Published in Shetland Life magazine, Sep 2018

Most people procrastinate to some degree. It can be a significant cause of stress and self-directed frustration – we know it doesn’t make sense to put off an inevitable task whilst becoming ever more anxious as the deadline approaches, or let opportunities slip by as we fail to take timely action. 

The term “procrastinate” comes from the Latin ”procrastinare” combining “pro” meaning “forward” and “crastinus” meaning “till next day”. 

Definitions vary. Common themes are the voluntary and irrational delay of a course of action by doing less important tasks in the knowledge that it is counterproductive to do so. Skilled procrastinators put their efforts into unnecessary or low priority tasks at the expense of more significant tasks.

So why would we do that? Basically, our brains have evolved to look after us in the ‘here and now’ and aren’t very good at forward planning. Two key factors are:

Regulating emotions – we unconsciously attempt to avoid the negative emotions (such anxiety, fear and boredom) we associate with a task, and will seek more pleasurable or less demanding tasks in order to feel happier. As the deadline looms, the negative emotions increase and we need to procrastinate more intensively to restore balance.

Present bias – our brains have evolved to value tangible immediate rewards more highly than abstract future rewards. We’re hunter-gatherers pre-programmed for instant gratification. Planting crops to harvest many months later, spending decades in education to secure a better career, or saving for retirement have come about relatively recently in human development. 

Armed with this underlying knowledge I developed a simple technique that reframes anxiety-inducing future tasks as a source of imminent reward.

  • Admit to yourself that you’re procrastinating and accept how illogical it is to do so. This is often the hardest step.
  • Visualise the positive emotions, relief and satisfaction you will feel by completing the task. 
  • Consider this positive visualisation as something you can make into an immediate reality. Bring the task consciously into the present.
  • Get on with the task whilst keeping the visualised reward in mind

An extra step is to feel all smug and tell everybody how clever and efficient you are when you’ve finished. Not that I’ve ever done that.