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  • Writer's pictureBen Slater

Why do we put off stuff that is good for us?

Why didn’t I do this before?

It’s the question on our lips

after the run

after the gym

after the yoga

after the swim

after the clear out

after the mindfulness session

after the bottle bank (just me?)

We seem to be superb at putting good stuff off.

Stuff that will help our bodies.

Stuff that will help our minds.

So why do we do it?

My mind made me do it

Our mind is wired for reward.


Dopamine is released

when we achieve or complete something

or experience pleasure.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter

that is at the heart

of the brain’s reward system.

There is a whole multi-billion dollar industry

dedicated to modifying your behaviour

through dopamine,

getting us caught up in short-term reward.

Think about it.

Checking out a notification?

Triggers dopamine.

Reinforces the behaviour.

One more level of the game?

Triggers dopamine.

Reinforces the behaviour.

Beautiful product photos? Frictionless payment?

Triggers dopamine.

Reinforces the behaviour.

Exercise that will reap rewards in many months time?

Not so much.

The brain finds it harder to stay motivated for delayed dopamine.

But more than that.

All the instant dopamine activities

form your “go to” procrastination activities.

Your procrastination has been commoditised.

Your procrastination.

Your attention.

Is being sold.

My mind has limited resources.

According to the ego depletion theory,

self-control can waver due to several factors.

Some hypothesise that self-control

is a limited resource that runs out.

Some hypothesise that self-control

wanes and rises in line with motivation.

Some hypothesise that self-control

in one area can wane when priorities move elsewhere.

Whatever the reason behind ego depletion,

when we have to exert a lot of willpower

to resist temptations

or stay focused,

these resources become depleted,

making it harder to maintain self-control for subsequent tasks,

especially if our priorities have changed in the meantime.

This can lead to

procrastination on important

but demanding activities,

because we just don’t have the resources to persist.

My mind has a different control centre for habits

The brain has a tendency

to automate behaviours

that are repeatedly rewarded,

shifting control from the prefrontal cortex

(involved in planning and decision-making)

to the striatum (involved in habit formation).

This applies to any habit.

Good or bad.

Once a behaviour like procrastination

becomes habitual,

it becomes more difficult to override it

with conscious effort.

It is already “baked in”

thanks to the striatum.

What to do?

What to do in the face of the brain’s reward system,

limited resources

and behaviour automation?

Time to build up the skill, the will and the drill.

What do I mean by the skill, the will and the drill?

The skill?

Techniques to practise which support the will and the drill.

The will?

Ways to maximise motivation which support the skill and the drill.

The drill?

Routines and habits to embed which support the skill and the will.

When the will is lacking, the skill and the drill will get you through.

Build up the skill by developing an approach for tasks

  1. Use the "Worst-First" approach - tackle the most difficult or unpleasant task first1.

  2. Try the "Just 5 Minutes" technique - commit to working on a task for just 5 minutes initially.

  3. Gain clarity on tasks and goals by prioritisng task lists and breaking them in to sub-tasks with time estimates.

Build up the Will by building Motivation and Accountability

  1. Visualise successfully completing the task to build momentum1

  2. Use reminders and prompts to stay on track (e.g. notes, phone alerts).

  3. Reward yourself after achieving milestones or taking breaks.

Build up the Drill by developing Supportive Habits

  1. Reduce the number of decisions you need to make each day.

  2. Start tasks immediately when you remember them ("Remember-Then-Do" technique).

  3. Adjust your mindset - view procrastination as something that is happening for you rather than something that is wrong with you.

A quick guide to why we don't do the stuff we know is good for us.

You have the information.

Whatever good you choose to do next,

Don't put it off.


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