Every one of us struggles with procrastination. Whether it’s with work, or the exercise we’re supposed to do, or the conversation in a relationship we keep avoiding. Procrastination is our brain’s way of avoiding a perceived pain – and once you understand what’s happening, and the six steps you need to beat it, it can be a game changer.

But, if you don’t master it, prolonged procrastination or avoidance leads to giving up.  Giving up on exercise, giving up on your new work project, or even giving up on a relationship.

Show notes

  • [1:12] Understand the root cause, the science behind procrastination
    • [1:55] The brain’s job is to keep us safe in the tribe – and it does that by avoiding pain.  Fear of emotional and physical pain
    • [2:34]The best trick it uses is distraction to pleasure
  • [3:30] Procrastination is a form of what I call, Short-Term Hits of Happiness
    • [4:20] By themselves, they are harmless. But when used to avoid pain, the trouble starts
    • [4:45] All Short-Term Hits of Happiness in their extreme become numbing.
    • [5:38] There are two key elements to Short-Term hits of Happiness
      • They release some form of happy hormone, usually dopamine
      • They give us a feeling that in that moment we are in control – we can do something that makes us feel happy
    • [7:32] But that happiness is always temporary, and leads to a longer term hole in the sole.  It’s never deep, affirming joy.
    • [8:30] And that often leads to wanting to avoid the pain permanently, so we quit.
  • Six steps to overcoming procrastination
    • [9:45] Acknowledge that you’re perceiving some form of pain in the activity. 
    • [10:54] Become conscious of the trigger… so you can change your response
    • [11:29] Focus on micro-steps
    • [13:10] Schedule tasks you don’t like in the morning
    • [13:35] Design rewards
    • 14:08] [Set external deadlines and accountabilities


At its extreme, long-term procrastination leads to giving up – Lisa Linfield

Our brain’s job is to keep us safely within a tribe – Lisa Linfield

Schedule tasks you don’t like in the morning – Lisa Linfield

Don’t focus on the big task, break it up into micro-tasks – Lisa Linfield

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Today we’re going to talk about something that I am an expert at, procrastination.

And I don’t think it matters who you are, we’ve all done it at some stage.  Some people are very motivated to exercise, but procrastinate hugely at work… and others are very motivated to work, but procrastinate hugely when it comes to exercise.

At its extreme, long-term procrastination leads to giving up.

Now whilst there are tactics I’m going to share with you to reduce it, I always think it’s better to understand the real situation of what’s going on, the root cause, so we can try and fundamentally change something, and not just the symptom.

And, as I always say, it all gets back to changing your thinking.

The brain science behind it:

In my book, Deep Grooves: Overcoming patterns that keep you stuck (which launches next month), I talk about a concept I’ve developed called Short-Term Hits of Happiness.

Our brain is the most amazing thing ever created.  I am in total awe of it, and have been ever since medical school.  But the challenge with our brain, is over centuries and centuries its first most important job of all has been survival.  Its job is to keep us safely within a tribe, away from anything that causes us pain, so that the human species can survive.  And its developed some unbelievable tools to do that.  Fear is one of them, and avoidance of pain and a steer to safety and comfort is the other.

The definition of pain is the biiiiigggg problem – it’s where me and my brain disagree.

You see, when it comes to pain, the brain will do ANYTHING to avoid it.  And, distraction to joy is its key weapon of choice when it comes to things we perceive hard and painful.

I remember when my kids were babies, and they would throw a tantrum because I took away something they wanted… the key tactic I’d use is distraction.  I’d all of a sudden behave like a maniac to make them laugh, and if that didn’t work, resort to bribery with a game or food I knew they liked.

Well, your brain does just that.

When there’s something you don’t want to do, the thought of it triggers a warning in your brain that pain is about to come.  Your brain’s natural reaction is to get you to avoid pain.  So it points you to something that will give you a Short-Term Hit of Happiness rather than pain.

