Research shows that up to 20% of adults self-identify as chronic procrastinators and surely there are countless more of us who fall into the occasional category. The good news is that no matter how many battles against “tomorrow thinking” you’ve lost, you can still win the war. “Surprisingly, the solution isn’t to push through the pain to get stuff done, it’s to come to a full stop,” says Elyssa Smith, a certified life coach who has helped hundreds of women stop delaying and start doing.
Smith says the secret to overcoming procrastination is understanding that your brain sees a rapidly approaching deadline the same way it does a rapidly approaching bear. “When your right brain perceives a threat, it prepares your body and mind to run from that threat,” explains Smith. “It ramps up your respiratory and circulatory systems while shutting down any unnecessary functions that are not required for a 20-meter dash to the nearest getaway. It just so happens that logical, left-brain thinking is one of those unnecessary functions.” That wipes out any chance of you getting stuff done.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to get your brain out of survival mode and into productive mode. Smith showed me the self-compassionate time management process she takes her clients through as soon as they notice stress mounting and procrastination on the horizon. Follow her “Three S” framework to get back to work.
“To calm your brain’s survival response, you need to get to safety or convince yourself that you’re safe,” says Smith. In the wild, that means running to a place the bear can’t hurt you. In your office, that means putting down the project you’re working on for a moment and stepping away from your desk.
“Go for a slow, 10-minute walk noticing the sights and sounds around you or sit in another room and do 4-4-6 breaths where you breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds and exhale for six seconds,” suggests Smith, who specializes in improving the emotional health of busy, overwhelmed women. “These both have a strong calming effect on your nervous system because they’re not things you can do if you’re running from an actual wild animal. They signal safety to your brain.”
Smith says many of her clients have a hard time excusing themselves from stressful situations, but developing that skill is essential. Giving yourself a moment to step out of the stress—whether you close your laptop before re-engaging with a project or escape to the bathroom before giving a presentation—will make you more productive in the end.
No, she’s not talking about a spa day or a week-long, unplugged island getaway—although both of those do sound amazing.. “Self-care has to be manageable and is an integral part of any successful business approach,” says Smith who suggests starting small by nurturing your five senses. “Find something pleasing to look at, nice to smell, refreshing to drink, relaxing to listen to and wonderful to touch. If you’re running from a bear, you won’t have time to pay attention to a beautiful painting or a scented candle.” Perhaps you turn on some classical music or binaural beats, pet your dog for a few minutes, or have a quick drink of water with a squeeze of lemon.
“One of my clients bought herself an expensive, soft blanket that she takes everywhere with her when she travels for work,” says Smith. “It brings her physical comfort but even the act of purchasing something nice for you is an act of self care.”
“This is the toughest ‘S’ for my clients because, unless they’ve done a lot of inner work, high-achieving women don’t want to be a burden to others if they’re struggling,” says Smith. It’s an aversion that has evolutionary roots as well. “The top fear of the survival brain, other than the fear of being eaten by a predator, is to be left out of the herd. This is why most humans are averse to showing perceived weakness or displeasing others in their lives. Judgement by someone in your ‘herd’ can lead to rejection. In the survival mindset, rejection leads to being kicked out of the herd.”
The fix is to text, call or go visit someone who cares about your well-being and supports you unconditionally, says Smith. That could be a best friend, partner or family member. “That conversation communicates to your brain that you’re not getting kicked out of the pack, so it’s safe to re-engage the logical brain and be productive again.” One trick Smith suggests is reaching out to three people at a time instead of just one. “You increase your odds of hearing back quickly from at least one person if the other two are in meetings or not looking at their phone,” she says.
Once you engage in these self-compassionate time-management techniques, you’ll be able to stop avoiding tasks and start engaging your left-brain thinking to figure out how to move forward with them. “Ultimately, you may need to delegate the task, defer the deadline or tap into your ‘why’ to get it done,” says Smith. “If you start with a little self-compassion, you won’t stay stuck for long.”