We are all guilty of it on occasion if not every day. While procrastination may seem like a problem with laziness or time management or self-discipline, it’s actually not any of those. It’s a problem with feelings and the ability to regulate them according to Dr. Tim Pyschyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, and it stems from “the immediate urgency of managing negative moods.”
The problem with negative moods associated with dreadful tasks is they are perceived as a threat by the amygdala, our fear/flight/fight command center. In the amygdala’s world, the negative feeling just needs to go away right now. Fleeing the scene will solve the immediate problem nicely, which is what the amygdala is concerned about. That this solution will most certainly cause a future problem is a threat for another day: reason is not the amygdala’s management style.
However, what the amygdala doesn’t seem to catch onto is that it can be tricked. For instance, my biggest dread right now is cleaning up my basement landing, a large catch-all area of shelves and stairs on the way to the basement. It has been a disaster ever since we had the roof replaced on this section of the house a full year ago. Not only is this catch-all area a dumping ground for everything I want out of the main house, but it is now also sprinkled – and I’m not kidding –with black flecks of wood dislodged from the ceiling when the roof was replaced. Any responsible person would have got right on that situation the very next weekend, but I couldn’t face it so I have just carried on like the black stuff isn’t there. Except it is and I see it every time I go down to the basement, which is every day, and in my minds’ eye all the time. In other words, it weighs on me. It haunts me, in fact. I think about it a lot. It’s a reminder of everything I don’t do.
So here’s the trick. The amygdala is always listening in, so all I have to do is say to myself, “If I were going to clean the basement landing – which I’m not – what’s the first thing I would do?”
For whatever reason, the amygdala falls for the deception every time. Being told there will be no horrible cleaning puts it at ease, so it thinks there’s no harm in opening the door to a little pretend planning. But once we get our foot over the threshold and figure out that first move – in the case of my basement I think I would first clear everything off the big platform serving as the primary dumping site and wash that section all down – then a different part of the brain actually wants to get a move on. It starts saying things like, “I can do this. In fact, I kind of want to do this.” And, “Man, would it feel good to get this done.” And then we are off and running with the amygdala’s blessing because there is no longer a threat. As Dr. Psychyl says, “Get started and you will find your motivation.” And now taking action becomes the BBO – the bigger, better offer, an offer that talks because the amygdala is all-in on rewards.
This very approach is how someone I know gets Christmas cards out every year. She starts off saying she’s not going to do them. Then she begins wondering what photo she’d go with if she did….
Curiously, for the trickery to work it’s not necessary to understand why the amygdala perceives a certain task as threatening, but it is interesting and potentially useful to the reason-based part of our brain to know, for instance, that I am afraid to launch into the basement project because I worry it’s going to make me tired, which, in turn, will make everything else I have to get done in the day harder. Plus, I won’t be happy doing it and it will be boring and I’ll be trapped in boredom and unhappiness for such a long time and that scares me. And I also don’t know what I’m going to do with everything. I will probably need to unload a lot of cookware I don’t use but also don’t want to give up, in addition to having to make many other hard decisions such as that. See? Scary stuff. But not if I say, “No problem. I’m not going to do that horrible job. But if I were…….”
I would paint it all a pale silvery lavender.
Source – New York Times
This is not a story from my memoir, The Organization Project, which is what I usually publish here, but an article I wrote for work in my role as the runner of an employee wellness program.