How To Stop Procrastinating, According to Science.

startstarting

This week, on #HowToLikeBeingAlive…

Start Starting.

Take a second and think of something you’ve been meaning to do, but haven’t gotten around to yet. Something you want to try; something important to you. I don’t mean something boring on your To-Do list—I mean something you honestly want to do and just can’t seem to start, chip away at, or finish. Got that thing in your mind?

Yeah, I’m right there with you.

We all drag our feet. Avoid the important stuff. Hesitate. Make excuses. Procrastinate. And not just the boring, everyday “adulting” stuff—for some insane reason, we often avoid the things we actually want to attempt or accomplish.  

And we’ve all heard the same, well-meaning-but-generic advice: “Just go for it!” “Take the risk!” “It’s easy, just start with baby steps.” “Just DO IT already.”

It’s good advice—and we’ve taken it before. And we get plenty of stuff done on a regular basis. We’re accomplished, successful human beings. We don’t always procrastinate.

So what the hell is so different about this one particular thing that we’re avoiding, this thing we can’t seem to start (or finish)?

The Problem

Your Brain thinks this thing (whatever you’re avoiding) will create change in your life, and it thinks change = danger. So, it’s sabotaging you, via procrastination, in order to “protect” you.

Yep. (*eye roll*)

here’s why…

Human beings can do this thing called “mental time travel,” which simply means that our brains evolved to be able to 1) remember the past and 2) imagine the future.

When you have a goal in mind, that goal is conscious. But before you can make any progress towards it, your subconscious brain does some quick “mental time travel” into the past, checking to see if you’ve done this thing before. If you have, it tries to recall how it went. (Did it work out? Did it suck? Did we like it, did we hate it? ) That memory will affect whether you move forward with your current goal or not.

For example: Let’s say your goal is to prepare for a presentation at work. Your subconscious is like:

“Have we ever spoken in public in front of an audience before? Yep. Now let’s see, how did it go? Ah, yes: Terrible. Okay, nope, let’s NEVER do that again.”

—And this is why you procrastinated until the day of the presentation to prepare, and why you can’t seem to focus when you’re finally trying to prep your notes.

Even though you consciously want to prepare for this presentation, your subconscious refuses (because it thinks it is protecting you). Your two brains are fighting—leaving you with no progress or accomplishment to show for it the damn fight.

And your brain uses “mental time travel” for things you’ve never attempted, too.

Let’s say, for example, that your goal is to start your own podcast (something you’ve never done before). Before you can make any progress, your subconscious brain “time-travels” into the future, trying to predict how this new thing (podcasting) will turn out:

“Hmm. We’ve never done this before. Let’s imagine how this thing is going to work out…Hmmm...well, we have no idea how it’s going to go, which is very scary. Obviously a very bad sign. This podcasting thing is clearly a terrible idea. Let’s not risk it. Too dangerous. WE’RE VETO-ING THE PODCAST, KAY?”

—And then you wait more than a year to even attempt recording your first episode. (Which is what I did, by the way. You can [finally!] listen to Call Me When You Get This on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, among other places.)

Procrastination happens when your conscious mind wants to work towards a goal, but your subconscious mind is afraid of the change involved—leaving your two brains fighting, throwing your motivation and focus out the window and screeching any progress to a halt.


Procrastination happens when your conscious mind wants to work towards a goal, but your subconscious mind is afraid of the change involved—leaving your two brains fighting, throwing your motivation and focus out the window and screeching any progress to a halt.


Plot Twist…

So, our brains make us procrastinate whenever it thinks our goal will create change, because change is hard to predict.  If we try something new and it doesn’t go well, we could get hurt. Our subconscious mind is a jumpy little lizard, and it wants to protect us from failing.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just trying to protect us from failure—it’s also trying to protect us from success. (?!?!)

Success is just as scary as failure because it guarantees your life will change.


Success is just as scary as failure, because it guarantees your life will change.


Your subconscious mind thinks that change = danger, even though that’s usually not true.  So, wondering what the hell you can do?

TRY THIS

Start starting. The thing you’re procrastinating over—whatever it is—it’s worth doing, right now.

WHY, ACCORDING TO SCIENCE

Pursuing our intrinsic goals fulfills our three psychological needs (competence, connection, and autonomy), whether the goals are accomplished or not. Increases in confidence and autonomy also increase our happiness via boosts of dopamine and serotonin balance in our brains. This builds our inner resources and makes us more courageous in the long term, regardless of the outcome of the whatever we decided to try.

SCIENCE, TRANSLATED FOR HUMANS:

Doing the thing you think you want to do but are currently avoiding will make you happier, EVEN IF IT TURNS OUT YOU DON’T LIKE THE THING YOU TRIED, and EVEN IF YOU FAIL at the thing you’re procrastinating over. You will get happier either way.  

Allow me to explain…

Most of our goals are “intrinsic,” meaning we want to accomplish that goal just because we like it, or because we want to find out if we like it. That’s internal motivation.

This is the opposite of extrinsic motivation, which is the pressure we feel to do stuff for an external reward (like money or social status) or to avoid a punishment (like paying rent so we can avoid a “punishment” like get evicted).

And whenever we follow through on something we’re intrinsically motivated to do, it builds our confidence, connects us with other people, and gives us a feeling of control (these are our three psychological needs). When these needs are met, the “happy” chemicals in your brain (including serotonin and dopamine) get a boost.

And sure, it’s kind of obvious that accomplishing anything would make us happier. But here’s the crazy part: It’s not just the accomplishing that does the trick—it’s the trying.

