An unconventional solution to stalling at work
Are you someone who procrastinates? If you are, there’s no need to feel guilty or upset. Studies show that nearly 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators. Unfortunately, those who don’t procrastinate often assume that those of us who do procrastinate are lazy and unmotivated. But that’s not true. In fact, most procrastinators are fearful of starting a job, of making mistakes, and of letting someone down, and this causes them to experience a high level of stress.
We are wired to survive. Your brain’s job is to keep you alive and the sight of an overwhelming to-do list can set off a visceral chain reaction that causes the amygdala, a part of the brain, to hijack rational thinking. The amygdala has no sense of time, nor can it distinguish between a real or imagined threat. Hence, it does not understand that your to-do list is not going to devour you.
In fact, the to-do list is no saber-toothed tiger, but when we have a long list of tasks in front of us, we can experience fears of incompetency and of disappointing or letting down our colleagues. In cases such as these, our bodies can react to work projects and meetings the same way they do to a physical threat.
Often, when we have a lot on our plate, we can feel helpless. We know we have to get these jobs done and do them well, but we don’t even know where to start. Ack! Panic! But “overwhelm freeze” or “task paralysis” is not different than encountering a real threat you don’t feel equipped to handle. When it comes to the task list, instead of logically and rationally working on ticking off the items on your to-do list, your brain perceives a looming threat, one that you may not survive (so much drama!), and the result is often procrastination.
It’s not about time management
Many people, including your high school history teacher, have probably told you that procrastination is the result of poor planning. But this is false. Procrastination is a coping mechanism. Staling or putting off a task allows us to set aside feelings of helplessness, at least for a few hours or days, and this can help us feel a bit better, maybe even a sliver of relief. Timothy Pychyl, a professor who studies procrastination at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, calls this “giving in to feel good.”
What makes procrastination such a vicious cycle is that tasks don’t go away on their own. You have to bring a new attitude and energy to the task. What’s the best way to do this? Deal with your feelings. This is the only way you will be able to stay focused and approach your task list with logical and rational thinking.
Thinking clearly can stop the stall: Using the Triple N strategy
The brain’s prefrontal cortex is the home of logical and rational thinking. This executive center keeps the emotional parts of the mind in check. However, in the midst of a stress storm, the balance shifts, and the amygdala takes over and responds with a flood of physiological changes that keep us stuck and take time to run their course and dissipate.
Meanwhile, we’re temporarily disconnected from the part of the brain that is critical for planning, decision-making, self-regulation, and getting things done.
Fortunately, there are strategies that can help us avoid amygdala hijacking. I call it the Triple N strategy, and I teach it to business leaders in my coaching practice to keep them on track with their projects and goals. Here is the Triple N strategy explained:
Procrastination is rooted in fear. Fear is a powerful emotion. You’re not lazy; your body is sensing a threat. Channel your inner scientist, stoke your curiosity and note any sense of helplessness that arises at first glance of your massive to-do list. What physical sensation(s) do you notice from the neck down? If any one of those sensations could talk, what would it say?
Naming the emotion provides an essential bridge between the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain. Emotions are a form of energy-seeking expression. Noticing and naming is an intentional act of venting even the most hot-blooded emotions. By facing our emotions, we begin to manage them, so they don’t manage us.
Clear thinking begins with a calm body. Assess the situation. Is it unsafe or just uncomfortable? By the time an emotion shows up as a physical sensation, there is a six-second window before chemicals flood the body and an amygdala hijacking occurs. This is why quick noticing and naming are so important.
So what’s a chronic procrastinator to do? The next time you find yourself in the middle of an “overwhelm freeze,” try the Triple N approach.
In addition to applying the Triple N strategy described here, I invite you to join other business leaders for an introduction to the To-Do Map notebook. I designed the notebook with procrastinators in mind, and it has worked for dozens of my coaching clients. This webinar will teach you all you need to know to focus your energy and move yourself and your team forward. You’ll feel like a champ, and your days of procrastinating will be done for good.