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How to Overcome Procrastination in 4 Steps

Strategies for mobilizing and getting unstuck.

Key points

  • The nervous system can respond to the perception of something being overwhelming or difficult as "threatening" and shut down or be avoidant.
  • The nervous system can also respond to self-criticism as a kind of inner threat that shuts people down from moving toward their goals.
  • Strategies that help the nervous system feel "safer" in the face of perceived "threats" can help people move toward their goals.
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

The other day at a friend’s house I watched a squirrel as she tried for an hour or so to get at the seeds in the hanging bird feeder, where an array of stunning birds were enjoying their dinner. She was persistent, determined, persevering and purposeful, even though she never succeeded at getting an ongoing mouthful of tasty seeds that she clearly wanted. I marveled at her determination in the face of a situation in which most humans would surely have given up long ago or maybe wouldn’t have tried in the first place. What made her pursue her goal with such passion and commitment?

I imagine she may have had two things going for her:

First, she likely didn’t have an inner dialogue in her head about the whole event (e.g, “Oh boy, this is going to be a lot of work, this isn’t going to be fun and what if I don’t succeed? Eh forget it, I’d rather sit in the sun and watch the grass so I can avoid the effort of the whole thing.”) And she likely didn’t have a self-critical narrative (e.g., “What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this? Some of the other squirrels have figured out how to hack into bird feeders so why can’t I? What will the other squirrels think of me? This is too difficult so I’m just going to give up. What’s wrong with me anyway?”)

Second, because of her persistence, she occasionally knocked a seed or two out of the bird feeder and onto the ground. This intermittent reinforcement (once in a while getting a “win” — even if a partial one, in the face of many unsuccessful tries) is one of the most powerful motivators of behavior (think no further than a casino to grasp this concept).

Where do humans differ when it comes to going after things we want to do? What keeps us stuck in procrastination or giving up easily?

1. We humans DO have an inner dialogue, and it is often negative, fearful, and self-critical. These mental narratives can activate our threat response and change the way our nervous system reacts. The narratives we say to ourselves (“This is too daunting. This will be too uncomfortable. I’ll never be good enough.”) can be experienced as “perceived threats” that throw our nervous system into a protective mode of either “fight,” (such as experiencing anxiety) “flight” (avoidance of what is uncomfortable) or shut down mode (feeling stuck and unable to mobilize).

My pile of bills waiting to be paid, or my paperwork that needs to be done is not inherently dangerous. But it can feel that way to my nervous system depending how I am perceiving it. Deciding to start exercising or to write that book I always wanted to is not inherently threatening, but it might feel that way to my nervous system by the things I say to myself. Interestingly, self-criticism can throw our nervous system into a defensive threat reaction, and even a single negative word can influence the expression of genes and activate our amygdala (fear center) to produce stress hormones.

2. Because of our brain’s negativity bias, we tend to see our “failures” much more easily than our successes. It is easy to fall into an all-or-nothing mindset where if we are not able to do it all right away, we feel that we have failed in some way. We tend to discount the little positive successes along the way or miss seeing them all together.

How to work with the nervous system to move through procrastination

When we understand our brain and nervous system are operating on some old survival programs that may no longer serve us (fighting, fleeing and shutting down or freezing helped our ancestors survive external, physical threats such as saber-tooth tigers), we can use strategies to help our nervous system feel safer. From this more regulated nervous system, it is much easier to move through procrastination and toward our goals.

Try this:

1. Close your eyes and imagine that thing you want to do but have been putting off. As you think about this, notice what happens in your body. Do you feel tension, contraction, tightness? Openness, energy, excitement? Increased heart rate, anxiety, or a sense of shutting down? Locate where your nervous system is along the continuum of safe and relaxed, fight mode (anxiety, resistance), flight mode (avoidance, procrastination) or shut down (feeling frozen or stuck).

Ask: What is the perceived threat? Name it. What is your survival brain trying to protect you from? (e.g., from feeling bored or anxious having to do paperwork or bills; from fear of others judging you if you put something creative out into the world; from discomfort if you try something new).

2. Write out coping thoughts that move your nervous system toward feelings of safety. In the face of that “feared” event, what can you say to yourself that will be encouraging, accurate and authentic. What words will activate cues of safety for you? (e.g., “Completing this task will actually help me feel more empowered; I’m willing to experience a little discomfort for my long-term well-being; I’ve done difficult things before and it has opened up new opportunities for me; I am capable and competent.”)

3. Choose actions that help your nervous system feel safe, and that bring you into mobilization (but not hyperarousal or overwhelm). One way of doing this is to break things down into more manageable parts. If you are starting an exercise routine, maybe commit to just 10 minutes of walking. Then give yourself the opportunity to decide if you want to go further or not. If you are tackling your bills, pick two bills that are the biggest priority and commit to doing only those. (You can always do more, and likely will build momentum once you get started).

Another helpful strategy is to focus on the reward you will experience when you take that action. Think about how good it will feel to get those two bills out of the way. Picture them done and dial up a strong feeling of satisfaction in your body and mind.

Also, connection is a great cue of safety. Maybe go for that walk with a friend. Maybe ask a trusted friend or partner to provide positive reinforcement after you complete a small step. Do bills with your pet on your lap. Join a group that offers you support in starting a new endeavor.

4. Celebrate small successes! In this way, you can use intermittent reinforcement to your advantage in the face of any setback. Every time you take a step forward, acknowledge and appreciate this. It’s easy to miss these moments, to overlook them in the face of an all-or-nothing mindset. If you are focused on doing all or nothing, you are more likely to give up and miss the opportunities to acknowledge your progress along the way. Recognize that it doesn’t have to be perfect. A few seeds can be nourishing and help build the momentum you need to keep going. Life is often not linear. But remember “drop by drop is the water pot filled.”

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