’s not that you’re too lazy to do what you need to do, you’re just so overwhelmed that your brain has a hard time figuring out where to start. That anxiety becomes avoidance of the task. When the last minute hits, your “holy crap there’s a bear about to eat me” instinct kicks in. The situation is rarely life or death, but those instincts still save you.
Afterwards, you might find yourself hating yourself, because if you could do it at the last minute, why oh why couldn’t you do it sooner? As a society we tend to overemphasize our conscious decisions and don’t give a lot of stock to how much our instincts and feelings influence us (and how important it can be to let them). Instead, our instincts are regarded as primitive and insignificant, if they’re regarded at all. Because of this social convention, we try to make ourselves believe that all human behavior is always a conscious decision. Instincts are for the beasts. And if behavior is a decision, then by golly, you must just be uniquely bad at living since you keep making the wrong ones! Except, as we have established, no.
That was a lot of psychobabble, so let’s dissect this a little:
- Modern world gives you a task of some sort
- Ancient monkey mind (your unconscious mind) tries to immediately sort through it but can’t. Ancient monkey mind doesn’t like things it can’t sort through very much
- You-mind (your conscious mind) tries to make yourself do the task, but ancient monkey mind has already decided it can’t be done.
- Since both of these minds are more or less equals in your brain, this conflict makes you unable to do the thing. The conflict manifests as either anxiety or apathy until the conflict is sorted out, usually by the task becoming unavoidable
- You-mind tries to pretend it’s the only part of your brain and punishes itself. This is because society has for some reason decided that ancient monkey mind’s influence can be stomped out if you try hard and believe in yourself, and you’ve probably internalized this as a truth without really thinking about it.
Procrastination is a personal problem, not a moral problem. Your conscious mind and unconscious mind made different decisions about the task, and this caused friction. It’s a very natural response to the unnatural pressures of the modern world.
The way out? Finding a way to sort through this conflict deliberately. Most procrastination advice out there boils down to that concept, even if the person giving it doesn’t realize that. The best way to sort the conflict out will vary from person to person. Now that you understand the conflict, you may be in a better position to brainstorm some ideas that will work for you.
Most of the following tips are run-of-the-mill procrastination advice, but reframed in terms of solving this conflict.
- Write to-do lists. Really detailed ones. Go as deep as you want. If one of your steps is to pick up a pencil and the next step is to write a single sentence, do that. This forces you-mind to sort through the task, eventually satisfying ancient monkey mind and giving you peace.
- Make a schedule. After making a to-do list like the one above, schedule different chunks of it. Be as precise as you need. Do your best to actually follow through. Bear in mind, you may not follow through completely on the schedule, but that’s actually fine. If the schedule makes you spend even one minute working on the thing that you wouldn’t have spent otherwise, that’s one last minute you’ll have to spend as the deadline is breathing down your neck.
- Do one very small part of the task and then put it down for a bit. Essentially, grab your ancient monkey mind, sit it down in a comfy chair, and make it watch as your conscious mind proves that you actually are capable of this. Your ancient monkey mind is just trying to do its job; you need to convince it that you-mind is more than sufficient for the task.
- Don’t actually not procrastinate. If all else fails and you’re just accepting procrastination as an inevitability in your life, don’t take that lying down. Take it in with open arms and open-minded self acceptance. Make sure you’re as prepared as possible for that last minute. Clear your schedule of everything else. Make sure you have food and water in arm’s reach of your workspace. If you know you’re going to pull an all-nighter, sleep during the day.
Deliberately planning to procrastinate might seem like defeat, but think of it this way – half of the problem with procrastination is that the last minute is stressful, and that you wind up feeling awful that you did it. But by making the deliberate decision to accept your procrastination and prepare for it instead, you’re undoing the majority of that stress.
I’ve used this strategy myself for years, and you know something? It’s helped me procrastinate a lot less in the long run, because even when I do end up procrastinating, I’m nowhere near as panicked and self-hating about it.