Procrastination is a silent killer.
Whether it’s putting off a daunting project… delaying on important deadlines… or allowing your to-do list to pile up - procrastination is a stressful and destructive habit.
Growing up, I was the king of procrastination. Some of my friends would wait until the night before an assignment was due, to finish their homework. I’d wait until the morning before. I’d set my alarm for 5am and pound out page…after…page… until that puppy was complete. Sometimes I got away with it. Other times I wasn’t so lucky. It was extremely stressful, and I paid for it royally.
Yet, I kept resorting to it despite the consequences.
According to a 2007 review by the University of Calgary, psychologist Pier Steel found that procrastinators performed worse… struggled with more medical problems… were more likely to waste money on taxes… and put off pressing decisions such as retirement or saving money.
The thing is most procrastinators know it’s hurting them...
So why do they keep doing it?
The brain may reveal some answers.
Researchers from Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, had 264 healthy subjects undergo MRIs. When looked at the results, they found two key differences between the brains of procrastinators’ and action takers’.
Difference #1: Procrastinators Had Larger Amygdala’s
Here’s what the amygdala does:
The amygdala is basically the “smoke detector” of the brain. It’s on constant lookout for threats such as an attacker, wild animal or other dangers. If it detects one of those, it sounds the alarm, signaling your body for the flight-or-flight response. Yet, just like a regular smoke detector, it’s susceptible to false alarms. This can happen even if the fear is simply imagined.
According to researcher Erhan Genc, here’s what a larger amygdala means:
“Individuals with a higher amygdala volume may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action -- they tend to hesitate and put off things.”
In essence, a larger amygdala means more sensitivity to fear, which stops them from acting. It’s this fear or uncertainty that creates hesitation. The interesting thing is that taking action is one of the many things that can actually “calm” down the amygdala (and limbic system).
According to Dr. Alex Korb, in his book The Upward Spiral:
“Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.”
Difference #2: Procrastinators Had Fewer Connections Between the ACC & Amygdala
Action takers had more connections between the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the amygdala. One of the roles of the ACC is assisting decision-making and regulating emotions. Thus, their ability to keep negative emotions at bay (such as fear) is enhanced because they have more connections between those two parts of the brain. Procrastinators on the other hand, had fewer.
According to Erhan Genc:
“Due to a low functional connection between amygdala and dorsal ACC, this effect may be augmented, as interfering negative emotions and alternative actions might not be sufficiently regulated.”
Because there are fewer connections between these two parts of the brain, it’s harder for procrastinators to regulate negative emotions such as fear. The ACC usually helps them cope but since they have fewer connections, it makes it more difficult.
Studies like these can put the blame on the brain, and it’s easy to believe there’s nothing that can be done since it’s “in our heads”.
So are procrastinators hopeless?
Hardly, while it’s interesting to see the differences in the brain, the question becomes:
Do procrastinators’ brains start that way?
Or does the brain develop that way because of the act of procrastination?
In fact, there are studies showing that the size of the amygdala can be reduced by things such as meditation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
For more ways to overcome procrastination, check out my upcoming program Primal Discipline.
This new program focuses on developing intense self-discipline for consistently taking action. It’s not about educating you on procrastination, but giving you the skills to break-free from it. It’s about giving you the confidence in yourself to consistently finish projects and quit putting things off.
The Renegade Life Coach
Incredible true story:
It was a rainy night, and Chet was racing in his 1968 red charger on winding country roads. His friend was driving an Austin-Healy. During the race, Chet whips across a turn and hydroplanes across the lane, while another car is heading towards him from the other direction. He accelerates to avoid hitting it but then can’t make the next turn, so he bolts through someone’s lawn and launches towards a tree.
In that moment, images flood his mind: his father screaming at him for wrecking the car… the damage to the vehicle… the punishment… all of it.
As his car struck the tree, it spun around it, and then tumbled 260 feet off a cliff.
Meanwhile, his friend saw Chet’s car fly off the cliff. He’s balling his eyes out - thinking he’s a goner. Until he sees Chet running up the hill towards him yelling, My car! My car!
Forget your car! I thought you were dead! his friend replies.
Remarkably, there was not even a cat scratch on him. How?
Chet’s training kicked in. When the car rolled down the cliff, he bounced around the interior of the car, and focused on relaxing every muscle in his body. He knew if he tensed up he was going to be trouble. By relaxing his muscles, his bones were able to keep their flexibility.
After the incident Chet (who became a famous author and speaker) stated:
“The only reason I’m here is because of all the karate training”
His training taught him to:
Now you don’t have to find the nearest dojo and pursue a black belt – the same principle applies. Relaxing allows you to absorb the “impact” of stressful events. Whether navigating small ripples of stress or massive tidal waves, relaxing will allow you to skillfully ride the rough waters.
