Author: Bob Nease Source: Fast Company
Think about all the stuff you’ve been putting off—really, go ahead. Chances are you’ve been putting off thinking about the stuff you’ve been putting off, right? It’s not that you don’t think those things are important, or even that you believe they’ll go away if you ignore them. So why are you procrastinating, and how can you stop that?
It Isn’t As Bad As You Think
For starters, you probably procrastinate far less than you think. If we stop to think about it, there are lots of things that need to get done that almost always do get done, some way or another: eating when we’re hungry, drinking when we’re thirsty, going to sleep when we’re tired—you get the idea.
No one has to nag us to eat, drink, or nap. These are all things that are good for us in the long run. But so are turning that report in on time and changing the oil in the car. In other words, not every beneficial behavior causes us to procrastinate.
There’s only one factor that seems to separate the good behaviors that we do easily from those we routinely put off doing: how good they feel. In other words, we seem to have no problem doing things that are in our our long-term interest as long as they feel good in the here and now. It’s only once those behaviors impose upfront effort or unpleasantness that the jig is up. It’s as if all our brains care about is whether something feels good right this moment than whether it will turn out to be good for us later.
This is Your Brain Procrastinating
And indeed, that’s pretty close to the truth, cognitively speaking, and it matters when we get down to figuring out a lasting solution to procrastination. To simplify things slightly (but only slightly), there’s a part of the brain that accurately weighs the benefits of a behavior against its costs. This is your neocortex, and it’s one of the newest and shiniest parts of our brains. Very often, the neocortex comes to quite reasonable conclusions—that, for instance, the benefits of exercising outweigh the costs.
But there’s another part of your brain that’s been around for millions of years—the limbic system—and it only seems to care about what’s happening right now. So if a behavior incurs more upfront hassles than upfront benefits, the limbic system isn’t interested in participating.
It’s usually only when something that’s good in the long run is also good in the present that these two systems agree with each other. Hungry? Eating seems right to both systems—no problem. When they disagree, the neocortex plays the role of the angel on one shoulder (“Exercise, it’s good for you!”) while the limbic system plays the tempting devil (“Relax pal, that exercise sounds like a lot of work”).
Things get even more interesting when you look into how the brain works when it’s planning on good behavior later. For example, when you’re making a decision about whether to exercise in the future, the limbic system couldn’t care less, and leaves that issue up to the neocortex. But when it actually comes time to make good on that choice, the limbic system is suddenly very interested—and usually not too happy.