I sat down to do my expenses last week, opened the spreadsheet and suddenly, an irresistible force urged me to find out all about the latest situation in Venezuela. Then, I remembered someone sent me a really cool clip of how to cut a cat’s hair, which I needed to watch immediately. (Yeah, don’t have a cat… so?). Ok, back to the expenses. Oh, this article I read yesterday might interest one of my clients, I’ll email it to her right now. And just like that, the day I had set aside for tax stuff quickly passed, full of weird and wonderful learnings. Did you know that spaghetto is the singular form of spaghetti?
Inside the procrastinator’s mind
If you are a procrastinator like me, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If not, this is what it feels like: an overwhelming lure to divert attention away from the task that needs to be done. Almost as if there was an invincible, unsurmountable wall, blocking the mental path towards the task and firing off a bunch of sudden alternative activities or interests that need to be addressed straight away. You know and agree that it doesn’t make any sense to waste time with unrelated -and often futile- tasks when the job will have to be done anyway. You can rationalise the world out of it. Still, spaghetto is calling for you.
As an outsider looking in, it sounds absurd. I’ll watch my kids in utter disbelief, as they stare at the ceiling or roll around the floor, when ALL they have to do is spend 10 minutes on their homework. It’s preposterous! Why don’t they just do it and be done with it?!
Procrastination, that ‘bad habit’
Here’s the thing. “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,” states Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology. Feeling a compulsion to do something when you know you shouldn’t, going down the ‘shame cycle’ with that underlying guilt for doing it anyway, does that sound familiar? I’ll give you a clue: smoking, biting your nails… Yes you’ve got it, we’re talking habits. ‘Bad’ habits.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, the habit loop works like this: Cue, Routine, Reward. The cue signals the brain to go into automatic mode. It triggers the physical or emotional response (the routine). The response produces a reward, which tells the brain ’I like this loop, let’s do it again’. And so on.
Here’s an example:
Like all ‘bad habits’, procrastination is basically a way of coping with challenging or negative emotions caused by certain tasks or situations. With procrastination, it is the momentary enjoyment of the ‘side-tracked’ activity that feeds the habit loop. Putting off a task provides an immediate reward. In his excellent TED Talk, Tim Urban describes it as his ‘instant gratification monkey’. When we are rewarded for a behaviour, we do it again. The habit cycle is created. The program starts running in the subconscious mind, and gets further imprinted as the habit is repeated.
Just like other unhelpful habits, part of you wants to break it and part of you wants to keep it. Dr Piers Steel goes as far as stating that procrastination is a form of ‘self-harm’. I had never thought of it like that, but of course, it makes sense. It is a form of self-sabotage, again similar in many ways to smoking and other ‘bad habits’.
Procrastinator’s greatest enemy: Panic
Under pressure, procrastination is gone. When the task needs to be done and there is no time left, the task needs to be done and there is no time left!
Like many of my fellow procrastinators, I have a panic-thesis-story. After putting it off for several months, I started writing my Master’s thesis on the Sunday morning before the Tuesday 10am deadline. I literally did not move from that spot for 48 hours. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t wash, I didn’t talk to anyone. I ate only bits of junk food that my flatmates tiptoed into my room. I finished writing it at 8:34 am on Tuesday morning. At 8:42 am, I ran out the door to the printing shop to get it printed and bound. At 9:54 am, I had it all there, ready, in my hands. I paid, ran across campus and at 10:00 am exactly, I handed it in. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t have won any beauty or fitness contests at that point.
Tim Urban calls it the ‘Panic Monster’. And he is right, it is panic time. I tell you now, during those 48 hours, there was no procrastination. No distraction. There was nothing else in the world that mattered but the goal to get this finished by 10am on Tuesday. Every brain cell, every muscle, every fibre in my body only existed to serve and execute one purpose. My entire being had become a mission machine, a relentless robot with absolute focus on the task, performing at a level of intensity like no other. And what extraordinary happening (ok, some might call it fluke…) to have finished precisely in time for the exact deadline.
