Personal Development

Better Boundaries: How to Stop Procrastinating and Start studying

Scrabble tiles showing: If not now, when

Procrastination is part of the human condition. We avoid what feels painful. It’s classic fight or flight. 

Flight makes us feel safe.

Flight restores peace.

Flight means we don’t need to fight (great news!).

Procrastination is biologically hardwired into our brain and body (more to come on this). So it makes sense that you fall into the trap repeatedly.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, procrastination is:

“the action of delaying or postponing something.”

My definition of procrastination is avoiding important tasks in preference of more enjoyable (or at the very least, less painful) activities. This can include browsing social media, eating, staring off into space, or losing yourself down a YouTube rabbit hole.

Technology is your greatest asset and your biggest downfall

Our world is becoming increasingly distracting. Barely minutes go by without something dinging or flashing. Without a pang of hunger encouraging you to walk to your kitchen. Without a hum, or a buzz, or a beep. 

The average time that college students spend focused on tasks without distraction from an electronic device or social media platform is 6 minutes. Only 6 minutes of focused time results in a lot of easy procrastination! Technology has created a generation of chronic procrastinators.

As students around the globe have spent more time remote learning at home, their ability to stay focused is shrinking. I know how hard it was for me when I was in class with a laptop to avoid browsing social media. I can only imagine how difficult it is if your teacher is not in the room with you to help keep you on track.

But procrastination is not a new phenomenon 

Writers, philosophers, and comedians have been reporting procrastination for centuries. Each with their own unique perspectives on its benefits (yes, there are some) and its downfalls.

Here are some of my favourite quotes about procrastination:

“If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.”
Rita Mae Brown

“I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do — the day after.”
Oscar Wilde

“A day can really slip by when you’re deliberately avoiding what you’re supposed to do.”
Bill Watterson, There’s Treasure Everywhere

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

― Hebrews 12:11. The Bible.

Your brain loves procrastination

I find it helpful to learn about psychology and neuroscience to help me understand my behaviours. You will too.

Brene Brown says we are emotional people who THEN think. And I would agree. 

Our emotions are fundamental to the actions that we take. Think about the times that you’re upset, excited, or angry. Your physical body reacts in ways that are not controlled by logical thought. We are emotional first and logical second. 

If you’re not convinced of this, think about children or babies. When you are born, you are born with emotions and you develop the ability to think over time. As an adult, you assume that your ability to think means that you can overrule your emotions. But your emotions make the first move of every step and every decision.

Emotions rule procrastination like they rule everything else.

You are emotionally driven to procrastinate. It’s not a logical thing for you to do, but your frustration with procrastinating is informed by logic. Your logical reasoning skills are judging your actions, which were not based on logic at all. They were based on emotions. It’s a trap!

But why is fight or flight is one of the most fundamental reasons that we fall into a habit of procrastination? When you are not wanting to complete a difficult task, it’s often because it has a negative emotion attached to it. This could be fear, dread, worry, boredom, etc. This emotion can drive your body into fight or flight mode.

Good news — if we think of ourselves as modern cave-people it makes more sense.

Not much has changed biologically since humans moved from cave communities to houses and cities. Our biology takes the same precautions, even when they are overreactions to our modern environments.

As a caveman, anytime you’re faced with a challenge in your environment you had to deal with it by one of three options: fight or flight or freeze. While it is easy to think that you would choose to fight the urge to run, often the most logical solution is to flight or freeze.

There are psychological reasons that reinforce the habit of procrastination. It is the natural, biological processes that drive you to procrastinate. Procrastination is your modern version of flight or freeze.

When I am faced with a challenging or dreaded task like washing the dishes or doing the laundry, my strong emotions trigger my fight or flight mode. 

The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for this mechanism. It handles monitoring for strong emotions and wants to make sure that you stay alive. My amygdala tells me to “flight” from the task and do something else, or freeze and not do anything at all. It makes sure that I waste the time that I could’ve been doing my laundry or my dishes to avoid a task that my brain has categorized as “risky”. Normally I flight, but my logical brain kicks in and convinces me that I should do other productive things to fill my time. I get busy doing other things and avoid my initial task. Some people will do nothing (i.e. sit on the couch) when the amygdala tells them to flight or freeze.

The best way to overcome the biology of procrastination is to overpower it with logic

But it’s not that easy!

When you catch yourself in the throngs of procrastination you have to figure out which emotion triggered the procrastination response. Then give yourself a logical reason that the task is not “that scary”.

