The Biggest Time Waster – Procrastination! Why Do We Do It? and What Can We Do About It?

It’s a Tuesday afternoon at a law firm somewhere in Toronto. John is reading the Huffington Post on-line. He feels stuck. Unmotivated. With no pounding deadlines this week he just can’t get around to doing the important but not urgent work on his desk.

Tina in Vancouver is also stuck. She’s so stressed out and anxious about the deadlines she has to meet that she is frozen. Her inner dialogue is about how hopeless she is, and useless, and the worst lawyer ever, and under this harsh litany of criticism she is immobilized.

Frank in Calgary has some urgent client work to attend to but he is interrupted every couple of minutes and can’t make any headway. He gets to working on it, and then hears the ping of his email. He starts to respond to a message, and then he remembers he promised his girlfriend that he’d book the restaurant for dinner. He looks up the restaurant on-line, and then another important email opens up, and the associate next door pokes his head in to tell him how the lunch meeting went.

And me? I procrastinate about personal matters that make me anxious!

Don’t you find that it can be so darned hard to get down to work? It is too quiet and calm so we can’t get motivated to work. Or, it’s so busy we are frozen and can’t work. Or, there are too many interesting things catching our attention. Is it not a wonder that any work gets done at all?

Procrastination in law firms must add up to a mountain of unbilled time – it is certainly one of the number one questions I hear from lawyers: “What’s wrong with me, I just can’t get down to work?” I’ve written about it before and I am turning to the topic once again with some fresh insights to share from leadership coach David Rock, and his book, Your Brain at Work.

Essentially, what I learned from Rock is that our brain chemistry and brain mechanics make us vulnerable to distraction and procrastination.

Our prefrontal cortex is, evolutionarily-speaking, the newest part of our brain. It is often called the executive centre as it is responsible for decision making, planning, scheduling, analysing, strategizing, and basically all of what we are paid to do in law firms. Without your cerebral cortex even thinking “I need to water my plant” would be impossible.

Powerful though it is, our prefrontal cortex is also very sensitive. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School has likened it to the Goldilocks of the brain. Everything has to be just right for it to function optimally.

As knowledge workers, the more we can come to understand how our brains function, the better results we will get. Recent, as well as not-so recent, insights into how our prefrontal cortex functions can help us to adopt ways of working that maximise the power of our brain instead of reducing it.

Our distractible prefrontal cortex

Our prefrontal cortex is always on alert for new external experiences. This likely originated back in time when as hunter gatherers any rustle in the grasses could mean a predator was approaching. Unfortunately this means that is all too easy for us to be distracted by exterior inputs.

Our prefrontal cortex is also sensitive to internal inputs. A memory or thought can also throw off our focus. Thinking about the errand you have to do at lunch can be just as distracting as the conversation outside your office.

Distractions exhaust the prefrontal cortex’s limited resources. Being “always on” (connected to others via technology) can drop your IQ significantly, as much as losing a night’s sleep. Focus occurs partly through the inhibition of distractions. The brain has a common braking system for all types of braking. Inhibition uses a lot of energy because the braking system is part of the prefrontal cortex. Each time you inhibit something, your ability to inhibit again is reduced. Inhibition requires catching an impulse when it first emerges, before the momentum of an action takes over. (David Rock, Your Brain at Work, page 58.)

Frank in Calgary’s prefrontal cortex is experiencing major distractions. Every time he stops and starts work on his file his brain has to reactivate a sensitive network of billions of neurons. It slows him down, and reduces his effectiveness.

Frank tries to deal with the distractions by ignoring them but when his eyes drift to the email alert or who is calling on his cell phone he often finds it difficult to stop from answering.

While writing this article my phone rang and before I could stop myself my hand had picked up the phone and answered the call.

Why is it so hard to stop ourselves from getting caught up? That is because our brains have a hard time putting on the brakes, and the more frequently we use the brakes, the less effective they are.

What Frank and I and any of you distractible types need to do is the following:

  • Clear our minds of random thoughts. Before getting down to focused work we should get our to-dos out of our prefrontal cortex and onto paper. If we are experiencing high levels of stress we could try a morning pages practice as developed by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, to clear out distracting thoughts before getting down to work.
  • We could also turn off the distractions and close the door. Switch off the mobile phone. Shut off the email alerts. Or even take our work to a boardroom to work in for a period of time without distractions.

Our sensitive prefrontal cortex

John in Toronto has his door closed and email off, but he still can’t bring himself to work and is surfing the net instead. He is experiencing a phenomenon that was discovered by researchers close to a hundred years ago:

In 1908, scientists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson discovered a fact about human performance that they called the inverted U. They found that performance was poor at low levels of stress, hit a sweet spot at reasonable levels of stress, and tapered off under high stress. The verb stress means “to emphasize,” and it’s not necessarily a negative thing. It’s wrong to think your performance would improve if stress disappeared from your life. It takes a certain amount of stress just to get out of bed in the morning. This type of stress is known as eustress, or positive stress. Positive stress helps focus your attention. (David Rock, Your Brain at Work, page 62)

As you might have guessed John is a capital markets and securities lawyer who is used to working under tremendous pressure. With the mining downturn he’s been finding it much quieter and while he still has day-to-day legal work to conduct for his clients he is just not able to focus on it. What John needs to try is turning us the stress a little. Here’s what he can do to bring his adrenaline level up:

  • Play a game of beat-the-clock. Bring in a timer and create some pressure. He can set himself a goal of getting the work done within a certain amount of time, hit the timer, and work to his self-imposed deadline.
  • He can also try visualizing his client calling him to say “why haven’t you gotten it done, and don’t tell me it’s because you are too busy!”

Or alternatively he can try getting his brain’s dopamine level up by introducing something fresh and new or humorous. He can take five minutes to watch a funny video before getting down to work. Our brains also respond positively to small shifts in our environment. John can try moving the position of his computer screen and chair slightly in the office. Or as one client with a standing desk recommended, move the desk into the upright standing position from sitting.

Stress overload

What about Tina in Vancouver? She’s suffering from distraction and stress overload, what is she to do?

With too much incoming information Tina’s stress levels are too high. The stress in turn is triggering a series of negative thoughts. Her prefrontal cortex just can’t operate under those conditions.

First, she needs to take a short break. A walk out of her office to the coffee room or somewhere private for a change of scenery would help. Tina need to move to break out of the mental rut she is in.

Next, I would recommend Tina take ten slow deep inhales and exhales and think about five things that she is most grateful for. The breaths are to counteract her stress reaction and cue her body into relaxing. The gratitude practice is to stop the train of negative thoughts and turn her thinking outward.

Finally, she would do well to seek out a friendly colleague to talk about the project at hand and figure out her work plan.

Talking with a friendly colleague will help raise her dopamine levels and get brain chemistry moving upwards towards that Goldilocks just-right level. Jotting down her action plan on paper would also help – so that she is not cluttering her brain with any more information.

All human brain’s differ, but do share the same chemistry and mechanics. John, Frank, and Tina, are just like you and me. We are all too easily distracted and thrown off our game by changes in our stress levels. The good news is that by understanding how our brains work we can take steps to make the most of what our prefrontal cortex’s can deliver.

And as for my anxiety-driven procrastination, which results in me not scheduling important meetings with health care providers, I am going to ask my assistant, in this instance only, to schedule those appointments for me. As I know very well that what gets scheduled gets done!

For more tips on working with, and not against, your brain do read: David Rock’s Your Brain at Work. It has changed the way I work for the better.

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