Why We Don't Do What We Want

Treat Thompson



This is a republishing of The Steady Fella Newsletter. Every week readers use the timeless insights on passion, productivity, philosophy, and happiness from this newsletter to build towards the life they want.

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This week's newsletter is based on "Why we wait: the neuroscience of procrastination" from Ness Labs.

Procrastination is an incredibly common act we've all struggled with. It's an ironic concept because we're driven away from something we deem important.

There are a few things that trigger it:

  • We know a task is going to be difficult
  • We're scared we'll produce poor output
  • We rather do something more entertaining
  • There's no short term reward to motivate us

The Greek philosopher, Socrates, asked how is it possible that, if one judges an action to be the best, one would do anything other than this action.

Most people answer that question with laziness, bad habits, or incompetence. The real answer is our biology.

With every decision we want to make, there's a battle in our brains between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

  • The limbic system is also known as our "lizard brain" or "monkey brain". It's one of the oldest and most dominant portions of the brain. The majority of its processes are non-conscious and happen automatically. It's heavily involved in ensuring our survival.
  • The prefrontal cortex is what separates humans from animals that are controlled by instincts and stimuli. It's a newer part of the brain, so it is, therefore, weaker than the limbic system. It's where thinking, decision making, problem-solving, and reasoning occur.

You can think of these two as opposites. One is conscious actions and the other is instinctual actions.

The battles go like this:

  • With your prefrontal cortex, you decide that lifting weights after work is a good idea. It'll help you maintain fitness and contribute to your health long term.
  • Your limbic system says, "nope". All it cares about is your survival. So with you being perfectly safe and stress-free at home, coupled with no immediate reward from lifting weights, it has no motivation to bring on discomfort and burn calories.
  • Because our limbic system is more dominant, it usually wins the battle. The result is procrastination. We're driven away from something that we know we should do.

When you understand the science of procrastination it makes it easy to stop blaming yourself. Now, what can you do about it?

Because of the brain's ability to adjust and adapt (neuroplasticity), there are techniques we can use to prevent procrastination:

Optimize your environment

If your environment is full of physical and digital distractions, it adds extra resistance to a task that you're already not motivated to do.

Do the hard thing first

Eat the frog! Mark Twain once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Doing the thing you least want to do first is important for 2 reasons:

  1. The rest of your day will be much easier
  2. If you don't do it first, it will occupy your mind and drain you as you stress about it all day. Leaving you to do it when you're tired and stressed.

Create smaller chunks

Splitting your large task into multiple smaller chunks makes it less daunting when trying to start, gives you mini feelings of accomplishment, and provides established breaks throughout the task.

Work in public

Working in public just means letting people know your tasks, jobs, or goals. It uses the power of accountability for motivation.

This weeks quote

"Someday" is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you

- Tim Ferriss

In this quote, Tim Ferriss is saying that delaying when you take action on your dreams leads to that dream never being able to realize. It starts in your head and stays in your head for your entire life.

Tim Ferriss says, "For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks ... The stars will never align and the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time."

He says if it's important to you, do it now and correct course along the way.

This weeks question

Do you notice you're procrastinating when it's happening? Or not until some time has passed?

My answer:

Over the past year, I've made it a priority to be very intentional with my time. So whenever I get frustrated with my work and reach for my phone I instantly recognize that I'm trying to procrastinate.

This awareness helps me snap out of the trance and work my way back to getting things done.