Here’s an example:

Doing the laundry made me anxious because I haven’t done it in a few weeks and there is a lot that has accumulated. It makes me feel overwhelmed to have to fold it all when it comes out of the dryer. But my stress is not justified because I have lots of time to get the laundry done and folding it can be very relaxing if I listen to a podcast at the same time. If I don’t wash my laundry today, I will not have any clean underwear to wear tomorrow. That would be much more stressful than not doing the laundry at all. 

It might seem silly, but you have to reduce the negative emotion surrounding the task to turn off your amygdala and get the project done. It’s not about the specific task that you need to do. Emotion surrounding tasks drives procrastination.

You can overcome your emotion with logic created in the frontal lobes of your brain. 

Imagine your brain with three different layers. 

You have your innermost layer which is the earliest to develop (evolutionarily speaking). This contains your amygdala (driving your fight and flight response) and essential brain areas for you to survive like breathing, sleeping and reproducing. 

The next level out helps you coordinate actions and movements and provides connection pathways between different areas of your brain. This area is critical to ensure your motions flow and your brain is acting as one coherent organ.

And then you have the most outer layer called the cortex. This contains the frontal lobes (if you guessed that they are at the front of your brain you would be correct). The cortex and frontal lobes are the most recent ones to develop in evolution, and also develops last as you grow from childhood to adulthood. The frontal lobes contain your logical centre of the brain. They allow you to think, reason, and use the information that you are collecting from your environment to make appropriate decisions.

When you’re in a stressful situation and your fight-flight-freeze response activates, less blood flows to the frontal lobes. This means your logic centres get less oxygen. Your body moves the highly oxygenated blood to the most important brain areas and organs that will keep you alive. This physical change makes you less able to make logic-informed decisions.

So next time you’re procrastinating on big tasks (or small tasks) realize that this is a form of fight or flight response. It is a normal and evolutionarily programmed response that exists in your brain to protect you from lions and tigers and bears. While it is critical in life and death situations, you need to understand how to overcome it so that it doesn’t trigger procrastination in the modern world.

Perfectionism causes procrastination

There are lots of things that can trigger your fight and flight response. The main reason for me is perfectionism. 

Hard stuff is painful (sometimes physically painful, and other times emotionally painful). And if I feel that I have to be good at every hard thing it becomes even more painful. 

Perfectionism is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as

A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable

If our standard is perfection, then falling “short” becomes incredibly painful. The standard of perfectionism creates a bar that is higher than you can achieve and creates a fight or flight response every time you fail to reach it (which is always). When you train your brain to accept nothing less than perfect, the anticipation of your fight or flight response causes a fight or flight response. And this causes you to avoid the task in the first place.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Procrastination can make you feel like you’re a bad student. 

It can make you feel like you are a failure at the task (or a failure at life in some cases) and negatively reinforces your actions. It has a drastic impact on self-esteem.

The thing about perfectionism is that it will cause you to procrastinate. It is easier for you to say, “I could have done better if I had more time” than it is to say, “I did my best but it was not enough to be perfect.” Your fear of failure creates an easy trap.

When it comes to perfectionism, you get to a point where you do not give yourself enough time to produce work to the level that you are satisfied with. And your lack of time becomes your excuse. But that excuse doesn’t mitigate the stress response that you feel from procrastination or perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a dangerous mindset because no one can be perfect. It’s an impossible standard and sets you up for failure. You will fail because of the procrastination and fight or flight caused by your perfectionism. Your body reacts in fight or flight mode to the expectation of perfection that you have set for yourself. Your brain will try and procrastinate, put things off, and come up with every excuse in the book to not complete the task at hand.

Good news, there is an upside to procrastination too

But here’s the other thing about your procrastination problem, you do some of your best work when you are close to a deadline.

Studies show that when you work on a tight deadline you’re more likely to prioritize your work, focus on the important details, block out distractions, and have better performance. This is why SMART goals (the famous goal-setting strategy) includes “time-bound” as part of its process. Without a due date, you are less likely to actively work towards and achieve your goal.

So while it’s dangerous to procrastinate all the time (for the sake of your physical and emotional wellbeing) it is a good idea to set a deadline for yourself that keeps you on track. A good deadline will be close enough to push you out of your comfort zone. Deadlines drastically improve your time management skills. It will feel like you need to hustle hard to achieve it, and even if you procrastinate as you get close to the deadline, it will force you to work efficiently.

The key to managing deadlines without triggering fight or flight is to be kind to yourself 

One of the biggest ways to overcome your fight and flight mechanism is to practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is described by as

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

But I like to define it as 

Intentional and non-judgemental awareness of the present moment.

