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Top 5 Brain Tips to Outsmart Procrastination

By: Dr. Rebecca Jackson, Vice President of Program and Outcomes at Brain Balance Achievement Centers

How ironic to be procrastinating on writing an article on procrastination. Yet here I am at 11:15 on a Thursday night typing away. The challenge and pain are real. We know that putting off a task doesn’t make it go away, in fact, it can complicate our lives, yet we do it over and over again. Why? And why do some people procrastinate more than others? To set yourself up for less stress and more success we’re going to dig into when and why we procrastinate and what strategies you can implement to get things done now rather than later.  

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is the act of putting off or delaying something that needs to be done. We all do it from time to time, but did you know how much you procrastinate, the type of tasks you avoid, and when you procrastinate has a lot to do with your brain?

The act of tackling a task requires energy, a plan and follow through. The complexity and topic vary on how it impacts your emotions, thought process, and energy required to tackle the task.  Some items on our to-do list leave us feeling drained, physically, or emotionally.  Other items require the same elements but leave us feeling energized, based on what we find fun and rewarding.   

Human nature is to protect our brain and energy reserves. We naturally gravitate toward things that we find fun, easy, or rewarding over tasks that are hard, uncomfortable, or draining (pay the bills or watch your favorite show, one requires energy while the other does not).  While it is easy to avoid the unpleasant, it can result in a pile-up of tasks increasing our stress levels and decreasing our productivity.  

The role of stress on productivity and procrastination 

Stress is like a careful balancing act, lean a little one way and you can recover, lean too far and the result can be catastrophic. 

Low levels of stress can happen when we put something off. This mild stress can heighten your focus and memory, but only for a short period. This is in part due to release of a stress hormone, cortisol, which can impact both brain functions and the fuel needed to support those functions. This surge of hormones accentuates our senses and attention and can be helpful in completing a task under pressure. It provides an opportunity to focus and knock something out when facing a deadline. But this heightened response demands more fuel, providing us a short window of time to function optimally when stress is heightened before running out of fuel and crashing. Continued low levels of stress, or a heightened stress response, shifts our brain even further into a fight or flight response. This protective reaction allows us to flee from danger. The cost of this response pulls energy and resources from our higher-thinking brain regions to support necessary survival functions. A highly stressed brain will struggle with sustained focus, planning, organization and follow through. Instead, you’ll find yourself agitated and irritable, rather than focused and productive. A fatigued or stressed brain will have to work much harder to produce high quality work.  

In addition to stress hormones being released impacting the brain, research has demonstrated differences in the brain of people that procrastinate more. Heightened activation in the amygdala is seen, an emotional center of the brain that can create heightened fear and hesitation. This can result in negative thoughts and feelings, “Am I doing this right? I’m terrible at this.”  These negative emotions are paired with less activation in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that can help to regulate and control our actions and reactions. The result is more hesitation and less control.    

Whether you procrastinate a lot or a little, there are strategies to heighten brain engagement and maintain your focus for longer periods of time. These strategies will allow you to channel the focus and energy that comes from a little pressure but plan and organize yourself in a way that sets you up to deliver your best work, and not exhausted efforts. 

Top 5 Brain Hacks to Overcome Procrastination

#1:  Fuel your brain for success

To focus and perform, your brain requires fuel and not all fuel is created equal. Providing your body with nutrients for sustained energy can help to regulate your focus and mood throughout the day as opposed to quick burning fuels that deplete quickly. While sugars provide a short burst of energy, protein, and healthy fats like those found in avocados and nuts, provide slow burning fuels to support you for longer periods of time. Adding protein and fats to meals and snacks can keep you mentally engaged and productive more consistently throughout the day. 

#2: Start with the tasks you’d rather avoid

While you may want to avoid the most draining or unpleasant tasks, there is huge power in doing those items first. Take advantage of your fresh and focused brain power at the start of the day by digging into the hard, the complicated, or the frustrating challenges first. Get them done, checked off the list and off your mind. Then, celebrate checking off each item and starting your day feeling accomplished.  

#3:  Identify your slump times during the day

Schedule your day so your favorite or most rewarding tasks are scheduled during your natural slump time. If you’re a mid-afternoon crash person, that’s the time to do the mindless things that need to be done, or the things that re-energize you. Connect with a favorite co-worker you need to touch base with or catch up on busy-work emails. Engaging in things we enjoy or are rewarding can revitalize your energy and focus, versus hard, or frustrating tasks that will drain our brain and emotional energy, leaving less for what you’re tackling next.  

#4:  Implement single-task focus 

We live in the era of multi-media-multi-tasking, which can diminish our efficiency. How we function today makes it HARD to do just one thing at a time. We watch TV with a computer and phone in our lap. This approach makes it easy to start lots of things and complete fewer tasks effectively. Our attention is constantly pulled in many directions, often diluting the quality of our attention. To increase your productivity and focus on ONE task at a time. Block scheduling can help to accomplish this by assigning yourself time to answer emails, work on a project, or return phone calls. Turn off your ringer and alerts while engaged in your single focus tasks to prevent being pulled, distracted, and jumping around.  

#5:  Motivate with muscles and movement

Exercise is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to engage our brain to focus and be effective. Start your day with exercise, then add movement breaks into your day when you feel your focus or motivation waning. Taking just a few minutes to spike your heart rate and engage your muscles can re-energize your brain, allowing you additional time of productivity in your day.  

Creating a plan won’t make the stressful or mundane tasks in life go away. The dishes will still need to be done and your taxes filed, but hopefully by implementing these brain tips you’ll develop some new and highly productive habits. A fresh and focused brain will allow you to perform at your best and may even create more time to relax knowing that your to-do list has been done.  Maybe you’ll even finish articles sooner so that you can get to bed earlier to be more refreshed for the next day!

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