by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
How many times have you cried in desperation, “I’ve just got to change! I can’t stand the way things are!” But then, over time this cry becomes a whisper and nothing is done. Frustrated, you wonder why you keep deferring changes that logically make sense—beginning the practice of meditation, adopting a mindful lifestyle, starting to take that daily walk, taking the time to shop, prepare, and cook whole foods. The answer to this conundrum is complex, but usually involves an undercurrent of procrastination. This is the same “putting off” that so many of us do when we fall off the healthy eating wagon and swear we’ll get right back on…tomorrow or Monday. Then, we either never get to it, or when we do it lasts a nanosecond and we’re right back where we started.
Who needs to live like this? No one! Let’s stop this negative, self-destructive cycle dead in its tracks. Your new mantra is, “The time is NOW.”
Taking a step back, here’s a way to reframe what’s been going on. We’ll follow this new way to look at it with simple, easy-to-do steps to begin a new, productive, positive journey toward the achievement of your healthy lifestyle goals. First let’s look at the process of procrastination: Derived from the Latin work procrastinare, procrastination literally means “going forward” (pro) and “belong to tomorrow” (cratinus), or putting off or postponing until another day. And tomorrow has been aptly described as “a mystical land where 98 percent of all human productivity, motivation, and achievement is stored.”
Psychologists define procrastination as a choice made by an individual to delay an action, despite being fully aware of potential negative consequences. It’s important to know that not all delay is procrastination (you’re delayed in traffic behind a major highway accident), while all procrastination involves delay. The outcome of procrastination runs the gamut from inflicting no serious harm to creating dire consequences.
As it relates to your health, deferring and putting off any aspect of self-care can lead to increased risk for disease and disability, declining quality of life, erosion of professional and personal relationships, decreased performance in any aspect of life, depression, anxiety, and a negative sense of self. But we already know so much of this and yet we keep doing it over and over again. One of the main reasons is that we’re approaching this the wrong way. Spending a fortune on daily logs and planners and expensive organization experts to keep you on track is not necessarily the way to go. The key, as it turns out, is in your mind. The solution is found in how you’re thinking about and visualizing the process of getting the task done, and how you’ll feel upon completion. You need to see and feel it all.
First, if you’re interested in ongoing support on your quest to quell procrastination in your life, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Timothy Pychyl, a psychologist at Carlton University and a leading research expert in the field of procrastination. He’s also the author of the popular book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.
Next, here are some small steps you can take to get the ball rolling:
- Pitch perfectionism. Fearing failure and wanting to do the task at hand perfectly are the bane of the procrastinator’s existence. Change up your thinking and chant to yourself, “Progress, not perfection.” The Latin derivation of progress is progressus, or “going forward.” Now we’re talkin’!
- Absorb the reward. Close your eyes and experience how good you’ll feel once the task is completed. For that matter, you’ll be feeling good with every single step you take to get the job done. Remember the last time you actually did this well? Didn’t you feel lighter, and wasn’t it terrific to have that skyrocketing sense of self? Absorb every part of the journey and give yourself a pat on your back for beating off the procrastination demons, and diving deep into every step of this journey.
- Power up your brain’s executive function. The prefrontal cortex (located right behind your forehead) houses the part of the brain in charge of organizing, planning, strategizing, vigilance, and mindfulness. That’s why it’s often referred to as the brain’s CEO. If you tend to have a problem with any of these functions, then it’s no wonder that you procrastinate, since you need these elements to get a task completed. In order to power it up you have to work it out. That’s correct. Practice is necessary to build the mental muscle you need to stop putting your life on hold and delaying important projects. Start by establishing more daily lifestyle routines. Stop winging it, as that only brings more disorganization and angst. Block temptation by creating an environment within you in which people, places, and things that will sidetrack you won’t distract you.
- Visualize the goal. Close your eyes again and see what it will look like when you hand in that assignment, finish paying the mountain of bills, or coming back from a fabulous walk in the outdoors with your best friend. See it and believe it, and it’s much more likely to happen.
- Stop should-ing yourself. Stop should-ing on yourself! Instead of hearing the 24/7 track “You shoulda/coulda/woulda done that project” playing endlessly in your head, stop should-ing through life and start doing! Replace the “should” with a “do,” and you’re off and running!
- Watch out for Procrastination-Speak. Be very aware of what’s coming out of your mouth: “I love working under pressure” or “I’ll feel like it tomorrow,” or “This is boring and I don’t want to do it.” Substitute those with these wise words once gifted to me by a dear friend: “You’ve got to do what you don’t want to do in order to do what you do want to do.” ‘Nuff said.
- Practice self-forgiveness. All right, you blew it and procrastinated once again. Research shows that if you simply forgive yourself, you’ll have a greater likelihood of finishing the task and decrease any future delays in completing work. Forgiveness is an integral part of the overall self-compassion we need to be practicing every day of our lives.
- Live mindfully. I’m a firm believer in living mindfully. When you do, you’ll be less likely to procrastinate because you’re much more in touch with present feelings, needs, and responsibilities. You’re less likely to drift off into some psychic retreat where everything will be fine…tomorrow. To be mindful is to be present…today.
- Keep time with your NOW clock. I’m gifting you with my NOW clock (see pic). Keep a copy of this picture as a computer screensaver or, heck, just go out and buy one. After I’d been gifted with this wonderful way to keep the demons of procrastination at bay, I hung it up on the wall in my study as a constant reminder that every single second is precious and an opportunity to stop deferring any aspect of my life.
Finally, I want to share this quote from Viktor Frankl, the acclaimed physician, neurologist, and concentration camp survivor. Wise words to fuel your own journey. “Since my years in the concentration camps, this pattern has changed… I have learned to spend my time more wisely, indeed to make every minute count. I do this so that I have time for the things that are really important.”
Are you making time for what’s important in your life? Check the clock. The time is NOW.
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Dr. Peeke is featured as one of America’s leading women physicians in the National Institutes of Health Changing Face of Medicine exhibit at the National Library of Medicine. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her new book is the New York Times best-seller The Hunger Fix.