Procrastination is like a bad signal or crappy Wi-Fi. Everyone deals with it, but most of us don't understand how it works. Here's the key: It's not that you have a problem saying 'yes' to the thing you're supposed to be doing right now. The problem is you can't say 'no' to everything else. Girl playing on phone image from Shutterstock
Procrastination manifests itself in a variety of ways, but they all have one thing in common: they come from an impulsive tendency to do what feels easier, rather than the thing you know you should be doing. Some people get distracted by unimportant to-dos like cleaning the bathroom or doing the dishes instead of focusing on the important thing you should be doing right now. Others spend hours reading pointless stuff on Facebook, rather than being productive. Some even procrastinate because they have perfectly reasonable fears about the thing they're putting off!
Whether it's focusing on the important work, closing the Facebook tab or dealing with a big looming problem, the procrastinator avoids the thing they know is better for them in the long run. The reason this happens is found in how your brain handles impulsivity.
How Impulsivity Works In Your Brain
Thanks to TV and movies, you probably think of an impulsive person as someone who's dangerous or takes a lot of risks. While risky behaviour can be a symptom of impulsivity, the truth is more subtle. In reality, impulsivity simply means that you act immediately on your impulses. When the mood strikes you to do something, you do it. Your actions are largely dictated by whatever your most immediate desire is, regardless of the long-term consequences of that action.
As behavioural researchers Martial Van der Linden and Mathieu d'Acremont detailed in a 2005 study, published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, impulsivity is generally characterised by four broad characteristics:
- Urgency: A person feels the need to accomplish a task right now.
- Lack of premeditation: A person acts without thinking or planning ahead.
- Lack of perseverance: A person will give up on a long-term task quickly.
- Sensation seeking: A person decides which tasks to pursue based on how good it makes them feel.
Individually, we all experience these things to some extent. However, an impulsive mind has trouble managing these motivations. What you end up with is a person who can quickly get derailed from the thing they know they should do with whatever feels good. The new impulse you just had right now feels exactly as urgent as the task you've known about all week. Planning ahead doesn't matter. All that matters is that you do what you feel like doing right now.
Impulsivity is a key trait in a lot of neurological disorders, including ADHD and substance abuse. A person with ADHD can get easily distracted by a passing thought because saying what's on their mind or fiddling with some random toy feels more important than the work they're doing. For a person with a substance abuse problem, the desire to get more of their preferred drug outweighs the long-term consequences they know exist. The immediate impulse overrides everything else.
How Impulsivity Affects Your Productivity
Not all impulsive behaviour is universally bad. The problem comes when you can't stop acting on impulse. For example, consider the following scenario:
You're sitting at your desk, trying to work on those TPS reports. Your phone buzzes with a new Facebook message, so you open up a new tab and read it. While you're there, you see something funny on your feed, so you read it and keep scrolling. You find an interesting article, so you spend the next ten minutes reading it. You get to the comments and see someone said something stupid, so obviously you have to correct them. You glance up at the clock and realise you've wasted a half hour on absolutely nothing.
At four different times in that story, some external stimulus caused a distraction that led to immediate action at the expense of your better judgment. Your phone buzzing, the funny picture on Facebook, the interesting article and the stupid comment all seemed more important at the time than doing your work. If you're not able to put on the brakes and say "I don't need to do this pointless thing right now," your impulsivity can devour your productivity. Worse yet, the effect compounds on itself. Since you couldn't ignore your phone buzzing, you opened yourself up to three more distractions that you never would have experienced in the first place if you had simply ignored (or disabled) that first buzz from your phone.
That ability to put on the brakes when you start to get distracted is essential to reining in your impulsivity. You probably have the ability to sit down and make yourself focus on your work (and a hard deadline will prove it). The skill you need to hone may not be that you need to focus more on the work at hand, but ignoring or putting off the immediate impulses that feel more important than they are.
What You Can Do About It
Impulsivity affects a lot of different aspects of your personality. "Fixing" impulsivity is a bit like "fixing" anger. Sometimes being angry is totally called for, but when it's out of control it can cause serious problems. In the same way, you can think of impulsivity as an aspect of your personality to manage, rather than to cure. That said, here are some things you can do to be less impulsive.
Practice Mindfulness Exercises
Mindfulness is the practice of simply being fully aware in the moment. It means you're aware of what you're doing, what your mind is thinking of, and what you intend to do. Mindfulness includes paying attention to your thoughts and controlling them, rather than letting them dictate your actions. Naturally, people who have an impulsivity problem struggle with this. They're easily distracted from the moment and can let a single thought derail them, rather than recognising it as a distracting thought. Fortunately, mindfulness is something you can practice.
If you really have an impulsivity problem, this will probably feel like torture, but it helps. Mindfulness isn't just a ritual, it's teaching your brain how to focus. If you can't focus on a single task for long periods of time, practising mindfulness shows your brain what it feels like. You can practice mindfulness using an app, while doing chores, or just by learning the difference between how you feel and who you are. Don't worry if it doesn't come natural. It's not supposed to, and that's the point. Just keep practising and over time your brain will learn how to pause when you feel an impulse coming on.
Learn Your Risk Factors and Plan Around Them
I know that I am unlikely to get distracted from my work by a video about the mating habits of mosquitoes. The next time the trailer for a Marvel movie drops, though, I can expect some lost man hours. We all have weaknesses that can easily distract us. Learning your triggers can help you preempt your impulses before they happen. To call back to the earlier example, if your phone buzzing is likely to distract you, put it in aeroplane mode or at least tweak your notification settings so you don't get notified during the middle of the work day.
Give Yourself Space for Productive Distractions
Impulsivity makes you feel like if you don't do something now, you'll never do it. You can combat this feeling by giving yourself some space to indulge your procrastination. Rather than saying "no", you can say "not right now" when something starts to creep into your attention span. As any good procrastinator knows, it's easier to put something off for a while than it is to ignore it entirely. By setting aside a time period in your day to deal with all the things that distracted you, your mind feels better about not doing it immediately. Then you can focus on the task at hand.
Talk to a Therapist About Your Specific Problems
Yes, seriously. If you find that you're critically behind at work or you can't seem to focus on anything for longer than a minute, you can talk to a therapist. While it might sound dumb or embarrassing to go to a therapist for being too distracted, it's a common problem. Adult ADHD is real and there's no shame in seeking help. A therapist might prescribe medicine in severe cases, but they may also simply give you a set of exercises to work on during the week and hold you accountable. This act of structured practice alone can help train your brain to control your impulses over time.
Understanding the underlying impulses that lead to distraction and procrastination can help you develop better long-term solutions. It would be nice if you could simply sit at your desk and yell "Focus!" to make yourself work harder, but that's not going to make the random thoughts in your head go away. Instead of focusing all your effort on forcing one train of thought through the station, practice keeping the tracks clear of all the other distractions first.