Deep in your subconscious lie your:
- Automatic body processes
- Unconscious memories
- Internalized beliefs
- Behavior patterns
That’s why the psychology of procrastination is so complex, there’s a lot going on under the surface.
I’m a fan of this quote from Antifragile:
“Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad—at an existential level, it is my body rebelling against its entrapment.”Nassim Taleb
His take on things really resonates with me—the idea that procrastination is a kind of deep, subconscious defense mechanism.
But there are ways we can throw a monkey wrench into the works.
How the Subconscious Mind Works
Our subconscious mind is the counterpart to the logical and analytical part of the brain. It uses dreams, symbols, metaphors and pictures to send messages to the conscious mind.
A lot of the decision making process takes part in our subconscious. Researchers have shown this by studying how our decisions are affected when different parts of our brain are suppressed. Even when our decisions are not entirely conscious, we still believe them to be.
When procrastination rears its ugly head, it’s our subconscious mind that’s largely to blame.
Tips for Beating Procrastination
If deep down you’re feeling trapped of forced to do something against your will, it makes sense why you’re rebelling against the very act of doing it.
I still have days where I procrastinate but these are some of the best ways I’ve come across so far going Inception on procrastination:
1) Dig Deep
Seek out the root cause of your procrastination. Is it perfection? This is my biggest issue. It’s easy to start overthinking everything and wanting to make it perfect before delivering. The key is in the cliche: just get started. Reframe “perfect” to “version 1.0.” When you get comfortable delivering work that still makes you slightly uncomfortable, you start to make quicker progress that soon starts to snowball.
2) Set Up Shop
Have everything you need (and everything your mind could possibly come up with to need) within arm’s length. Before you start a work session, make sure you have all your unknowns covered for what you’re working on. Have your work station set up with coffee, drinks, snacks, headphones or whatever else your mind might invent a need for. Mine does all of the above.
3) Weaponize the Zeigarnik Effect
The Zeigarnik effect states that you remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones. Our brain deems these interrupted tasks more important. This effect is very powerful and is behind of a lot of our anxiety when we feel busy and rushed (and also the negative emotion that’s present alongside our procrastination).
Understanding it is the key to not only accomplishing more, but producing higher quality work.
As we go about our day, our list of “open loops” are top of mind, and this can make us anxious or uncomfortable. Our brain is working to close them so we can escape the heckling, but the very fact that we’re overwhelmed by them hinders us from making progress. By being conscious of how this works, you can weaponize it to get more done.
I find this much easier if I understand where my procrastination is coming from.
- Eliminate. Kill open loops. Open loops buried in our subconscious suddenly spring to mind at random times of day, making the cycle never-ending. Having too many open loops is like having 50 applications open on your computer. They use a lot of your mental resources even if you’re not consciously attending to them. Overwhelm is often one of the main causes behind procrastination. Clear the clutter in your subconscious mind by screening out and refining down to your single most important 1-3 tasks. By having a narrower focus, you’re more likely to be able to use the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage.
- Develop a sixth sense. It’s one level better if you’re able to refrain from opening the wrong loops in the first place. Once they’re open, your brain will find ways to push you to close them (a process of which can lead to wasted time and wandering in the wrong direction). Develop a sense of which loops result in the highest payoffs and strategically open those loops. Don’t allow other open loops.
- Kill notifications. Phone notifications are examples of open loops. Even seeing them adds another mental “to-do” to the subconscious to-do list. I find it helpful to minimize or completely eliminate these.
- Gamify. Is there a way to break down your progress into a set of steps or offer yourself rewards for each part of the way? How can you make it fun? How can you track this or create a visual reminder? I like to create posters on my wall that I use to track progress visually.
- Lower your sights. Reframe so you’re not aiming for level ten. If you’re currently at level zero, use your limited amount of will power to get yourself to level one as quickly as possible. The Pomodoro technique works for many. By doing this, you’re creating a brand new open loop that you’ll be motivated to close. By setting the sights lower you’re also giving yourself a small win early on and making it more likely the motivation will start to snowball.
- Adjust or ditch loop timelines: If your procrastination is due to overwhelm, ask yourself if perhaps you’re rushing toward impossibly unrealistic deadlines. As Matthew Kelly said: “Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a month.” When I find myself procrastinating, 9 times out of 10 I can trace it back to having unrealistic timeline expectations for projects. When I instead look back on how far I’ve come, I’m able to reframe so that consistent progress trumps strict deadlines.
4) Say it Out Loud
State your goal publicly and create accountability. The subconscious understanding that someone’s watching flips a switch in your brain and changes the entire dynamic. It’s like the difference between talking to a mirror and live streaming. If there’s not already, find a way to self-impose a deadline and create a penalty for not following through.
Switching Off the Zeigarnik Effect
The Zeigarnik Effect can be so powerful that once you’ve trained your brain to think this way, the hard part is turning it off.
I’ve found each of the following beneficial:
- Taking dedicated breaks. My biggest issue used to be that I’d feel guilty anytime I took a break. I’d find myself mentally “working” even when I wasn’t working. This is not a real break. It’s easier said than done but after making some progress, give yourself permission to tune out for 30-60 minutes and just let your mind wander. Short power naps work wonders here. You’ll be amazed at how your best ideas spring to life in these moments, or how taking time away helps you be more clear-headed when you get back to work.
- Meditation. Just sit in a comfortable position and chill. As thoughts come up, simply observe them, let them dissipate and slowly “float” away.
- Journaling or writing.
- Using the imagination. Visualize yourself completing a project. Imagine it in detail, from what it will look like to all the positive benefits and feelings associated with its completion. Try to create the most vivid mental picture you can. I find this works great right before bed. Let the subconscious mind take over and make the necessary connections while you’re sleeping.
- Creating art. Words and logic are the domain of your conscious mind. Your subconscious mind speaks in images and symbols. Create art or take photos
- Reading fiction. The Alchemist is one of my favorites.
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This is my first time hearing of the Zeigarnik Effect but I have certainly felt it before. This explains why I always feel like my brain is overclocked.
It’s funny, after writing about this I’m now even more hyperaware of it. It really is powerful.