Do you sometimes (or often) suffer guilt or frustration due to procrastination? If so, you are not alone. It’s a common perception that procrastination is an inherent personality flaw, the result of laziness or other slothfulness. People get frustrated by procrastinators and label them as lazy, untrustworthy, and unreliable.
However, in recent decades scientists have learned a lot about how our brains work that gives insight into procrastination and why it happens. It turns out that when your advanced human brain sets out to accomplish a task, but can’t see a clear path to completion, the doubting antiquated lizard brain takes over. Your lizard brain, a leftover instinct-driven antique from the days of the caveman, decides the apparently unsolvable is overwhelming, and creates a bad attitude toward the task. It’s fight or flight, and procrastination is the flight response to the stress created by the task.
Once the lizard brain has developed a negative hormonal response, even your human brain starts to come up with reasons why you shouldn’t even start on the task; fear of failure, fear of the unknown, and anxiety are all possible results. So naturally you turn to an easier task, any task, just to feel like you’re accomplishing something. Unfortunately, reviewing last week’s lube oil sample results does not always help you solve that decade old vibration problem that has got your brain stuck in a frenzy.
Procrastination is not caused by laziness, but it is exacerbated by the instant gratification culture encouraged by the internet. You can address your procrastinating lizard brain by fighting off the negative emotional response to create a positive hormone association for accomplishment. You can do this in a multitude of ways.
Clearly identify your problem or project goal
A good way to get started on a task is to talk to someone who motivates you. Enlist your co-workers to help you state your problem or project goal clearly. I often will look for someone who is positive and enthusiastic to ally myself with. Then, if I am feeling like I need some extra “umph” in my day to get started on a project or keep moving forward when I’m frustrated, I have someone I can talk to that shares my passion for the job. I also like to go and talk to the people affected by a particular problem so I can get a little extra motivation by feeling connected with the people I’m going to be helping. The control room in a plant environment is usually the perfect place for this.
Make a list
It’s easier to prioritize tasks and find the low-hanging fruit to build momentum when there is a solid, objective list to look at. I like to use OneNote to keep track of lists and projects. It has those nifty little check boxes, and I will admit I get a happy satisfaction whenever I check an item off my list.
Take a moment to step back and really analyze the task. Find the roadblocks you are encountering or expect to encounter. What aspects of it make you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or afraid of failure? Do you have a past association with making a bad call on a similar piece of equipment or process? Have you not gotten training in the technical area you need to be successful? Do you lack the management support, money, or resources to be successful? If you can identify the root cause of your stress causing you to avoid the task, then you can cast away the fear and find a solution that works.
Be a part of the solution, not the problem
Once you’ve identified your roadblocks, you can methodically address each one. Sometimes you will have already done this, for example if you don’t know what the problem is, but you talked to a coworker to clarify, then you’ve already tackled that task and are ready to move forward.
Other times, you might need to get creative. Don’t get bogged down in the politics, but have reasonable expectations for the support you may get from your organization and be prepared to advocate to reduce the scope of the project if you need to due to lack of resources. This is a lot easier to do if you get started early, instead of trying to make a last-minute Hail Mary to management because your budget is too small.
Studies have shown creating positive incentives is much more effective for habit changing than motivation by negative feedback. If your habit is to procrastinate, then your mission is to create positive associations with the completion of tasks, rather than punishing yourself for what hasn’t been done.
Most reliability projects involve something physical like a walkdown for a project or problem. Use this to start training your brain; exercise releases happy hormones called endorphins into your system. Sometimes, it’s as simple as heading to the control room or taking a walk around the office or plant to get a little movement in your plan (pun intended!).
Do the work!
Start with something small. Break the larger task that you are procrastinating on into smaller chunks that are easy to wrap your brain around. Pick out a task or sub-task that you can complete in just a few minutes to give you a sense of accomplishment and help start momentum. Help your brain to see the doable small bites of a project that lead up to a major win.
Summarize Your Path Forward
- State your problem or project goal.
- Break the task into manageable steps with obvious paths to completion.
- Identify roadblocks.
- Develop solutions to each roadblock.
- Incentivize yourself to complete each task.
- Do the work!
Banish your lizard brain response to difficult tasks and keep your career moving along smoothly. We’re not cavemen anymore and there are many tools at our disposal to understand and undercut the causes of procrastination.
Let’s work together to eradicate procrastination from our lives at home and at work. Leave a comment with your favorite procrastination solutions or challenges.