Our Brain Is Designed to Procrastinate. So How Do We Stay Productive?

Have you ever caught yourself not doing the task you are assigned to for days? Especially when you feel you are capable of doing it, you have been hired to do it, but still, you do nothing until the last minute?

Procrastination is defined as an act of voluntarily delaying doing something despite knowing that there will be negative consequences. All of us have been there, either with bigger or smaller projects, work-related tasks, or home errands. So why do we do this? And why do the “productivity tips” tend not to help long-term?

The neuroscience of procrastination

Every part of our brain has its function. I don’t want to go deep into neuroscience and the physiology of our brain in this blog post. But it is essential to talk about at least two brain systems to understand why procrastination is not “laziness” or your bad attitude but is designed into our brain function by default.

Procrastination is the fight between the two systems of our brain – the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system (and amygdala in particular).

How do they work?

The prefrontal cortex is located in the upper frontal part of the brain and is acting as the “inner CEO”. It performs the executive function of our brain:

  • 🌿 Decision-making
  • 🌿 Focusing our attention
  • 🌿 Predicting the consequences of our actions
  • 🌿 Impulse control
  • 🌿 Planning
  • 🌿 Coordinating our complex behaviors

All of these are the functions of our “inner CEO” – the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is the newest part of our brain developed through our evolution, helping us manage more complex tasks over time and operate in a more complex environment.

So what happens when we have an important task? Our prefrontal cortex plans our activities, decides which alternative options to choose, and predicts consequences and outcomes, all of which drive us to perform well.

Where is the problem then?

As you can predict already, that’s when the amygdala kicks-in.

Amygdala is one of the oldest parts of the brain. It is the core of our neural system for processing fear and threatening stimuli.

How does the amygdala work?

For a long time, the amygdala served us as a “life-saver” – processing fears it was acting as a protection mechanism. If there was a wild animal around, an amygdala processed fear and made us run away.

Also, the amygdala likes an immediate positive response. Amygdala needs you to feel good.

The amygdala acts like a child in some way:

  • 🌿 You are afraid of the dark – don’t go to that dark room.
  • 🌿 If there is something new you are scared of – hide, run away.

Even though we don’t live in the wild anymore and, I suppose, as the readers of this blog, you might be living your adult lives, the amygdala is still functioning every day in your brains. But fears and threats of our modern lives became different.

How the amygdala is contributing to the procrastination?

Here are some of the things the amygdala might be “saying” to us:

  • 🌿 This is a challenging task for you. You don’t do it well – your job is at risk.
  • 🌿 You are already tired – you cannot do it well right now. Relax. Do something more simple.
  • 🌿 Now you will make this presentation, and everyone will think you are a fool! Postpone it.
  • 🌿 Reschedule that call, as you already have too much on your plate.

Procrastination – is a “fight” between our prefrontal cortex and our amygdala. Imagine a thoughtful “inner CEO,” who knows the consequences of not doing what you have to do, and the “child” who always seeks to feel comfortable – “no threats, more treats”!

When we are procrastinating, we have the inner dialogue between these two:

  • 🌿 “You promised to finish the assignment the next week. It is time to do something. We need to progress, and we need to perform,” – says the prefrontal cortex.
  • 🌿 “Well, but this task is so critical and so hard. Let me switch off to something less complicated for now. It is too much pressure right now. I will do it later,” – says the amygdala.

And since amygdala is a part of our core brain structure (limbic system) that is “managing” our subconscious behavior, we are more likely to do what “she said”!

How can we cope with the procrastinator within us?

As you see, procrastination is a built-in function of how our brain operates. Therefore, there is no need to think you are the worst performer when you hold off your challenging tasks. Procrastination is just a human nature, we all “have been there” at least a few times.

Some of my clients have been asking me: “So how do we switch off our amygdala, our “child”?; “It must be possible to operate only with the “CEO of our brain”, right?”. Well, I like to say that everything that nature has created has a meaning and its function. Every part of the brain is Some of my clients have been asking me: “So how do we switch off our amygdala, our “child”? “It must be possible to operate only with the “CEO of our brain,” right?”. Well, I like to say that everything that nature has created has a meaning and its function. Every part of the brain is vital also. When there is no amygdala – we have a chance to miss the actual threat or a dangerous situation. Like the danger to our reputation or our relationships. Not always we can predict the threats with our analytical and executive brain. Sometimes, we just feel it.

I would say that the best way to cope is not to “switch off” your “child,” but to be aware of what is happening, figure out what your fear is about, and try to manage it further together with your “inner CEO”. The prefrontal cortex can help you through planning, training, additional education, or getting a help with coaching.

There are also some practical tips on how to trick or cooperate with your amygdala.

4 Tips to Stay Productive

  1. Break a long-term goal into daily goals.

When you work on something smaller, the fear of failure is also not that big. So the amygdala might “stay calm” when you are performing the part of the task, which is small, predictable in results, and can be finished soon.

2. Reward yourself today!

Amygdala loves rewards! So after you had broken your big scary project into smaller daily tasks, try thinking of something you will reward yourself with as soon as you finish the job. This way, the “child in you” will be looking forward to completing the task.

3. Avoid making decisions = avoid your amygdala switching on

It is usually the decision between “to be or not to be”, “should I do this now or later” when the amygdala starts to lead the conversation and tells you to relax.

When you plan your day to the minor pieces, like to read a book, have a lunch, coffee-break, walk with the dog, and you have all that in your calendar – that’s it! It is planned, and there is no need to think about whether you should do your job now or later.

The more your day is planned and written down in a sequence of your activities – the fewer chances are for your amygdala to “save you” from the decision to actually do that challenging task.

4. The rule of 5 minutes

The founder of Instagram, Kevin Systrom, gives convenient advice to the procrastinators: “If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”

Why does this work?

Five minutes is not a scary amount of time. It is easy to agree with yourself to do a small piece of work.

After a few cycles of “5-minute-activity”, you start feeling that it is possible and is not at all scary. At the same time, your brain starts producing endorphins. These neurotransmitters are often called the “happiness hormones” as they increase the feeling of pleasure and well-being. Endorphins are part of the reward system of our brain. And as you already know, the amygdala loves rewards! That’s why, as a result, you might end up completing the whole task after a few 5-minute cycles. Because you will feel rewarded and empowered.

These tips might not be new to you. They haven’t been new to me either. But only until I learned how they work on the neuroscience level have I been able to apply them successfully in my daily life.

I want you not to blame yourself for procrastination. Maybe there are real threats, like a threat to your career or reputation. So amygdala might be “saying” something important to you. You can listen to your “child”, or you can take its lead, or you can trick your amygdala, or plan your day to such a detail that it doesn’t have to switch on. But be aware that it is our nature and this is how we are designed! The important note is that each of us has the smartest “CEO” inside as well, which is also designed to make us successful, make us the best performers, and be brilliant professionals. We have it all!

🌿 Sometimes, we just need a little guidance. And this is why “Your Own Coach” exists. 💛

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