When I need to do anything related to sales, it’s amazing how ‘productive’ I can be.  I can do a million other things off my work to do list, rather than do a sales call.  And I’ll convince myself it’s okay because I’m still working… when in my soul, I know that I’m not doing what I really need to do.

All Short-Term Hits of Happiness work in the same way.  By themselves, they are innocent.  But when accompanied by a trigger of some sort (pain or stress or anxiety), the trouble starts.  Let’s look at a glass of wine.  By itself, it’s just a glass of wine.  But when it’s used in reaction to a stressful day or a situation we’re wanting to avoid, it becomes a Short-Term Hit of Happiness.  Done regularly enough, in its extreme, it becomes numbing – so we don’t feel the pain or stress we want to feel… and in the moment, life feels ok.

For me, my key tools of numbing are different for different circumstances.  I use sugar to avoid tiredness.  When I’m tired, instead of stopping and resting, I eat sugar for a quick pick me up.  When there’s something I need to do, or the world is overwhelming, I use TV series.  They’re a short-term hit of happiness usually after a stressful day… but when the world is overwhelming, I can numb myself until 2 in the morning.  And any work is good work when I’m avoiding sales.

There are two key elements that Short Term Hits of Happiness give us

  1. They all release some form of brain hormone that are happy hormones.  Sugar, alcohol, drugs, the satisfaction of ticking something off your list, the goodie winning on TV, you winning on video games – they all give a rush of the happy hormone dopamine.  Which then gives us that Short-Term Hit of Happiness we feel.
  2.  They all have an element of control in them.  We do something that results in happiness.  So for that one little moment, we control cause and effect. 

Here’s something from my book:

All hits of happiness make us feel, for that short time, like our prob­lems disappear, our heart is happy, we’re slaying the dragons, and con­quering the world. In that moment, we feel in control, like we are the ones choosing on the playground. We have done something that results in this happiness. That happiness feels especially fulfilling when our world often feels completely out of control. With that little hit, for one brief moment we put our stake firmly in the ground and stop the world from whizzing around us.

That sense of control, of energy, of happiness, and of acceptance is what makes those short-term hits of happiness so addictive. It’s almost the physical YAY! after the emotional beating up we’ve given ourselves for our latest mess-up. As we do it again and again, it starts to make an easy groove of false happiness we seek more often, deepening the groove and making it even harder to get out of it.

The challenge with Short-Term Hits of Happiness is that whilst in that moment you feel happiness, you don’t feel joy.  That deep, self-affirming, soul releasing, freedom-giving sense of joy.  Escape from the pain, yes.  But not joy.

And the next day, the inner critic in all of us goes wild – you’re so useless, you can’t even do a simple thing like sales, and the groove of pain gets deeper.  With all Short-Term Hits of Happiness, we need more of them to get the same high.  The car that was so exciting and made us feel good becomes normal, as we seek the next car.  One drink becomes two.  And the boss whose praises were good enough becomes common place, so we seek their bosses’ praises, and then the CEO’s.

It only stops when we quit whatever it is that we feel the source of the pain is, which frees us in the short-term.  Until the same triggers hit, and the same pattern shows up again next time… until it shows up too many times for us to convince ourselves, let alone the people we love that it was the mean boss, the other team, or in our relationships, the ex-husbands, in our health, the diet or the trainer.

You see the biggest difference between joy and Short-Term Hits of Happiness is that joy comes from within, and STHH are external.  Something we control out there brings us that hit of happiness.  So until we control our thinking of how we perceive the trigger, we will never overcome stress, anxiety, and the fear of sales!!!!

So, how do we overcome procrastination?

I learnt at medical school that when it comes to inflammation (or the body’s response to physical pain), the body is not very precise in its response.  It sometimes uses a sledge-hammer to kill an ant size pain.  The same goes for emotional pain.  The size of procrastination response is not always in proportion to the pain.