To overcome procrastination you need to avoid further fight or flight stress spirals. The first step is to become aware of your own mindset gently and kindly. Don’t be judgemental about your perfectionism or your procrastination habit. But notice that you’ve procrastinated something, accept it, and then choose how you would like to respond.v

Practising mindfulness shrinks the amygdala which weakens your fight and flight response. This limits the amount that you will procrastinate because your brain is less hyper-reactive to stressors.

If you’re being mindful you become more gentle with yourself. It can be very easy for you to say, “oh I am terrible I have procrastinated again! I said I wasn’t going to do this but I’ve done it again.” But sometimes you actually do need to rest. For example, I took a week off of writing for the first time in 10 months before coming back to my laptop to write this piece for you. While this could look like procrastination (and sometimes I felt like I was procrastinating) I needed the time for my brain to rest. I was very mindful and intentional about the time that I took off. 

When you are kind to yourself you notice which distractions are negative (causing you to procrastinate) and which things are restful and necessary. Sometimes procrastination is rest, and that is a good thing. Just make sure you don’t beat yourself up about it too much. 

An incomplete list of negative distractions

If mindfulness can provide you with a distraction or intentional break from whatever you’re procrastinating on, does that mean that all your distractions are good? 

No! There are obviously distractions that cause you to procrastinate that are negative and here’s an incomplete list of negative distractions that get in the way of you prioritizing the most important task.

  • social media scrolling (specifically Instagram and Facebook)
  • non-vital house cleaning
  • reading articles about topics unrelated to your task
  • playing video games
  • picking up your cell phone every 12 minutes
  • online shopping 
  • getting junk food from the kitchen
  • singing along to your favourite music
  • texting your friends
  • picking up your favourite hobby
  • creating a to-do list (this is one of my favourites)

Anything in excess can be harmful (including procrastination)

From procrastination to negative distractions (even to good distractions like cooking a healthy meal, hanging out with your friends or your spouse, having some downtime, watching some TV) can be harmful if you do them too much. So here’s the best thing about procrastination… a little bit might help you perform at an optimal level. It might add the small dose of pressure that you need to get your project or school work complete. It might allow you to work with a little bit more diligence or focus.

If you leave a project long (and you procrastinate frequently) you will find that it starts to interfere with your ability to perform at the level that you hoped. You might find that you’re not giving yourself enough time to make the simple changes that will improve your outcomes. You might not be giving yourself enough time to edit, ask questions, or learn the ways that you perform at your best.

Healthy boundaries hold the key to productivity

Here are some helpful boundaries that I have set in place to limit my procrastination.

1. I set a deadline to complete tasks at least one day ahead of the formal deadline. 

Whether it is a work or personal project, I always set a deadline for myself that is ahead of the formal deadline. If I know we need to get a Christmas gift before Christmas Day, I’ll set a deadline for at least one week before Christmas. That way I can work towards a motivating date without allowing myself to procrastinate. It reduces the likelihood that I will buy crappy gifts out of desperation rather than intentional thought. 

2. I prioritize my tasks every day in order of importance. 

If a day goes by where I have not prioritized it means that I am unable to focus on the things that will provide me with the highest return on my time investment. Without prioritizing, I skip the important but challenging tasks and do the easy but less impactful work. It means I use my time, but I don’t use it effectively.

Even though I’m working on something this can also be a form of distraction. Sometimes I waste time doing things that are not nearly as important as something else (you’ve done it too). You will do the laundry instead of your project, hang out with your pets rather than your exam preparation, or do the dishes rather than prep for your big meeting. While those are all valuable tasks, if you set a list of things to do ranked from the most important to the least (and then stick to it) you will find yourself eliminating your procrastination and getting the important jobs done.

3. I don’t allow myself to watch TV or listen to a podcast until I hit a major project milestone. 

Break your task down into small chunks and take a short break to celebrate your small wins. Your milestone does not need to be completing the project for it to be valuable. It could be planning out an outline, writing the first paragraph, researching a topic, reading about the subject, or having a conversation with someone on your team. Any small win will allow you to celebrate! And make sure you pick something that you want to do as a celebration. Nothing is off-limits. A small break will do wonders for your mental health. 

4. I don’t allow myself to celebrate until I hit my small wins. 

I love to celebrate, so I catch myself often celebrating a tiny portion of a task to procrastinate the rest of it. I say something like, “yay I finished one sentence” and then go celebrate and not do anything else towards the project. And that allows me to feel good about the progress that I’ve made, but prevents me from making significant progress towards a goal. It’s in the discomfort that you really push yourself to thrive. By training yourself to continually feel the discomfort of working on difficult tasks, you become more and more effective at completing those tasks.

