Why we procrastinate on our most important goals

[3-minute read]

Have you ever wondered why we procrastinate on actions needed to achieve our most important goals?

One of the main reasons, I have found, is an unresolved conflict between goals and motives. To better understand what I mean by this, I need to explain the difference between goals and motives.

A goal is the mental image of a desired future state. It is something I can describe in words. For instance, my goal may be to lose weight, increase revenue, or simply eliminate a bad habit. Goals are what psychologists call explicit motives. We formulate and manage our goals with the conscious part of our minds. Goals are governed by the prefrontal cortex, an evolutionary younger part of our brain.

Motives are something different. Implicit motives are the subconscious drivers of our behaviour. A motive is a deeply rooted desire to satisfy a fundamental human need. Examples of human needs are achievement, status, self-enhancement, autonomy and control. These needs may conflict with other needs, such as safety, connection, continuity, pleasure, and pain avoidance. The mental processes to satisfy these needs are handled by the limbic system of our brain, which, from an evolutionary perspective, is much older.

In a nutshell, goals are WHAT we are trying to achieve, and motives are WHY. Goals are managed by younger, and motives by older brain parts. Goals are directly accessible to our conscious mind, but motives are not, at least not directly.

When goals conflict with motives
I procrastinate if there is a conflict between my goal and my underlying motives. This is because my limbic system continuously and subconsciously processes information to ensure my survival does not agree with the goal my conscious mind has set.

For instance, my goal to lose weight may require changing my diet and exercising more. This goal conflicts with my motive to avoid pain. Therefore, my subconscious mind tries to block my actions. I procrastinate.

How to reduce procrastination?
If the reason for procrastinating is a conflict between goals and motives, there is a simple solution.  I only need to connect my goal with a different, more important motive, and my subconscious mind is more willing to free the resources I need to achieve my goal.

To take the example of my goal to lose weight. I know this conflicts with my motive = the need to minimise pain. If, however, I connect the goal of losing weight with my desire to feel good about myself, then chances increase that I will do what it takes.

What is also helpful is to have a specific action plan or a routine. This reduces the pain of having to decide.

So there you have it. If you see that you are procrastinating on things that are really important to you, check if there is a conflict between your explicit goal and your underlying motives. Connect to another motive, and you will procrastinate less.

What next?
If you feel that there is too much procrastination in your organisation, go to the Agility3.com website and apply for a free strategy call. In this call, we will develop a strategy to reduce procrastination that you can use in your particular situation.I typically have one or two open slots per week.

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In the meantime, take care, stay safe, and get meaningful work done.

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