How to find time for everything you wanted, but were afraid to do.
If, instead of trying to get down to the quarterly report, you will first run for coffee, then come and open a news website, then automatically start to wipe the already clean monitor, you know that you suffer from procrastination. The physiological mechanism of the “disease of procrastination” is revealed in the book “My productive year”, written by psychologist Chris Bailey.
Let’s see what happens inside our brain when we delay and procrastinate. When you procrastinate a fascinating inner battle starts in the brain immediately. First you try to think of a reason why it’s okay to watch another episode of “House of Cards”, but then you remember that soon you need to submit a tax return; then you are tempted to check Facebook or Twitter one more time, and then you think that it is necessary to prepare a report that is due the following Friday. These thoughts are a tug-of-war between the “limbic system” and “prefrontal cortex” of the brain. The limbic system is the emotional, instinctive part of the brain, and it is our pleasure center.
From the evolutionary point of view, the limbic system, is an ancient part of the brain that animals also possess; this part of the brain pushes us to instinctive acts, incites to yield to the emotions and temptations. This is the part of our brain that encourages us to postpone filing a tax return and watch a few episodes of “House of Cards” instead. The prefrontal cortex is the logical part of our brain, it tends to make us sit fill out tax returns. In addition, it is responsible for logic, reason, and helps to maintain the spotlight on long-term goals.
This tug-of-war between the emotional limbic system and the logical prefrontal cortex leads to the decisions that you make during the day. It makes us human. If the prefrontal cortex had always won, all our decisions would have been completely logical and we wouldn’t have differed from the inhabitants of Vulcan planet from Star Trek; our decisions would have been based on pure logic and reason, without regard to your own emotions or the emotions of others. On the contrary, if the limbic system had won, we would have been no different from the animals who follow their instincts. Every decision we make is the result of the victory of either the limbic system or the prefrontal cortex. Our limbic system takes over and now you are going home with a girl you just met at a bar, you do not resist and ordered a donut for morning coffee despite the diet, delay and procrastinate. Tim often calls this behavior “yield to gain pleasure”, and if you look at the brain scan of a person who is procrastinating, you will see what happens on the neurological level. The prefrontal cortex delegates control to the limbic system, and then we experience temporary pleasure.
But the prefrontal cortex also wins quite often. In the end we still save money for retirement, we go to the gym after work, and read about productivity. This part of the brain is constantly struggling to ensure that we have achieved long-term goals, not just those which bring pleasure in the short term. It is almost impossible to achieve productivity without a strong prefrontal cortex. Whenever we deliberate about whether to undertake an unpleasant task, the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex engage in a battle, and then we will either postpone the thing, or roll up our sleeves and get down to work *. There’s only one problem: in the battle between the limbic system and prefrontal cortex the chances of the parties are not initially equal.
The interaction of the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system allows us to do things that are pleasurable, interesting and important for us: to learn to play the cello, to save up money for an exotic journey to climb a mountain, to become a volunteer, to create strong relationships, to achieve long-term goals and to follow your calling. The limbic system is necessary, but productivity is connected with the formation of a strong prefrontal cortex, which if necessary could show the limbic system, who the master is, and suppress the impulsive desire to check emails or Facebook again. Of course, it is necessary to support your limbic system, but without a strong prefrontal cortex it is impossible to implement major achievements, create long-lasting relationships and remain committed to your system of values. All this is easier said than done.
A continuous interaction between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system is a necessary condition for the functioning of the human brain, but it is known that the prefrontal cortex is significantly weaker than the limbic system. The limbic system has evolved over millions of years, while the prefrontal cortex exists only thousands of years.
The most productive people manage not only to refuse to work on autopilot, but also to learn how to use the advantage of the prefrontal cortex and minimize the influence of the limbic system.