Procrastination indeed.

There is no expedient to which man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.

~ Sir Joshua Reynolds

Sir Josh has it right. It is amazing the things that we trick ourselves into out of sheer avoidance. Not necessarily consciously either; we are hardwired to turn to the easier task. It happens involuntarily, without even consulting our better motivations. In fact, it takes a conscious act of will to choose that which is harder.

Why is that? Learning How to Learn MOOC to the rescue! I have to admit, with some sheepishness, that I was excited to learn that procrastination has a physical root cause. When I am faced with an activity that I would really rather not do, science has shown that my insular cortex, the part of my brain that registers physical pain, is activated. It’s not just me whining for no reason. I am actually registering a pain sensation, which, quite naturally, I have trained myself, quite successfully, to avoid. My whining is founded. And my automatic track switching is even somewhat justifiable.

But nevertheless, procrastination is usually not profitable in the long run, despite keeping my subconscious tenderfeet from the coals. Generally speaking, I would do better to take to the tasks that need my attention, rather than to find a million ways to avoid them. The answer lies in a little brain-training. I am not, in this regard at any rate, a lost cause; I am still in control. There are a few simple ways to beat the procrastination beast.

The Pomodoro Technique capitalizes on the fact that the pain sensation is only momentary, and has to do with making a start. If we can push through, and get ourselves moving in the right direction, we find that not only does the pain disappear as fast as it appeared, but the sense of accomplishment we acquire through the effort has the exact opposite effect. If we set a timer for 20 minutes, and determine to push through the pain at all costs, we can make it through. The timer puts the end in sight, reducing our anxiety, and helping us to break through faster.

The added bonus of the Pomodoro timer technique is that we need short breaks in our focused thinking. Research has shown that we are a great deal more productive when we focus on our tasks intently for short periods of time, from 20-50 minutes, and take short 5-minute breaks in between each session, moving our bodies and resetting our minds. The optimum focused-session time seems to be variable, highly dependent on individual preferences and practices, but what is certain is that regularly scheduled breaks increase productivity and keep us healthier. FYI, after 3-4 Pomodoro sessions, you should take an even longer break, say 1/2 hour.

We also need to recognize that not all procrastination is bad (to start!). Quite often, our brains just need a break (see Pomodoro!).  Not necessarily to just rest in the way we think of taking a break, but a brain break, where we leave the focused mode of thinking for a while in order to let things mull around in the noggin untethered.  When we’re not focused, we’re using our diffuse mode of thinking, which is where a great deal of the real work happens.  Overdo the focused mode, and you’ll quickly find the point of diminishing returns. Utilize opportunities to ‘zone out’ and let your diffuse mode take over, and your light-bulb moments will be more frequent and your focused studies more constructive.

We need the breaks, the breaks help our minds to process our learning, the breaks are good for our bodies. But sometimes taking a break makes it hard to get back to the task at hand, and the pain sensation comes back into play. Here is where we have to be smarter than our brains. WHAT? Yes, we have to play a few mind games, and take control back from our over-zealous and all-too-easily-distracted brains. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habitsuggests that you treat your brain a bit like a puppy in need of training when it has unruly tendencies, such as sudden and pressing needs to scrub every inch of floor in your home, or to delve into that bit of research you’ve been thinking about, or to clean out your entire inflated inbox, all at those inopportune moments where you are supposed to be ‘on task,’ a different task.

First, you need to recognize the triggers. Be aware of that point where things go south. Where your little distraction to help your brain think takes on a life of its own and commandeers your life. (When I flip to my email in the middle of writing time, or spend more than two minutes there at any unscheduled time.) Then turn it into a trigger for something else to happen, something to undo the problem. (I will immediately close all browser windows.)

Wee Rachel loved the Pomodoro technique

Then,  and this is the important part, give yourself a reward for iteration number one of your new habit. (I eat an M&M.) You can actually train your brain to get good feelings from unpleasant activities, turning them to pleasant ones. Every time you follow through on your plan, you get a treat, and soon the new plan is the automatic one, and you no longer need the artificial reward.

Apparently. I have to say that last part (about no longer needing my M&M) sounds a little fishy to me. I haven’t tested the theory yet, but Mr. Duhigg is pretty convincing, so until I prove him wrong, I’ll go with it.

So while we often have deeply ingrained habits of  avoidance and self-distraction, we are not helpless victims.  We have the power to take over and take back our attention.  As with all good things, it will take a little work, but as with all good things, the work will be well-worth it. Your floor will get cleaned eventually.

A chronological listing of the posts in this series:


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