Why do we procrastinate from the things that make us happy?
Last Wednesday, I got home from work and crunched through the Instagram stories of:
a) some girl I went to school with playing on a roundabout with her kid;
b) a skincare brand that I don’t care about but have never unfollowed;
c) my cousin’s neon-heavy throwback photo of Ibiza 2014.
I took zero pleasure – not even the precarious kind experienced when you inhale chocolate faster than you can down a glass of water – from this. Plus, my list of things I truly want to (including downloading the next episode of the Nxivm cult podcast) is endless.
So, why do I pour the precious downtime I have into a black sack of dead hours? ‘Studies show that 80% of our everyday actions are run by our subconscious,’ explains mindset and business coach, Suzy Ashworth. ‘When we set an intention to do something fun, if what we do in the moments leading up to it are in alignment with specific subconscious patterning, we’ll end up Facebook scrolling.’
Because that scroll gives us a dopamine hit and a fleeting second of satisfaction, it’s ‘the pattern that wins.’ Coaxing yourself away from these cheap thrills is tricky. ‘When you think about watching a new show or going swimming, the automatic dopamine hit doesn't come, so you aren't drawn to it in a millisecond,’ agrees clinical psychologist, Dr Soph. Strangely, when it comes to fun things, the logic of why you procrastinate from, say, cleaning the bathroom or starting a major work project applies, too. This is because your brain always wants to conserve as much energy as possible, according to Dr Soph. It does this by trying to stay in homeostasis – AKA running onautopilot. Think: arriving at your front door unable to remember actually getting there.
Why? Because change is taxing. ‘When you do something new, your brain has to engage the energy-hungry prefrontal cortex, the bit responsible for attention and conscious decisions,’ she elaborates. ‘A lot of things that give us pleasure aren’t automatically rewarding,’ Dr Soph adds. ‘They often involve delayed gratification.’ Straight up: you and I have evolved for that sweet pop of euphoria that’s released when our mental reward centers are hit with the crunch of oil-slicked deep-fried food or a flurry of ‘likes,’ rather than to wait for deeper, more complex happiness.
Dr Soph says that Parkinson's Law – the maxim that you’ll use up all of the time you have to complete anything, whether it’s a client report or writing a postcard – plays into this phenomenon, too. ‘People thrive when they have parameters. When there is no time limit everything slides, as it can be done later. With tasks we enjoy, there are rarely fixed times.’ Meaning that because I believe that there’s always tomorrow to get my podcast fix, I can, technically, let it roll over into eternity. But, hold up. According to hypnotherapist and meditation teacher, Daniel Ryan, if you’re spinning more side hustles and social engagements than a mid-tier Kardashian, then your fun procrastination could be a signal of our insidious friend: burnout.
‘Most of us are balancing too much,’ he says. ‘I try to explain to my clients that what they might see as procrastination may actually have been exhaustion, due to a schedule that had little room for anything else - let alone introducing something new.’ While the latest research has shed doubt on the idea of ‘ego depletion’ - that we have a finite source of self-control that can be burned through - it’s true that an exhausted brain is going to take the route of least resistance (a 2017 study indicated that a sleepdeprived mind makes decisions comparable to a drunk one).
This means that if you can create more mental space for yourself – saying ‘no’ to that extra project; accepting that you can’t make a brunch, exhibition, dinner and party in a single Saturday – then maybe you’ll be able to stop procrastinating from the things that will genuinely nourish you. For me, it feels like that lack of parameters is what’s causing me to let the stuff that’ll make me happy slide. Perhaps for you, it’s that it’s time to slash back the hours you devote to a work gig that’s not your genuine passion.
If you fall into the latter camp, focus on assessing what your non-negotiable responsibilities are. If you’re helping someone out with a project and it’s depleting you, cut back. If, like me, you just need to coach yourself into wasting less time staring at your phone, here’s Dr Soph’s and Suzy’s tips.
*Give yourself a limited time window for the activities you want to do. Agree with a friend that you are going to do it together, or check in on each other at a certain time to see how it went.
*Look at the habits that have been keeping you from doing what it is that you want to do – and change one thing about it. If Instagram is a problem, move it to the second screen of your phone.
*Think about what you really want to do. If you’re doing the ‘enjoyable’ activity because you think you ‘should’, because that’s what you’ve been told, then you won’t do it.
*If you can imagine yourself doing the desired activity over and over, your brain will believe you have done it and will start creating a new pathway for the activity – making it more likely to occur in the future.
by Claudia Canavan & Roisín Dervish-O’Kane, @allupinyourfeelings
*Try mindfulness. Having a practice helps you become more present and step outside of autopilot; increasing the thickness of your prefrontal cortex. This can bring you back to the moment and do the thing, rather than following the (natural) urge to put it off.