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LPT: To help with proscrastination, think of the reward you gain for completing the task rather than the task itself.(r/LifeProTips)
Focusing on the reward, product, or outcome isn’t very effective.
Instead, we should focus on the process (flow of time, and the habits and actions associated with that time).
Edit: Gold! 🙂
The bulk of what follows are notes from a class that I and 200,000 more students all over the world are finishing this week online from the University of California, San Diego called Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects and the textbook A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra).
The book and the lectures are incredibly well cited. You can download the lectures free.
When we focus on the reward or the product of the task that we need to perform, it doesn’t really address the real reason that we’re procrastinating, and can release stress related chemicals making us even less motivated.
Why we procrastinate: When we think of something we have to do that’s unpleasant or uncomfortable, it literally triggers neural discomfort in the part of our brain associated with pain: the insular cortex. Focusing on the reward or the product/outcome of the task can amplify this neural discomfort because the task has yet to be performed.
So what happens when we procrastinate? We first think of the thing that we don’t want to do. Our insular cortex receives that discomfort/pain message and our brain immediately switches our attention and thoughts to something else that’s pleasant, temporarily relieving that discomfort and triggering a cue for us to do something else. We’re distracted and procrastinating now. This only temporarily eases the discomfort of that neural response.
The good news: It’s absolutely normal to feel negative or uncomfortable thoughts when starting anything. Research shows that when we engage in the activity for a couple of minutes, the neural response in the insular cortex eases and we don’t feel as much discomfort. In other words, the more we engage in the task we’re putting off, the better we’ll feel about doing it.
Movation in our brain
Neuromodulators: These are chemicals that influence how neurons respond to other neurons and whether or not we get out of bed in the morning. Those chemicals?
acetylcholine: This chemical controls focused learning and attention. Supplements exist.
dopamine: This is THE rewards chemical and the most important chemical for motivation; release it and you feel good. Too much, and life sucks over time (stay away from bad drugs). Lose dopamine and you have no motivation. Like, if you literally have no dopamine you go catatonic. No joke. Learn to do things that release this chemical naturally and you’re good.
serotonin: This is the chemical that controls your social life and risk-taking behavior. Prozac increases this chemical in the brain. Low serotonin levels means high-risk behavior. The most violent criminals in our prisons have the lowest serotonin levels. Keep that chemical in check.
Four things to understand about our habits:
A Cue: This is an event that welcomes our engagement or participation. Phone, porn, food, thoughts; you get the idea. Cues are neither helpful nor harmful.
A Routine: This is the mindless activity that we engage in after having received the cue. Routines can be useful, harmless, or harmful.
A reward: Habits develop or continue because they give us pleasant feelings. Procrastination is one of them because it makes us feel good, temporarily. In this way, procrastination is like an addiction. We do it for the temporary good feelings. Immediate reward. We can, however, rewire to become “addicted” to new habits by rewarding ourselves for new routines.
A Belief: Habits have power because of our belief in them. To change a habit we must change the underlying belief.
Spread out your tasks and your rewards for improved productivity and better motivation.
Our brains have a lot to do. Focusing too long on something is like doing too much exercise. Our brains need breaks from the tasks that we’re performing. By breaking our productivity into smaller chunks and taking a break with a reward (remember, we need the reward fairly soon because procrastination gives us the dopamine feel-good chemical now) we’ll find it’s much easier to be better motivated. The reward can be internet time, tv, book, walk, coffee, etc. I’ve found that anything I’m doing while I procrastinate can often be used as the reward during breaks.
Pomodoro (google it): Set a timer for 25:00. Turn off interruptions. Focus on your task. Take a break with a reward and let your brain relax for a bit. Hint: You’re releasing dopamine with the reward and training your brain to crave the new behavior.
Changing our procrastination habits
Cues – If we change our reaction to these (see above) we win. Turn off the stuff that distracts you and gently ignore any new distractions while you’re focused on your task.
Routine – Rewire here by developing a plan or new ritual to react to the cue. By engaging in new reactions and new routines, and rewarding ourselves immediately after, we’ll begin to crave habits that are more productive. I’ve already been doing this with success more or less, but this information helps me to understand why it works. Perform tasks in smaller chunks. Spread those chunks out to make the project more manageable. Set your timer for 25:00, or shorter, or longer (not very much) and take a break – five minutes minimum but go longer if the task is super taxing.
Reward – Super important! Reward yourself with something to indulge in immediately after your task Doesn’t have to be food or cost money. It’s your time and your indulgence. Remember: One of the reasons that procrastination is one of our default habits is because we’re rewarded immediately for it. We’re training our brains to crave a better feel-good response, one that’s not too distant in the future, and one that helps us change our habit. No reward = we won’t feel good about changing our habit.
Belief – Change the underlying belief about the task you’re going to perform. Don’t tell yourself elaborate stories about how hard it will be or how long it will take. Focus on the process (flow of time, and the habits and actions associated with that time), and not the outcome, product, or completion. Understand that for the larger stuff you’ll only be focused in small increments of time, and only on the task at hand. (Hard lesson: Our environment, our friends, our family, and our level of understanding and knowing our place in the cosmos will directly effect whether or not we’ll ever believe that anything is worth doing in life, even in small increments of time. By broadening these things or changing them completely, we’ll find it much easier to change our attitudes, behaviors, and habits.)
It’s normal to feel negative or uncomfortable thoughts when starting anything. Engage in the activity for a couple of minutes and those feelings will go away. Because research and science.
Don’t judge yourself: Allow your mind to relax into a flow of the work or activity you’re going to engage in. Everybody sucks at stuff in the beginning. Life’s messy and so is the stuff we have to do to get things done. Take breaks and vacations. Research shows that people who balance fun time with work time outperform workaholics over and over and over.
When distractions or new cues present themselves, let them go; gently ignore them and relax back into the process and flow of the activity.
“I’m different and special and I’m a genius and none of this applies to me.” No you’re not and yes it does. Look, some of us may have more astrocytes than others (look that up) so we have some talent. But without a plan to do something with those astrocytes, we’re going to be stuck with the same addiction to procrastination.
Not all procrastination is bad. Sometimes our brain really does need a break, so take one. Sometimes we’re spending too much time on a large task and need to break it up into smaller tasks. Smaller tasks makes it more manageable and taking breaks helps our brains relax. Less stress, more dopamine, healthy brain. Balanced leisure time with productivity time makes us more productive. Because research and science.
Write down the things you want to accomplish the night before. This frees up energy in your prefrontal cortex and makes it easier for you to get started. Again, because science. While you sleep your brain processes that stuff and you’re more likely to actually do them.
Keep a planner journal to outline what works and what doesn’t as pertains to changing your procrastination responses and routines.
No rewards until you’ve finished the immediate task/pomodoro.
Keep an eye on procrastination cues.
Gain trust in your new system.
Have backup plans for when you still procrastinate.
Be bad at it for awhile.
tl;dr: When we procrastinate, it’s because thinking of doing something unpleasant can trigger discomfort in the part of our brain associated with pain. Focusing on the reward or the product/outcome of the task can amplify this same discomfort, because the unpleasant task has yet to be done. Our brain switches to more pleasant thoughts to release dopamine (feel-good chemical), but this only temporarily feels good. In this, procrastination shares common features with addiction. We can tackle procrastination by focusing on the process of the task (the flow of time, and the habits and actions associated with that time), and taking breaks with small rewards.