The ‘Bigger Better Offer’ (B.B.O) that can rewire the habit
What unleashes that incredible momentum to sustain this level of performance? Here’s the answer: giving your brain a ‘Bigger Better Offer’ (B.B.O), as described by Psychiatrist Dr Judson Brewer. Something that makes a better reward than avoidance. The habit loop achieves a short-term satisfaction at the cost of longer-term objectives. But what if the longer-term objective was so desirable, so motivating, that it would generate the power to break the procrastination cycle and create a new loop.
In this case, it was getting my Master’s Degree. The alternative was failing it, facing my parents, the embarrassment of telling everyone, hearing the conversation already.. ‘what happened?’ ‘well… I didn’t finish my thesis in time’… ‘oh, but did you not have like the whole year to do it?’ This was not an option. I just had to do it. The bigger reward here (B.B.O) was graduation, pride, achievement, the door opening to my future. This is what created momentum. I have actually sustained similar levels of focus and drive over much longer periods (without the fierce intensity and lack of hygiene), on amazing projects that really stimulated me. The mission machine was back, hoovering up every boring task into the goal to get it done methodically and efficiently. If the B.B.O is huge, so is the motivation, and the momentum just flows.
The procrastination formula
Anything that encompasses a feeling of urgency disrupts the cycle. You don’t procrastinate to go to the airport to catch your flight or to get someone to hospital in an emergency (imagine that… ‘Oh, hang on a second, let’s just see if there is a singular to macaroni’). When urgency happens, it doesn’t just bring you close to the reward; it also disrupts the whole of Charles Duhigg’s habit loop. This is why it works so effectively. All the components that create a favourable procrastinating habitat are missing.
To avoid the unhelpful cycle and create momentum, the Bigger Better Offer must be either really huge or really close in time, ideally both. In other words, the further the reward, the bigger it must be. This chart will illustrate this better:
Big B.B.O + super close deadline = Green (low procrastination risk) zone
Small B.B.O + far away deadline = Red (high procrastination risk) zone
Some middle areas (orange) have fluctuating procrastinating potential, depending on the ratio between the length of the deadline and the size of the B.B.O.
Getting to know your new best friend, procrastination
Many schools of thought suggest attaching positive emotions and associations to the task we are procrastinating on. That might work for me once I have already started the boring task; that association keeps the momentum going. Yet, when it comes to doing my expenses, no matter how much I visualise it as part of my business which I wholeheartedly adore, it just doesn’t make the cut for the B.B.O. And it’s ok, because there is a simple way around it.
Once I understood the loop of procrastination, I started to recognise the pattern, the cues and what feeds into it. I am thankful for how my ‘bad habit’ made me realise the depth and potential of my performance under pressure. All I have to do is harness that ability by creating my own panic bubble.
To start the flow, when it comes to doing boring stuff that I don’t like doing, I give myself short deadlines AND rewards. This is where I went wrong last week, I had set myself a deadline but no reward. My rewards can be starting a new series on Netflix that I am dying to watch, buying a new dress, trying a new herbal tea or having a massive piece of chocolate cake. Yes, I hear you, I have a very exciting life!
The other good news is that like all habits, you can break them by disrupting the cycle more and more. Basically, the less you procrastinate, the more you are breaking the habit loop and the less you will be likely to procrastinate in the future.
I must admit, I kind of have a sentimental attachment to my procrastination. Perhaps because I am a ‘panic junkie’, I enjoy that mesmerising buzz of working under pressure. But also, it has served its purpose in my life many times by creating opportunities to unlock the ultimate mental and physical performance. My fellow procrastinators often ask ‘how do I stop procrastinating?’. The answer is: don’t! instead, embrace it and create your own procrastinating loop. Understanding your habit cycle will allow you to harness and control your panic super power, by setting yourself deadlines and bigger and better rewards. Or, a simpler more effective antidote to procrastination is to thrive in life, to set yourself B.B.O’s that are so meaningful and motivating that they create endless fuel to your momentum.
Chantal Dempsey is an Award-Winning Life Coach who specialises in helping men and women build confidence and thrive. Get her free weekly coaching via her website www.forwardlifecoaching.co.uk.
 Procrastination, Health, and Well-Being. 2016. M. Sirois and Timothy A. Pychyl. Edited by: Fuschia
 The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. 2012. Charles Duhigg. Edited by: Random House
The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Piers Steel (Feb 2007) Psychological Bulletin 133(1):65-94
Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind (March 2021) Dr Judson Brewer