Description: I was teaching a summer course called Psychology for Everyday Life last summer in a dual credit format which meant that it was a real university course, but it was being taken by 150 senior high school students who would receive credit for the university course as well as receive a number of senior credits for their high school transcript. This was a high-flying bunch of students. Their average incoming cumulative percentage standing was 94%. One of the assignments in the course is for the students to complete a self-reflection and goal planning task that involved identifying things they wanted to work on and work towards over the next 6 to 12 months. On reviewing the submissions two things stuck out to me. The first was not particularly surprising and that was that nearly half of the students identified an academic goal of attending medical school, they were a high-flying bunch after all. The second thing WAS rather surprising. A near majority of the students indicated that in addition to their education and career goals they expressed a desire to figure out how to stop procrastinating. While I found it difficult to imagine how so many in this very productive group of students could have problems with procrastination, the data was there. Most indicated that they believed they needed to essentially talk sternly to themselves about getting down to work on whatever task demanded their attention as opposed to putting it off, checking social media or watching something. As the assignment was the last thing, they submitted in the course I did not have a chance to spend any time in virtual lecture/discussion on the topic of procrastination and, truth be told, I was not sure what to say. I had looked into the research literature before and basically what was there about procrastination made it rather clear that it is not a matter of needing enough deadline pressure to be sufficiently motivated to get working on a task. Yes, there is deadline pressure as due dates loom, but it does not tend to contribute to people doing their best. No, using your prefrontal brain region to command yourself to get to work does not work well either. Recently I found a source and a line of research that takes a different approach towards, and which offers useful advice regarding how to deal with, the anxiety that is powerfully associated with procrastination. Judson Brewer is a psychiatrist/researcher whose recently published book, Unwinding Anxiety, summarizes his extensive research into habits and brain systems involved in everything from anxiety to smoking and problem eating and procrastination. (see a previous post on this work) Brewer is also intent on finding ways to show people how they can utilize what his, and his colleagues, research is suggesting about the roots of anxiety. Simply put it works like this. When we are stressed our prefrontal cortex, our cognitive or thinking brain shuts down. Evolutionary forces have shaped us to fall back on reactive fight/flight brain systems when stressed taking time to think likely reduces our chances of survival (at least back when our stresses were predators). So, cognitive strategies do not work when we think they will help us, when we are stressed. Now, if we break down anxiety we can see, according to Brewer, that it is not a simple feeling or emotion. It arises in situations where we are uncertain, and uncertainty is another evolutionarily old cue that produces fear. When we sense fear within us arising from uncertainty, we discover that if we distract ourselves by having something sweet to east, by having a cigarette, by checking our email or social media, by scrolling YouTube, Tok-tok or Instagram we feel a little better (less fearful) and THAT is rewarding (plain old operant conditioning). This pattern of Trigger-Behavior-Reward sets up a repeating anxiety loop – a habit. Procrastination is the result of just such an anxiety habit loop. The fix? I will let Jud Brewer explain it in his Ted talk linked below. I will say that his suggestions fit very nicely into some things I am seeing in my own work on identity development in which waiting for a tsunami of passion about a potential career path to carry you forward into your future self is not a viable identity development strategy. Given the, sometimes overwhelming, uncertainty surrounding and shrouding possible pathways into your future it can be much more effective to take one of Brewer’s key suggestions for when fear/anxiety arises in moments of uncertainty and pause and get curious. Curiosity may have killed the cat (as that obtuse old saying suggests) but it can also to the key that opens a door to mindful strategies for dealing constructively with uncertainty, fear and resulting anxiety habit loops like procrastination. To find out about unwinding anxiety and its related habit loops watch Jud Brewer’s Ted Talk linked below or the Ultimate Health podcast interview with him regarding his recently released book Unwinding Anxiety also linked below. I have also provided references to some of the work from his lab on the subject in the References (Read Further) section if you would like to dive into the science.
Source: A simple way to break a bad habit, Judson Brewer, TEDMED 2015 and Unwinding Anxiety, Judson Brewer, Penguin.
Date: April 29, 2021
One of the things I appreciate most about Brewer’s approach to anxiety and mindfulness is that it is based in basic brain science. One of the things we tend to lose sight of within the vast array of suggestions about being more mindful is that mindfulness does not essentially involve thinking harder or asserting cognitive control. The curiosity that Brewer talks about in relation to uncertainty and anxiety and which I and other work with in relation to uncertainty and identity involves pausing and considering the whats and whys of our current feelings and physiological and social situation. Check out Brewer’s book and, if you think his approach might be of interest and of assistance, you can check out his app for unwinding anxiety.
Questions for Discussion:
- Why do you or other people procrastinate and what can you or they do to stop?
- How are feelings of anxiety, fear and uncertainty related?
- What does it mean to suggest that anxiety is a fear-linked habit loop?
References (Read Further):
Brewer, J. A., Ruf, A., Beccia, A. L., Essien, G. I., Finn, L. M., Lutterveld, R. V., & Mason, A. E. (2018). Can mindfulness address maladaptive eating behaviors? Why traditional diet plans fail and how new mechanistic insights may lead to novel interventions. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1418. Link
Crane, R., Brewer, J., Feldman, C., Kabat-Zinn, J., Santorellli, S., Williams, J. M. G., & Kuyken, W. (2020). What defines mindfulness-based programs?. The warp and the weft. Link
Ludwig, V. U., Brown, K. W., & Brewer, J. A. (2020). Self-Regulation Without Force: Can Awareness Leverage Reward to Drive Behavior Change?. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(6), 1382-1399. Link
Brewer, Judson (2021) Unwinding Anxiety: New Sciences Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind, Avery. Link
Brewer, J. A., Mallik, S., Babuscio, T. A., Nich, C., Johnson, H. E., Deleone, C. M., … & Rounsaville, B. J. (2011). Mindfulness training for smoking cessation: results from a randomized controlled trial. Drug and alcohol dependence, 119(1-2), 72-80. Link
Mason, A. E., Jhaveri, K., Cohn, M., & Brewer, J. A. (2018). Testing a mobile mindful eating intervention targeting craving-related eating: feasibility and proof of concept. Journal of behavioral medicine, 41(2), 160-173. Link
Roy, A., Druker, S., Hoge, E. A., & Brewer, J. A. (2020). Physician anxiety and burnout: symptom correlates and a prospective pilot study of App-delivered mindfulness training. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, 8(4), e15608. Link