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How to Master Intentional Productivity: Procrastination and Stress

This lesson is a part of an audio course How to Master Intentional Productivity by Michelle Bondesio

Procrastination can derail our good intentions of being productive.

Procrastinating is a common occurrence, first because of the way our brain is built.

And second, because it's become a default behavior when we experience high stress over time.

From an evolutionary perspective, our brain is wired to value immediate rewards over future rewards. So it favors short term thinking.

And it seeks to do things that bring pleasure, and avoid things that cause pain and discomfort.

Procrastination isn't about our inability to manage our time or control our willpower.

Studies have revealed that procrastination is an emotional response to stress.

It's a coping mechanism for dealing with challenging emotions. It's brought about by tasks and actions which can make us feel fearful, negative, uncertain, bored, anxious, or insecure.

These emotions cause feelings of stress in our body, as our brain battles against thoughts of doing something it finds uncomfortable, in favor of doing something that makes us feel better.

It's why we end up reaching for our phones when we're trying to do that important piece of work. Or why we go for the chocolate bar instead of going for a walk. It's why we end up rearranging our kitchen cupboards or raiding the fridge when we should be doing our accounts.

The short term gain feels more important than the longer-term outcome, but this avoidance tactic results in a loss of performance.

Researchers have found that when procrastination becomes a default habit over time, it negatively impacts our moods, our stress levels, and our physiology.

So, to support our productivity more intentionally, we need to build more supportive emotional habits.

And we need to identify better emotional rewards that override our typical "avoidance" behaviors.

If you find yourself procrastinating, first get curious about why?

What is emotion? What are you feeling?

Why are you feeling it? Get to grips with the real reason you're procrastinating?

Bring attention to the sensations in your body and mind, so you can get to the root cause of what you're feeling and why.

Next, set out the very next action you can take to progress on your work. When you keep your focus close, it makes the task more manageable. Motivation commonly happens when we take action, not the other way around.

So we need to take the first step, in order to feel motivated to take more steps.

Add friction on the path to temptation: what obstacles can you put in the path of your procrastination tendencies? For example, if checking social media is how you procrastinate, delete these apps from your phone, or put your phone in the other room, or use a program to lock you out of social media channels on your browsers for a set time.

You've got to make it more difficult to reach for these default avoidance tactics. Set yourself up to win by making the things you want to do as easy as possible to get started on.


A certain amount of stress in our bodies is natural and can be helpful in aiding productive work.

But at the moment in the world, we're also in a time of major upheaval and transformation.

The stress and anxiety that comes from being in this situation can cause our brains to default to survival mode. This affects our attention and our wellbeing. And so we may find ourselves even procrastinating more.

When we're in survival mode, we struggle to do deep, focused work because our brain doesn't identify it as a priority. Our brain associates work that might be difficult or challenging with pain and discomfort. Something it wants to avoid when we may already be experiencing pressure and overwhelm.

Now the pressure of a tight deadline can be great for activating our best creativity.

And the right amount of stress experienced at the right time for a limited amount of time can make us more productive, but research also shows that's usually more the case if the task we're doing is a simple one.

If we're trying to do complex work, it's been found that an increase in stress decreases our focus and performance.

If pressure and stress only occur occasionally at work, then our brains and bodies can usually cope and bounce back.

But if we're working in a high-pressure culture, where everything is a tight deadline and we feel like all we do is fight fires reactively, then we're working in a way that will lead to chronic stress and burnout.

We already know that ongoing, elevated stress is incredibly bad for our physical and mental health.

But this type of stress also affects things like our memory, our reasoning, judgment, decision making, and communication skills.

We might not always be able to control what's causing the stress around us, but we can change how we respond to these triggers.

It starts with becoming more aware of the automatic behaviors we default to when things feel challenging. And then practicing better responses, learning to create a gap between the trigger and how we respond to that trigger.

Self-care practices are also essential for helping to keep us grounded and centered so that we can respond more calmly and effectively in times of stress.

Examples include good sleep and regular movement, as well as mindfulness techniques such as yoga, meditation, journaling, and conscious breathing.

The future of work requires that we'll be spending even more time online and we're going to need to do more work with fewer resources.

So, how can you do that in a way that still supports your wellbeing, creativity, and productivity whilst managing your stress and limiting procrastination?

It may sound contradictory but when we slow things down, by getting more mindful and intentional about how we work, that helps us to improve and sustain a healthier pace of productivity.

Before moving on, I'd like you to consider your existing situation regarding stress and procrastination.

How do you typically respond, react, and feel when you are stressed?

How does procrastination show up for you? Can you identify some autopilot behaviors that you're at risk of succumbing to when you're trying to work, but feel stressed about your work?

How can you manage your stress better?

What obstacles can you put in the path of your procrastination tendencies? And how can you make it easier to stick with the task at hand?

In the next lesson, we'll cover cycles of productivity.

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Written by

Michelle Bondesio