For me, my procrastination around sales is related to my fear of rejection.  If I phone someone and they say no,

  • The perfect overachiever in me will be mortified at not succeeding
  • I will feel personally rejected, kicked out of the tribe.

Now none of those are tragic… I will not die!!!!  But despite the unbelievably negative impact on my business and the ability to reach my dream of teaching a million women about money… I still put off any form of sales email or sales call. 

Charles Duhigg is the author of a book on habits, and I love his work.  In order for a habit to form, it has a trigger, a response, and a reward.  So if the trigger is to avoid sales, the response is to tick off something on my To-Do list, and the reward is the Short-Term Hit of Happiness. 

Once you become aware of the trigger and what’s going on, you’re then able to respond consciously with a new behaviour. 

David Allen in his book Getting Things Donerefers to the fact that if you want to achieve something, don’t focus on the big task, focus on the very next micro task.  So instead of the work goal of selling twenty objects, the very next tasks could be

  • Create a sales script (so you don’t choke up!)
  • Rehearse the sales script
  • Write a list of ten people to call
  • Call one

So, at each stage, you are able to convince your brain that it’s not about to embark on the fearsome task of 200 rejections in order to sell twenty objects.  You just have to convince it that it’s safe and painless to create the sales script.  No harm will be done.  Then, convince it to rehearse the script.  Each time, you get the dopamine rush of ticking something off the list, and your brain starts to trust you.

By the time it gets to the first call, you need to keep reassuring it that sales is about numbers – that you need to approach ten people to get one sale… so you may need to approach twenty to get two… and you keep reassuring it at each stage.

You can NEVER lie to yourself.  Your subconscious knows when you’re doing that.  So always acknowledge the fear to yourself, but reassure yourself that you can do it and you won’t get kicked out of the tribe or rejected by the people you love – you’re safe there.

Research shows that our emotional over-ride function in our upper brain only has two hours of optimal time a day… until it tires.  It’s called Decision Fatigue.  So you’re more likely to over-ride the response to procrastinate in the morning when you haven’t used up your two hours, than in the evening.  

The habit cycle needs rewards to change habits.  So, design a reward system that is frequent and wonderful in the beginning steps, and eases out later on so you get that dopamine hit that your body craves. 

Think of it like when you’re training a dog.  In the beginning they get a treat for everything as well as heaps of praise and affection.  And then you ease off until the love and affection after the big thing is the reward.

Fears are a weird and complex thing, and understanding how to use them to your advantage is the best tool you can possibly use. 

Accountability partners and public deadlines trigger a different set of fears.  Our imagined fear of making the sales call becomes a lesser fear than the humiliation of missing a deadline publicly or letting another human down.

Recently I committed to my MasterMind group that I would approach one influencer to promote my course.  They would get 30% of the revenue, so it was a win-win.  But the first week passed, and I had the uncomfortable moment of confessing I hadn’t done it.  When the second week came, and I still hadn’t done it, I promised I’d buy one of each of their products if I didn’t do it.  I felt like such an idiot that this was two weeks, and I couldn’t find it in me to send one email.

So, knowing the third week was coming, the fear of humiliation outweighed my fear of sales, and I sent the influencer the email.  She’s interested in partnering with me, but is reviewing her strategy. 

The thing is, in the end, I trust God to block and allow partnerships that will be meaningful to my growth and learning… so I’m truly not fussed as to whether she says yes or not.  But my brain has, over the years, built up such a subconscious fear of it, that I have to work at it one step at a time.

The alternative?  I lose the business I’m so passionate about because I am unable to generate the revenue to fund its costs. 

So we’re in this together.  You and me… no more procrastinating.

If this is an episode you’ve loved, and you think can help someone else, please do share it with your friends and family, and subscribe to the show on your podcast app.

And look out for my book launch in July so you can read all about Short-Term Hits of Happiness and more great topics.

I’m Lisa Linfield, and this is Working Women’s Wealth.  Take care and have a great day.