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The Weed in your Brain

June 13, 2014

 

Taraxacum is not some newly found dinosaur. It is the scientific name for the pesky weed commonly called the dandelion. The dandelion industry is a billion dollar business—not growing them, eradicating them. This despite the fact that they are rich in vitamins, A, B, C, D and important minerals like zinc, potassium and iron. If that weren’t enough, a dandelion plant yields a beautiful bright yellow flower.

 

Despite the battle waged by the chemical conglomerates, each spring the dandelion sprouts up defiantly, sunny little weedy disposition intact, as if to say, “I’m still here!”

 

Which, of course, brings us to the weed in your brain commonly called procrastination. We all grow it. It’s estimated that 20% of us are habitual hardcore procrastinators. Procrastination can be broadly defined as putting off until tomorrow what you know you should be doing today. Countless books on time management give you instructions that usually include the following:

 

  1. Make a difficult task A1 on your priority list.

  2. Tackle a tough task first thing in the morning when your will power is at its strongest.

  3. Break the task into smaller pieces so it won’t seem so daunting.

  4. Analyze the root cause of why you aren’t completing the task and recognize the true cost of delay (businesspeople like this one because it sounds financial, ergo important).

 

And at the end of the day, despite the best eradication and removal efforts, the task still isn’t done. We tend to procrastinate on stuff that we find mentally or physically painful. Hardcore procrastinators put off everything they can, even run-of-the-mill tasks that are in no way taxing.

 

So why do we procrastinate?

 

Because it works.

 

Our brains have an amazing adaptation: the ability to project into the future. This allows us to save mental and physical resources by simulating ideas in the basal ganglia, so we don’t have to actually try everything out in real time. But there’s a downside of this machinery: it also lets us project out and imagine ourselves doing a given task at some later point.

 

Why do something now if you can save it for your future self? Especially when you can dream up a future self much better equipped for the job—well-rested, more engaged, and ready to take on the world. The future self is your mental super hero, undaunted by piles of work, doctor’s needles, or unwritten thank you cards. By offloading a task to the person you might be later, not only can you skip a task right now, but you can fill that time with something you find much more enjoyable. Everybody wins—until you discover in the twelfth hour that your future self has moved on (presumably into the future), and you’re left holding the bag.

 

Now you push the panic button and your amygdala delivers a load of the stress hormone cortisol into your blood supply. This jolt drives a load of glucose to your brain, which causes you to bypass parts of your prefrontal cortex to focus your emotional attention. You bear down on your task with a vengeance. You’re geared up, ready for the fight of your life; nothing can get in your way now. Your entire system is on red alert: “It’s go time, baby!”

 

Procrastination leans hard on the crudest aspects of your reptilian brain. There is no time for reflection, tweaking or fine-tuning. It’s not pretty, but eventually you’ll find a way to grind out that task—beginning in panic, middling in tears, and ending in exhaustion. And, of course, a heartfelt promise made to your present self: “I’ve learned my lesson; there’s no way I’m letting this happen again.”

 

And all the while, Future Self smiles back at you, taunting you for the next go-round—not unlike the pesky dandelion.

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