Procrastination. We all do it, some of us more than others. Part of the reason why we procrastinate is our brain values short-term rewards. The problem is we now live in a world where everything is instant. Our brain generates a reward from instant gratification in the way of dopamine - a chemical very similar to cocaine. We get a 'hit' of dopamine from social media, texting, the internet, sugar, junk food, TV, nicotine, sex, porn and alcohol, just to name a few.
So, when you set long term goals for yourself, like saving money or losing weight (long-term rewards) you are making plans for your behaviour in the future that has less short-term benefit.
We all have two versions of ourselves. Our current self and our ideal future self. Your current self may struggle with procrastination, have trouble maintaining a healthy lifestyle, may feel overwhelmed by your to-do list, and you may not have very good impulse control. Your future self, however, has lots of energy and motivation, gets everything on your list done, loves to exercise, eat healthily and has amazing self-control.
At least that’s the story we tell ourselves when we put off, what we need to be doing now, in order to reach our full potential. Monday is our mantra, the day we are going to wake up and magically behave how we know we should, to be as happy, and fulfilled as we really want to be.
The problem is we are avoiding self-discipline and compiling a to-do list on a self that doesn’t exist. Studies show when thinking of a future self, in most of us the part of the brain that is activated is the part used when thinking of others, not ourselves. We actually think of our future self as a different person, separate to ourselves.
This is part of why you might go to bed feeling determined to make positive changes in your life, but the next day you fall right back into old habits. Your brain values long-term rewards when they are in the future, but it values instant gratification when it comes to right now.
Here are my top tips for re-training your brain to value long-term rewards over instant gratification, how to overcome procrastination, and achieve your goals.
1. Make a bet
There is a great website stickk.com where you can place a bet to commit to doing what you say you’re going to do. If you don't do it, then the money goes to a charity you hate. The concept is to put your money where your mouth is and create a painful consequence that keeps you motivated towards reaching your goal and keeps you accountable.
2. Break it down
Another way to make to goals more attainable is to break them down. For example, I started a school teaching hypnotherapy and psychology. It was very important for me to write the content of the course myself. I presold the course before I wrote the content giving myself a deadline that I had to finish it by. So, on average, for the past year, I have been writing 50,000 words a month by breaking it down into chunks. I set a goal of 2000 words per day, twenty-five days a month. Which I broke down to 250 words every 15 minutes.
This helped me feel a sense of achievement every time I reach 250 words, as well as a feeling of accomplishment when I reached 2000 words in two hours. That feeling was even greater when I finished a new workbook each month. I'm actually dyslexic and a very slow typist, so I bought a USB wired headset (wireless headsets don’t work nearly as well,) and I used the voice recognition software in Microsoft Word, so most the time I don't even have to type. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you put your mind to it.
3. The 5-second rule
Mel Robbins discovered this trick and has written a great book called The 5 Second Rule which is about overcoming procrastination. In it she talks about how she was a chronic procrastinator and was hitting the snooze button repeatedly every morning, making herself and her kids late every day. One night before going to bed she was watching TV and saw an ad that had a rocket launching while the announcer was counting down. She told herself that’s what she was going to do the next morning. Count from 5 down to 1 and launch herself out of bed.
And she did. When the alarm went off the next morning, she counted 5. 4. 3. 2. 1 and launched herself out of bed. Then she used the same technique to count from 5 down to 1 and launched herself to the gym. She became incredibly productive, wrote a bestselling book about it and now teaches people around the world on how to overcome procrastination. By counting, you engage the frontal lobe of your brain which governs your impulse control. The key is to count down and then take action.
4. Boost your dopamine levels
Dopamine is the motivating neurotransmitter that makes you feel focused, energised and excited. When you are low in dopamine, you tend to feel distracted, sluggish, prone to procrastination and find it hard to take pleasure in life.
I used to be a terrible procrastinator, leaving everything to the last-minute, totally disorganised and rarely finishing anything I started. Once I figured out I was low in dopamine and started boosting it with supplements, my whole life changed. If you have an addictive personality, have ADD or ADHD, crave sugar, coffee, energy or diet drinks, or other stimulants, you could be low in dopamine.
How to Boost Dopamine
Supplements – L-Tyrosine is an amino acid that is the building block for dopamine. It‘s also a precursor to thyroid hormones, so therefore useful to increase low energy levels, boost alertness, as an appetite suppressant, thyroid function and to increase sexual desire.
L-Phenylalanine is also a precursor to dopamine as well as many other essential neurotransmitters. It’s a natural mood booster and antidepressant, curbs sugar and stimulant cravings, helps in controlling pain, particularly arthritis and is used to help treat Parkinson’s disease. L-Phenylalanine also helps form another energising brain chemical called PEA (phenylethylamine), (also found in chocolate) which is believed to be the chemical most responsible for feelings of euphoria. Exercise and sex are also great ways of boosting dopamine.
5. Make a TA-DA list
I was always making To Do lists that never got done. Now I make a Ta-Da list. Before bed I write down five things I want to accomplish tomorrow, I prioritise them 1 to 5 by the most important. The next day I focus on the number one item on the list until that's done and work through the list progressively crossing each item off. Whatever I don't finish on the list, goes on the list for the next day. It's a very simple but incredibly effective tool for getting things done.
It's up to you to decide what kind of life you're going to lead and what you're going to achieve. What you tell yourself is probably the greatest factor on whether or not you'll achieve your goals. If you tell yourself you’re a procrastinator who never gets anything done, guess what, you will be. Whatever you tell yourself, your subconscious mind will try to make it true.
So, tell yourself a new story… That you’re a hard worker. That you're smart and you deserve success. And then take action, again and again. If you tell yourself a new positive story, your subconscious mind will make that true. Become that ideal future you, one step at a time. It's all up to you…
Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at nzhypnotherapy.co.nz. Listen to Caroline's new podcast WTF Stories & Advice.