Procrastination torpedoes productivity, harms self-esteem and is the source of massive amounts of stress. So why do we do it and why, oh why, is it so hard to overcome?

Procrastination torpedoes productivity, harms self-esteem and is the source of massive amounts of stress. So why do we do it and why, oh why, is it so hard to overcome?

Piers Steel, social scientist, professor and author of the marvelous book "The Procrastination Equation," explains that procrastination occurs when our logical planning brain, the prefrontal cortex, intends to do something but that plan gets overridden by our more powerful, impulsive and emotional brain, the limbic system, because it has a competing desire.
    
Steel has actually developed a calculation that predicts our likelihood to procrastinate, which involves expectations about whether you can actually complete the task, the importance you place on the task and how long you have to complete it. But probably the most important driver of your likelihood to procrastinate is your overall level of impulsiveness. Those who struggle to not act on impulse or fight to control their feelings are more likely to procrastinate than others.
    
Do you tend to put things off? We've pulled together 12 effective strategies for avoiding procrastination.
    
1. Place a physical "impulse interrupter" on procrastination devices like TVs and game consoles. Do you have a go-to procrastination activity like watching TV or playing video games? If so, you might benefit from placing a physical reminder of more productive tasks actually on your procrastination device of choice. For example, place a book you have to read for class on top of your game console or tape a note to your TV remote control that says, "Can you really afford to turn this on?" These kinds of physical reminders can interrupt the impulsive pattern looping in your limbic system and give your prefrontal cortex a fighting chance to get the upper hand and focus you on your tasks.
    
2. Set your egg timer. In many instances our brains overestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. Set your egg timer or the timer on your smartphone for a specific amount of time, and see if you can beat the clock. The timer increases the urgency you feel to get the work done.
    
3. Eliminate alerts. Social scientists and psychologists in the early 1900s developed terms for stimulus-response behavior: operant and reflexive conditioning. Vibrating phones, email dings, social-media peeps are effectively conditioning you to procrastinate and/or interrupt more productive work. Do yourself a favor and turn off all alerts on your computers and cellphones. You want to be in control of them, not vice versa.
    
4. Pay for blocking software: In this day and age of uber-connectivity, those who work on their computers have virtual work spaces that are quite literally surrounded by enticing distracters, like Facebok pages, other social-media sites and gazillions of websites and blogs. Mercifully, there are software programs available for purchase, like Concentrate for Macs (http://getconcentrating.com/) and Freedom for Macs and PCs (http://macfreedom.com/). Take it from us, as we use both programs frequently, they are worth their weight in gold.
    
5. Stand up and do breathing exercises for two to five minutes. Shallow breathing and/or holding your breath, both of which people are likely to do when watching TV or while hunched over a computer, triggers your body's fight-or-flight reflex and effectively shuts down your prefrontal cortex. To put your long-term-planning brain back in business, take a few minutes and do some breathing exercises like four-in, seven-out, eight-in.
    
6. Keep impulse-drivers out of your environment. Messy desks and rooms offer a compelling distraction. Set up a routine, a set time and day once a week, to give your environment a clean sweep. The less mess around you, the greater the chances you will be able to concentrate.
    
7. Reward the completion of small goals. We have a good friend who is also a writer and who, more importantly, loves chocolate. Every time she completes a paragraph or a page, she helps herself to a small bite of whatever she has on hand. Rewarding little goals can be the key to accomplishing big ones. But make sure such a reward system doesn't turn into a weight problem.
    
8. Designate an anti-procrastinating buddy and call him/her when you need help. Sometimes you simply need someone you can call when you are having a weak moment. Ask a conscientious friend or family member if you can call when you feel yourself heading down procrastination highway or before you start to work on a big, important task. The quick pep talk is likely to increase your motivation levels -- and increase your chances of being productive.
    
9. Develop and repeat an if-then statement. Research is emerging showing that simple if-then statements are very effective at helping you follow through on good intentions. For example, if you have to get a writing project done, create a statement that says, "If I find myself procrastinating by (pick your most frequent poison), then I will stand up, do deep-breathing exercises and turn my attention to (the task I was putting off)." Repeat it to yourself out loud on a regular basis.
    
10. Identify your peak hour. We all have a time of day when we are naturally more alert than others. Determine what that time is for you and set appointments to do work that requires concentration during that time window.
    
11. Break down problems. In the song "Little Acorns," White Stripes frontman Jack White tells the story of a young woman who is inspired by a squirrel's ability to break all of his problems into smaller pieces (a large bundle of acorns into individual ones) and then complete his task. Doing one activity at a time can increase your chance of successfully overcoming your procrastination.
    
12. Make a commitment to someone that you will get a task done by a certain date/time that is well in advance of the actual deadline. Accountability is a powerful driver. When you know someone else is expecting something from you, it helps keep you on track.
    
Those are some of our suggestions. What kinds of tricks do you use to stave off procrastination?
    
The writers are co-founders of Buttoned Up, a company dedicated to helping stressed women get organized. Send ideas and questions to yourlife@getbuttonedup.com. For more columns, go to scrippsnews.com.