Written by: Suki Collins, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
In a previous article published in BRAINZ last month, I explained that our procrastinating tendency comes from our Limbic System – the dominant cognitive feature in our brain. In this article, I will set out five strategies to outwit this ‘lizard brain’ and bring to the fore the more active and creative part of our brain, the Prefrontal Cortex.
The Limbic System never sleeps. It is always there in the background, reminding us of impulses such as hunger, boredom, danger, and so on. It is all about instant gratification. We cannot switch it off, but we can drown its impact. The key is to focus. It is a bit like when we are behind the wheel of our car. Sometimes we wake up suddenly aware that we have been driving on autopilot. We are unable to remember concentrating on the road for the past few minutes. Feeling fortunate to have escaped injury, we bring our minds and our eyes back to the road in front of us.
To minimise procrastination, we need to focus our attention on what we want to achieve.
Do the Burning Task
We can find a single task on any given day, complete it and be enormously happy with how the day went. If we do this every day, we would be anywhere we wanted in life. For me, this is the secret to stopping me from procrastinating. I found this the hardest technique to master; for me this is the difference between success and failure. All I must do is to identify and do one thing each day, just one!
What do I mean by a burning task? Is the task obvious? One thing that needs to be done today. Is there a deadline due today and an opportunity that is only going to be around only today? Of all the things on your internal or written to-do list, which one irritates the most? Which one are you sick and tired of seeing? You know you should do it, and you have been putting it off for too long. Which one do you wish you could just get finished? If, by the end of the day, you found that you have completed this task, would it be enough to make you happy that today was a productive day? Think of a task and ask yourself these questions, and if the answer is yes to any of them, then this is the burning task for the day.
Do not let procrastination snowball
Always keep the limbic system at the front of your mind, our second ogre head. This is always there to drag us down, keep us in bed and take the easiest path. It is impossible to beat the limbic system all the time. Most of the time, we are not being productive. Time flies when we are daydreaming or doing an easy autopilot task, and we can find ourselves at the end of the day before we have done anything.
Procrastination snowballs, and once it picks up momentum, it can turn five minutes into an hour and morning and a day. We need to keep interrupting it. If I find that I have been procrastinating for thirty minutes but then manage to get back into the task at hand and regain composure, that is a win for me. I forgive myself the thirty minutes here and there. What is important is to get back on track. It is important to make sure that I am beating my procrastination as much as I can and as often as I can. The best way to do this is to take a step back and reassess my situation as often as possible.
Break the tasks into small tasks. We sometimes ‘cannot see the forest for the trees.’ This expression refers to when we are so bogged down in details that we cannot see the bigger picture. Sometimes we are so daunted by the bigger picture that we fail to recognise that they are made up of tiny parts. What I do is, if a task scares me, I break it down into smaller tasks until I feel that I can do this.
Learn to manipulate time
Foremost it is important to have breaks. Taking breaks is important.
There is an old piece of wisdom that goes like this: you should be able to find twenty minutes every day to sit and do nothing. If you cannot find twenty minutes, then you need to find an hour. If you cannot find an hour, then you need to take a day off. This shows how being too busy is a terrible thing. Do not let the days become gridlocked with routine tasks. Too many people wear ‘being busy’ as a badge of honour and I believe that ‘being busy’ is not something to be proud of. This means that we are working at our full capacity.
For me, if I am too busy, I will have less flexibility, and it means that if I had a brilliant idea, I would not have any time to do anything about this. We have heard it so many times before we need to work smart and not hard. Sometimes working hard, even for prolonged periods, can just be one giant procrastination. Life’s burning task is to work smart, and ironically, working smart is harder than working hard because we must turn on our prefrontal cortex and produce some clever ideas. Thinking creatively can be scary, but it is the most productive way to spend time.
Become a tactical anti-procrastinator
I find, like many people, that when it comes to battling procrastination, and I am in an everlasting game of chess with myself. It is important to learn as many tactics as possible so we can beat the limbic system. I believe that we can pre-empt procrastination. We can diminish it, we can ration it, postpone it, and even ambush it! There is a lot we can do to outplay procrastination, and we need to find the tactics that work best for us.
The other thing I do is a 10-minute dash, and this works very well for me. This technique shakes up the task, turns it over, and looks at it from a different angle. For me, it is a guarantee that after ten minutes the task no longer seems as daunting and frightening as it did before. Anyone can be productive for ten tiny minutes.
The other thing that vastly improves productivity is having a positive mindset. It has been proven that to improve a positive mindset, writing down even one short sentence every is key. It works well for me. I look back at the end of my day. I close the day, stamp it, and file it somewhere in my mind. I find it does wonders for my overall mental state.
Procrastination is a natural function of the dominant cognitive feature in our brain: our Limbic System. There is no point beating ourselves up about unproductive habits, such as surfing social media platforms on our phones. Instead, we can treat our efforts to outwit our lizard brain as an interesting experiment. We can select one or more strategies to bring our Prefrontal Cortex to the fore – find a method that works for you. It is a matter of experimenting. Trial and error. We select a method and evaluate the results. How productive were we productive today? What worked well? What was less effective? How can we improve tomorrow? Most importantly, are we clear on what we are aiming for in our life – and did we make progress in that direction?
If you missed my first article on procrastination, you could find it here Why Do We Procrastinate? The Two-Headed Ogre (brainzmagazine.com)
The author would like to thank copywriter Stuart Warner for his valuable comments on a draft of this article.
Suki Collins, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Suki Collins is a leading Business Coach and an accredited Executive Coach. She has had over 20 years of experience at the senior HR management level. She practices a coaching style of management and has seen the difference coaching can make to an individual, a team, and the organization. On an organization level, she was responsible for establishing a Medical School in the United Kingdom. Currently, the School is in the top 5 Medical Schools in the UK. She coached senior leadership to utilize HR tools for ensuring performance and foster a culture of continuous improvement.
Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity (EDI), and belonging are at the heart of everything Suki does.
Suki is the Founder/Director of Pebbles Coaching and Wellbeing Consultancy, established in 2020. Her company aims to provide coaching to individuals, teams, and organizations, leveraging the insight of over two decades’ senior management experience within two top Universities and extensive executive coaching experience.
Suki is passionate about new challenges, has a positive outlook on life, and this is carried through everything she does. She strongly believes that a positive mindset can take her through any challenges she faces in life.
Suki’s mission: spread the word about the positive impact of coaching.