That’s why it’s critical to have daily rituals that put you at your best, the kind that allow you to charge into the day with confidence and centeredness – not overwhelm and anxiety. And keep doing those rituals day-after-day so that your “training” will kick in at the right time as well.
Not just if you have time.
But as a standard for each day.
Because being at your best doesn’t happen by accident.
We don’t rise to our level of expectations;
we fall to our level of training
The Renegade Life Coach
P.S. There are hundreds of techniques for making you feel more confident, centered and “firing on all cylinders” each day. And while there’s no “right” way, it’s about finding that ones that work for you. If you want ideas and tools that have worked for others there’s an entire collection of techniques I’ve put together - you can learn about it here.
William Winram is a Canadian world-record free diver.
One day, he was spearfishing half-a-mile off the coast of Mexico when something nudged him. He turned to see a 1,000lb tiger shark - immediately he froze with fear…his heart thumping out of his chest… physically trembling… thinking to himself, I’m going to die. Because he learned these sharks were man-eaters.
He tosses a fish towards it as bait, but the shark doesn’t go for it.
Then he accidently drops his spear because he’s shaking so much, so he lunges to recover it - and the shark darts away.
Confused by the shark’s response, he swims back to shore. The whole way back, the shark is swimming beside him, but keeping a set distance. If William swam closer, it would swim away. If he swam away, the shark would get closer - always keeping that “comfort zone” though. When he finally approached the shore, he dropped his gear and decided to try something radical.
He swam directly towards the animal and – immediately it swam away.
He realized this apex predator was not a mindless killing machine. Since then, he’s been free diving with sharks (including Great Whites) to discover the truth about these feared predators.
Here are some of his lessons:
(Just like the shark swimming parallel to William back to shore, these lessons “swim” parallel to dealing with fear in general)
#1: It Looks for An Advantage
Even though Great Whites aren’t the mindless killers movies like Jaws portray them as… they still are intelligent predators. The shark is always looking for an advantage, so when he swims with them, he always has a partner helping him - on the lookout for other sharks.
#2: Keep Eye Contact
Winram says, another way to counter this is eye contact. If the shark knows it’s spotted, it feels its advantage is wiped out. Likewise, fear tends to deflate and lose much of its power when you identify it and stare it down for what it really is.
#3: Know When To Be Afraid
According to Winram, when you can see the black eyes of a shark (the kind that stare into your soul like a house cat) that’s when you have nothing to worry about. On the flip side, when it covers its eyes with a membrane (to protect it) – that’s when it’s about to strike. With fear, it’s about figuring out when to fear and what not to fear.
#4: They’re honest.
Great whites are honest, there’s no bullsh*t.
Fear is pretty honest as well; it shows us where we are bumping up against are limitations. Whether they are imagined or not, they still feel real to us. It shows us where our current limits are.
Because they don’t have to stay at that level forever.
P.S. One of the most inspiring examples of this is Robert Downey Jr.'s journey and how he reinvented himself after huge setbacks.
Hugh Jackman is known for his iconic role as Wolverine (X-Men Movies), the mutant with blades emerging from his knuckles.
He’s also movies such as Les Miserables, The Greatest Showman, The Prestige, Australia, Prisoners and many more.
But like many achievers, his challenges are in the dark.
For example, when Jackman was 14-years-old, he hit a serious growth spurt - growing an entire foot in one year. One day, during a cricket match, he stretched up to catch a ball, twisted and passed out.
He had ripped out all the muscles from the base of his spine.
Since his bones were rapidly-growing, his muscles couldn’t keep up. This left him with an injury that took two years of rehab. This forced him to build his core strength –later giving him an advantage on Broadway and in the more physical roles like X-men.
But X-men was not smooth parasailing either.
When the first X-men movie rolled out, Jackman didn’t even get the part as Wolverine. Russell Crowe was the director’s first pick but he turned it down - so they hired Dougray Scott instead. But due to a scheduling kerfuffle and a motorcycle accident he dropped out.
That’s when Jackman was called in.
At that point, the crew was already four weeks into filming. So he felt behind and uncomfortable with all the pressure to catch up - sensing his anxiety, actor Ian McKellen (who played Magneto) pulled him aside and told him,
Your stuff is good.
Even if it feels uncomfortable,
that can sometimes be right.
He’s kept this white pearl of wisdom with him over the years:
If I look back, I think of some of my more successful things,
[They] have been things I’ve been most nervous about.
And probably most unsure of when I began.
When he was hustling with Les Miserables, a similar anxiety swept over him. He went to a friend for help, who told him:
Embrace the fear. The fear is good.
It’s got you where you are today. It makes you work.
The fear sometimes makes you work really hard.
[And when you walk out on stage, thank that fearful side, and then let your confident and strong side take the stage instead.]
Because both sides have their place.
And serve a purpose.