First, take a deep breath and refrain from scolding yourself. If you’re stalling on any of your new year’s health goals, well, everyone else is too.
That’s because procrastination is a natural phenomenon. Psychologists call it “hyperbolic discounting,” which is a fancy term for: party today, suffer tomorrow. We think we’ll enjoy a reward now more than we’ll enjoy it later.
There’s yet another reason we do it. In a TED talk on procrastination, a young entrepreneur explains that there is a constant battle between two parts of our brain. One part (the prefrontal cortex) wants to work, while the other (the limbic system) wants to play.
So, everyone—the driven and the lazy alike—are susceptible to brain wars when it comes to getting things done. The problem with Party Today, however, is that it’s not such a party, after all.
Why an eternal to-do list is bad for your health
There’s the obvious reason: we may be postponing things like exercise and eating healthier. But it’s more than that. During the postponing “party,” we’re experiencing psychological distress, according to psychologist Timothy A. Pychyl.
This build-up of distress and guilt, in turn, has further consequences for our health. Here are four examples:
1. Procrastination causes stress. Stress causes fat. As David explains in Think, being constantly stressed out triggers the body to stockpile energy in anticipation of perceived danger. That energy, i.e., calories, gets stored as fat, primarily in the stomach area.
2. Procrastination depletes energy. When we have a task to do, we begin to mentally process it immediately. Constantly thinking about that unfinished business uses up energy that we could be putting toward the real thing. And then there’s the stress depleting our energy, too.
3. Procrastination chips away at self-esteem. This, in turn, makes it harder to be nice to ourselves, including looking out for our health. We begin to see ourselves as the kind of person who makes bad decisions, and then we make choices in support of that belief.
4. Procrastination causes cramming… or as I see it, guilt-induced self-punishment. If you go all week without exercising, you’ll try to make up for it in one fell swoop on the weekend—and probably wreck yourself in the process. Which is exactly what I did over the weekend, trying to log a week’s worth of cardio by snowshoeing for 8 miles despite a back injury. I’m writing this post from bed.
A fool-proof way to tackle your to-do list
Natural phenomenon or not, there are ways to break the cycle of procrastination, and we owe it to our health to do so!
The best way to get moving? In my opinion (and the opinion of the guy in the TED video): planning.
Planning has the magical ability to help us realize that tasks aren’t as big and hairy as we thought they’d be. From there, the hard part’s done and we can dive into the activity, at which point we’re likely to realize: a) it’s more fun than we thought, b) imperfect conditions sort themselves out, and c) failure isn’t a big deal.