Updated: Sep 17, 2019
In my earlier blogs, we looked at how we often create excuses for our procrastination. These excuses allow us to tell ourselves that our behaviour is reasonable, acceptable and OK. If we feel OK about putting things off, it makes sense that we will be more likely to procrastinate on a task or goal. Therefore, we need to deal with the automatic pilot that generates these excuses and reinforces our procrastination, so that we no longer feel it is OK to procrastinate. The other type of unworkable thought that needs to be dealt with, is when we become highly critical of ourselves for procrastinating. Again, as discussed in an earlier blog, self-criticism just demotivates us, making us more likely to procrastinate.
Remember, our procrastination excuses often revolve around our experience, and using this to tell us we are better off delaying our task or goal to another time. For example:
I call these thoughts as unworkable, because they ignore that fusing with our experience may not actually be the best course of action for us in the long run. They also often relate to the unrealistic notion that tomorrow will some how miraculously be a better time to get productive and follow through with things. Often if we wait for a time when we feel rested, motivated, inspired, have no distractions, have everything we possibly need, have heaps of time, have finished all the other things that we could possibly be doing…we will be waiting till ‘the cows come home’. We will be waiting a very long time for just the right conditions to come together to get started on a task or goal. The real truth is that no time is probably ideal for doing something we don’t feel like doing, hence now is just as good as any other time to get cracking. Unworkable thoughts often ignore the fact that if we get started and take a step forward towards completing our task or goal, no matter how small the step, our desire to do that task or goal often increases and we can get some valuable things done.
This means that by taking action first, all the other things often fall into place for us and we feel capable of continuing forward and getting the job done.
So, what can we do about these unworkable thoughts that keep us procrastinating?
We have limited control over which thoughts or emotions we experience. The problem is less in the content of our thinking or feeling, and more in what we do with these thoughts or emotions, or how we relate to them. In other words, we can change our relationship with our thoughts so that we can focus our energy on what is truly worthy and important to us, instead of using most of our energy on trying to simply manage or reduce unpleasant thinking.
The Poisoned Parrot
Imagine you're given a parrot. This parrot is just a parrot - it doesn't have any knowledge, wisdom or insight. It’s bird-brained after all. It recites things “parrot fashion‟ – without any understanding or comprehension. It's a parrot.
However, this particular parrot is a poisoned and poisonous parrot. It’s been specifically trained to be unhelpful to you, continuously commenting on you and your life, in a way that constantly puts you down, criticising you.
For example, the bus gets stuck in a traffic jam, and you arrive at work 5 minutes late. The parrot sits there saying: "There you go again. Late. You just can’t manage to get there on time can you. So stupid. If you’d left the house and got the earlier bus you’d have arrived with loads of time to spare and the boss would be happy. But you? No way. Just can’t do it. Useless. Waste of space. Absolutely pathetic!"
How long would you put up with this abuse before throwing a towel over the cage, or getting rid of the parrot?
Yet we can often put up with the thoughts from this internal bully for far too long. Decades. We hear that “parrot‟, believe the “parrot‟, and naturally get upset. That then affects the way we live our lives – the way be behave towards others, how we are, what we think about others, what we think about the world, and how we think and feel about ourselves.
We can learn to use the antidote: just notice that parrot, and cover the cage! “There’s that parrot again. I don’t have to listen to it – it’s just a parrot”. Then go and do something else. Put your focus of attention on something more interesting than that parrot (that might actually move you towards the life you want to live). This parrot is poison though, and it won’t give up easily, so you’ll need to keep using that antidote and be persistent in your practice!
Eventually it will get tired of the towel, tired of you not responding. You’ll notice it less and less. It might just give up its poison as your antidote overcomes it, or perhaps fly off to wherever poisoned parrots go.
When we experience difficult thoughts emotions and bodily sensations (internal experiences), we often try to ignore them, pretend they’re not there, or distract ourselves. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of energy and does not always work. A surprisingly effective strategy to diminish a difficult internal experience is to actually stay with it, identify it, and name it in your mind or say it out loud. Psychologists call this Affect Labeling, I prefer “Name it and Tame it”.