Here are some key ways to improve your effectiveness

The greatest way to limit the tendency to procrastinate is to reduce the levels of distraction in your environment. Here are some tips to help reduce your distractions and to focus a little bit longer on the tasks at hand:

  1. Remove your cell phone — the biggest buzzkill of productivity and instigator of distraction are cell phones! The first thing to do is to take your phone and put it in a different room and on silent. I am the worst at this (I have my phone to the right of my laptop right now). I will often pick up my phone and check Instagram or my emails halfway through a project. But putting your phone away and physically distancing yourself from its temptations will allow you to focus significantly more.
  2. No dings or rings — turn off all notifications on devices (including your laptop) so that you don’t get any dings or alarms. You don’t want anything to take your attention away from your primary task.
  3. Create a quiet environment — use noise-cancelling headphones even if you are not listening to music. This has proven especially helpful for me when I am trying to work with a puppy and husband close by. Unidentifiable coffee shop noise helps me to focus, but specific noises in my home are very distracting. I have a bit of family time FOMO along with a strong lean towards extroversion. So I have a hard time staying focused with people around me. If you are naturally curious about the things that a family member is doing, sound-cancelling headphones can help limit the level of distraction your experience. Less distraction helps you to avoid further procrastination.
  4. Plan your day in one-hour time blocks. If you break down your time into small increments, you’re more likely to stay on track. You will know what you need to achieve and when you will have the chance to rest, and you can limit the temptation to tackle smaller tasks that are of lower importance. When you know what time you get to relax, take a bath, or watch TV makes it so much easier to focus. You know that the reward is coming!

The Famous Pomodoro Technique

One of the most famous scheduling and time blocking techniques is called the Pomodoro Technique. A lot of people find it highly effective to tackle larger projects while keeping energy levels high. If you haven’t heard of it before it’s a way to focus your time that allows for focussed chunks of work and intentional opportunities for breaks to refresh your brain. It keeps you focussed on the most important task and helps to efficiently tackle big projects. A Pomodoro is a set of work pause routines where you break down a big task into small bite-sized intervals.

Step 1: Pick a task and break it down into shorter, manageable chunks.

Step 2: Use a timer and set it to 25 minutes. Work on the first chunk of the task and try not to look at the timer. Focus only on your work until the timer goes off.

Step 3: Stand up and set your timer to 5 minutes. Take a 5-minute break away from your project (this is the perfect time to grab a drink or a snack).

*Step 2 and 3 together is 1 Pomodoro (or cycle)*

Step 4: Repeat your Pomodoro 4 more times. 

Step 5: After your 5th Pomodoro take a longer 20–30 minute break

The Pomodoro effect is productive because it capitalizes on the benefits of planning out your work, taking breaks, and intentional rest. When combined, these help your brain to stay focused and do a lot more in a shorter period of time.

Here is an example of how I break down my writing process into Pomodoro’s:

Pomodoro 1: Pick a topic and conduct SEO research

Pomodoro 2: Brainstorm and plan the structure of the piece

Pomodoro 3: Research any studies and data required for the piece

Pomodoro 4: Dictate the piece using my app

Pomodoro 5: Migrate the dictation into my text editing software of choice and create headings.

Depending on how much time I have to work, I will sometimes split the Pomodoro’s over several days. You don’t have to always do 5 consecutive cycles, but I recommend it for studying or working on large projects with tight deadlines.

For more info about the Pomodoro technique, I highly recommend checking out this video.

Treat your life as an experiment

There are a lot of different things you can do to help yourself to stop procrastinating. Remember that what works for me might not work for you. And what works for your friends probably won’t work for you. 

Treat your life as an experiment and try out some (or all) of the techniques that you’ve heard of to keep yourself focused. The key is to achieve small wins by putting a little bit of pressure on yourself to get things done, but not to activate your fight or flight mechanism. Your most productive state is going to look different for you than it does for me, so you need to treat yourself as an experiment and try things out. 

Procrastination will be a lifetime battle — so don’t worry if you get it wrong

Because our minds are wired to fight or flight procrastination is built into our biology. You are not going to undo your procrastination habit in one day and it is never going to be “fixed forever.” 

Throughout your life, you will have to learn new techniques and tools that you can use to keep yourself focused on the most important tasks at hand. As technologies continue to change and develop, we will need to learn the best ways to minimize the pull that they have on our attention.

So don’t worry if you get it wrong. If you fall into a habit of procrastination (like I often do) and need to figure out how to get yourself back on track, don’t beat yourself up for it. The more that you understand that this is part of your biological formation you understand that you were made to be distracted but were also made to learn how to focus. The human brain is there to help you do all of it and it is something to be grateful for (even if you are a chronic procrastinator) 

Knowlejoble BBB Business Review