Thoughts On Self-Control And Procrastination

Our brains contain both the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. The limbic system is responsible for our emotions and basic desires. When we’re craving dessert or get addicted to TV and games, that’s the limbic system at work. The cerebral cortex contains all of our ability for higher reasoning and planning. This is the part of us that knows about how effort in the short term results in future rewards.

In other words, the limbic system makes you dread starting that important project, and the cerebral cortex knows that you’ll regret it if you procrastinate. And yes, since the limbic system came earlier in human brains’ evolutionary history, its pull can be powerful. The limbic system helped our ancestors survive tens of thousands of years ago, but in our modern world, letting it have free rein can be dangerous.

Discipline, on the other hand, is simply your cerebral cortex’s ability to override the limbic system when it’s in your best interest. The cerebral cortex is the sensible part of the brain — when scientists refer to “higher brain function,” they’re referring to the cortex.

The limbic system and cerebral cortex are constantly battling each other for control, and way too often we allow the limbic system to win. And the more it wins, the stronger it gets, and the harder it is to resist — to our detriment.

Fortunately, our brains are like muscles — we can exercise it and develop it. The more you use your cerebral cortex to keep your limbic system at bay, the easier it will become. If you feel like you don’t have discipline (or that being disciplined is just so hard and painful to do), take baby steps. Always look for small ways to stretch yourself and grow your discipline.

Can you hold your breath through to the end of a freeway tunnel? Are you able to stand on one leg while brushing your teeth, and hang on until the very end? Treat your discipline like a skill, and level up.

So how can we get things done even when we don’t feel like it?

“Not feeling like it” is an illusion. A powerful one, but an illusion nonetheless.

“Not feeling like starting” is a bit closer to the truth, but that’s not quite right either.

“Feeling like not feeling like starting” — ah, we’re finally getting somewhere.

Humans are hard-wired to perceive starting anything as much harder than it really is. It prevented our ancestors from expending valuable energy on anything not immediately vital to their survival.

On the other hand, we’re also hard-wired to experience flow once we get started, because our ancestors’ survival depended on successfully completing the important tasks they do choose to take on.

That’s the secret to beating procrastination: the hardest part of any dreaded task is just starting. Throw all your discipline into just taking the first step, and you’ll find that the rest just takes care of itself.

Our motivation is therefore like a heavy ball stuck behind a speed bump at the top of a hill — it takes some effort to get over the initial bump, but we tend to be fine with continuing once we get into our flow state.

Addicted to a game on your phone? Try leaving the app for a minute. Can’t bring yourself to start an important writing assignment? Just congratulate yourself when you simply open a new Word document and type something — anything — in.

Try this the next time you get stuck: commit to start something and keep it up for just 5 minutes. It’s all right if you want to stop; you have my permission.

But I’m willing to bet that you’re able to keep going. Not only that, but the next 15 minutes will feel hilariously easier than the first 5.