This may sound overly simplistic, but it is actually based on solid neuroscience research. Interestingly, some of the research was done on people with phobias. Those courageous research subjects had to get very close to a tarantula, while one group had to label their scary feelings (“I feel anxious the disgusting tarantula will jump on me”), another group tried to engage in positive self-talk (“Looking at the little spider is not dangerous for me”), and two other groups either said irrelevant distracting things (“There is a TV in my home”) or did not say anything.
Predictably enough, the first group reported lower levels of distress. An fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) study of affect labeling confirmed those results.
If we picture our brains being made up of three parts – the reptile brain, sitting at the top of the spinal column, regulating our autonomic systems, including Fight and Flight. The mammal brain with the hippocampus and the amygdala, in the middle, reacts to signals from the reptile brain to generate emotions. The neocortex (or monkey brain) processes information and generates solutions to avoid unpleasant experiences.
When we label (name) our internal experiences, - the brain activity in the amygdala (our mammal brain, or downstairs brain) diminishes and the activity in another brain region – ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (part of our monkey brain, or upstairs brain) increases.
So Far, So What?
This research indicates that by labeling our difficult internal experiences using our “Upstairs Brain” we are calming the “Downstairs Brain” so that it becomes less reactive. This gives us an opportunity to step back and assess the situation better and respond to it in a more rational way. And the most important thing – by giving a name to our experience, we instantly feel a little better.
So the bottom line is – putting our internal experiences into words quickly and effectively diminishes their negative impact. Name it and tame it.
Try it! Next time you have a difficult internal experience:
· Stay with it
· Identify it
· Clearly name it
Again, you don't have to say it out loud. Naming the emotion in your mind will work just as well!
If you want to make this technique even more effective, you may put it this way: I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am anxious. This puts even more distance between you and the emotional impact of the thought and allows you to take a step back and to not be consumed by your internal experience.
Some people have difficulty labeling internal experiences. To help you out, here’s a list of some of the most common ones: anxiety, anger, fear, shame, sadness, frustration, disappointment, judging, blaming, catastrophising, dogmatising, fortune-telling.
Other (albeit more time consuming) effective strategies that employ a similar rationale are:
· Talking with friends about your feelings
· Expanding your emotional vocabulary - learning to identify and name more subtle experiences. For example, when you feel angry, you may feel annoyed, irritated, furious, offended, impatient, frustrated, etc.
When we engage in those activities, we learn to become observers of our internal experiences, as opposed to being immersed in them. We become more effective in how we relate to them.
Cognitive defusion techniques are practices that help us achieve this aim. These techniques may include exercises such as:
Labeling your thoughts "I am having the thought that..." or "I notice that my mind is having a judgmental thought."
Singing your anxious thought out loud (or in your mind) to the tune of a silly song (like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or any other song of your choice)
Thank your mind for the thought, such as "Thank you mind for that thought. I appreciate your contribution but I got this."
Repeating an anxiety provoking word over and over in your mind until you begin to hear it as just a word
Ask what the thought is in the service of. Is it in the service of your values or in the service of avoidance of discomfort?
Watch your thoughts: Imagine your thoughts are like a news scroll reel, constantly streaming information that you can watch from a distance.
Practice mindfulness of your thoughts, such as using the Leaves on a Stream mindfulness meditation.
These are just a few ways that cognitive defusion can be promoted, helping us to take our thoughts less seriously, leaving them with less power over us. When our thoughts have a less powerful hold on our experience, they become less threatening. We then have more freedom to invest our attention and energy elsewhere.
In my next blog, we will look at some practical behavioural strategies for overcoming procrastination.
For now, I will leave with a technique called “Turning the Mind”.
Notice and describe how you are not effectively participating in the world as it is, or how you are not doing something that you know needs to be done to move toward your goal:
Describe some of the experiences that your mind is using to tell you that you don’t need to move forward at this time and practice accepting these thoughts for what they are, clusters of neurons firing off signals along reinforced pathways in your brain.
Notice and describe where you experience these unworkable thoughts, and describe how you practiced letting go of them.