Trying something is what makes you happier.

See, even if you try something and it turns out you hate it, or it disappoints you, or you fail at it, you still get the benefit of the “happy chemicals” boost. This is because taking a risk, even if the outcome isn’t what you expected, tells your conscious brain:

“Hey, We’re a little bit in control of our lives! We learned something about what we like and don’t like! We tried something! We did a thing!”

And it stores that confidence and autonomy for later, as an inner resource, making it easier to take a risk next time.

That mini-store of confidence is why today’s “ceiling” is tomorrow’s “floor.”


Today’s ceiling is tomorrow’s floor.


What you learn today is a resource for tomorrow. If you succeed today, you boost your confidence (one of your psychological needs). And if you fail today, you boost your autonomy (ALSO one of your psychological needs), because YOU took a risk and you survived.

Confidence doesn’t come from succeeding over and over, it comes from TRYING over and over, because confidence is just your brain’s archive of all the times you took a risk and survived.


Confidence doesn’t come from succeeding over and over, it comes from TRYING over and over, because confidence is just your brain’s archive of all the times you took a risk and survived.


So take the risk; just go for it, take the baby steps—stop procrastinating and start starting. Not only will you survive, you’ll be happier for it.

Need some help to start starting?

Read // The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.* If you need a quick, stern, get-your-shit-together kind of pep talk, this little book is for you. He nicknames the concrete wall of procrastination you just slammed into, headfirst “The Resistance,” and talks about he works through it.

Watch // My “How to Conquer Procrastination” video on Portal.xyz, the only ad-free peer-to-peer platform for creators. [I love Portal, because rather than measuring influence through ad revenue,“likes,” or follower count, audience members can let creators know they appreciated their videos through “tipping,” anywhere from .10 cents to $100 bucks!] My videos are free, but feel free to put some cash in the tip jar, plz + thank u.

Follow // @meeraleepatel. Meera Lee Patel is an artist, the author of My Friend Fear, and the Start Where You Are and Made Out of Stars journals. Her Instagram feed is sunny, full of colorful illustrations and inspiring quotes—but before you assume that kind of cheerfulness is nauseating, pump the brakes—Meera’s vibe never comes across as fake. She's the real deal.

Read // The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes.* Tired of successful celebrities acting like they’ve never struggled with self-sabotage or hesitation? This is the book for you. Even though this woman is a g.d. powerhouse, having already transformed television forever, making room for actual diversity in casting and well-written, flawed characters, winning multiple awards in the process—she still manages to write like an actual human being: vulnerable, funny, and down to earth.

Use // The Passion Planner. Looking for more than motivation or inspiration? Need a tool you can use everyday to keep you focused + accountable? Enter the Passion Planner. I’ve been using this baby for nearly 4 years, and let me tell you—it works wonders. It’s different than other day planners because starts off with “The Passion Roadmap,” an exercise designed to help you figure out what your highest goals are—and then it shows you how to break those goals down into achievable parts, built into to each week. It’s a procrastination-buster, for sure. Plus, to promote inclusivity, the company gives free(!) downloads of the planner for those who can't afford it, and offers a "give one, get one" program, donating thousands of planners to people all over the world.

P.S. They're available in dated, academic dated, and undated styles (my favorite, because you can start any time! Get it?! Start starting?! START STARTING SEE GUYS SEEKJOKOKAd’lfkj’oijaokf klfjokayokay I’ll chill, I’ll stop).

Follow // @alexisrockley. (a.k.a. Yours truly) for Instagram-only giveaways (!!!), IGTV episodes, IG stories about my your happiness, my house plants, etc etc and all kinds of other excellent, relatable content (i.e. memes). Let’s be friends.

Sign Up For // The #HowToLikeBeingAlive Newsletter. Once a week, you’ll get (1) easy piece of advice, in your inbox—backed up by scientific research, of course. The best part? I do monthly email-list-only giveaways (yes, GIVEAWAYS, a.k.a. free goodies!)—like, you know, The Passion Planner and Start Where You Are by Meera Lee Patel, for example. So nbd, but hurry up and join the party!

Resources (aka the science)

Dysvik, A., Kuvaas, B., and Gagné, M. (2013 Apr 1). ”An investigation of the unique, synergistic and balanced relationships between basic psychological needs and intrinsic motivation.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology; Vol 43, Issue 5, pp 1050-1064. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12068.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That will Change Your Life. New York, NY: Crown Publishing.*

Levitin, D.J. (2014). The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. New York, NY: Plume/Penguin Random House.*

Moulton, S. T., & Kosslyn, S. M. (2009). Imagining predictions: mental imagery as mental emulation. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences364(1521), 1273-80. Retrieved from doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0314

Rawsthorne, L.J. and Elliot, A.J. (1999 Nov 1). “Achievement Goals and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Personality and Social Psychology Review; Vol 3, Issue 4, pp. 326-344. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0304_3

Suddendorf, T., Corballis, M. C. (2007 Jun). “The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans?” Behavioral Brain Science; 30(3):299-313; discussion 313-51. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X07001975


[*Something I like so much that I’ve affiliated myself with it; if you decide to buy this item through this link, I’ll get something tiny in return. To be clear, the items I affiliate myself with must meet strict criteria: 1) It changed my life, or 2) It has changed the lives of people I care about. In other words, this item (or the person who created it) has genuinely inspired me, improved my mental health, or my happiness—and I think it could do the same for you.]