The Science Behind Procrastination And What It Means For Your To-Do List
Are you looking for ways to improve business productivity but can’t seem to find any time or motivation to get things done? Well, you may find comfort in knowing you’re not the only one.
Procrastination affects all of us in different stages, which is why many scientists and experts dedicated their time to studying it. As such, in today’s article, we’re going to debunk the myth of the serial procrastinator and offer some tips to get you back on track towards productivity.
What Exactly is Procrastination & Why Do We Put Up With It?
People have tried to come up with a well-rounded definition of procrastination for years. But, whether it’s putting off important work for no reason’ or ‘dabbling in non-important tasks at the detriment of important ones’ the meaning is easy to grasp.
In fact, anyone who had to study or work at least a day in their life understands procrastination. It’s the art of avoiding and postponing tasks and situations we consider difficult or lengthy while being extremely aware of the fact that it’s not a good habit.
As it turns out, this is not a problem specific to modern times; human beings have been involved in procrastinating since ancient times. The phenomenon is so old that Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates came up with a word for it – akrasia (acting against your better judgment).
Now that we know what it is and that we’re not the only ones suffering from it, another question arises – why?
Why do we avoid doing the things we know we will end up doing anyway? Why not prepare for an exam/interview/paper while there’s still time?
Given that the behavior is baffling, it got the attention of scientists everywhere. So, we now have a clearer idea as to what it triggers procrastination and how we may keep it at bay.
The Science Behind Procrastination
If you decide to do a quick search on Google, you’ll find a lot of so-called science on the topic of procrastination. You’ll also find lots of people looking down on serial procrastinators and accusing them of being sloppy, lazy, or unmotivated.
However, if you look at real science, you’ll learn that it’s not a disease and it has nothing to do with willpower. There are more complex factors that lie right beneath the surface.
According to scientists, the main culprit for procrastination is our very own brain.
Modern human beings are a product of evolution and the brain is the perfect representation of this process. This well-oiled machine that resides inside our skulls is structured in layers and each has a function to perform. But, due to evolution, there are two different layers that regulate different aspects of our lives.
First, we have the core part, also known as the primitive brain. This part developed first and it takes over whenever we’re in danger (fight or flight instinct), when we’re nervous (feelings of anxiety, or when we need to decide between immediate reward vs. long-term reward.
Above the core, we have the modern sections of the brain that control advanced thoughts and reasoning. This part of the brain developed later in our evolution and helped us become the society we are today.
Well, these two sides need to work together in order to help us live a happy and fulfilled life. However, this is not always the case, which is why sometimes it feels like there are two people fighting in your head.
This is exactly what happens when you procrastinate!
The prefrontal cortex, which is part of the higher levels of the brain, will tell you it’s time to start working on your homework/assignment/project. But the limbic system, part of the primitive brain, values immediate rewards and will push you to seek comfort in a more pleasurable activity (playing a video game or binge-watching your favorite show).
So why do we listen to the limbic system?
It turns out that we may not have full control of our decision-making process. Procrastination is our response to a stimulus that we perceive as threatening – a difficult assignment we need to complete. In short, tasks we perceive to be uncomfortable trigger our fight or flight instinct, which shuts down the prefrontal cortex and gives control to the limbic system.
But what is so scary about a task that may improve your career in the long-run? Well, it’s all about the way you see said task. If you don’t know where to start or you find the task too time-consuming or too complex, it can be quite scary. In fact, according to scientists, among the four stages of the project life cycle, procrastination is most likely to appear at the initiation phase (or the beginning).
In short, if our primitive brain finds itself threatened, it will react quite strongly, trying to find a state of comfort and pleasure. In the real world, this translates as procrastination.
As you can see, it has nothing to do with willpower; procrastination is a fight or flight response and it’s not a fully conscious decision we get to make.
So how do we fight it?
Useful Tips & Tricks to Procrastinate Less
While we can’t control the need for procrastination, we can control what we do with it once it arises. So, below are several tips and tricks to help you keep that brain of yours in check.
#1: Plan Ahead
Even though it may seem we are wired to think in a different way, we have options. Call it free will, motivation, divine intervention, or anything else, but it all summarizes to the idea that we can change our behavior.
For instance, when your limbic system kicks in and nudges you to watch that one more YouTube video or spend ‘five minutes’ on social media, you must be prepared. You can defeat the need for procrastination by planning.
So, before giving up on a task with the idea that you’ll start working on it first thing tomorrow, spend a few minutes and think about it. More exactly, think about the following:
- The goals you want to achieve with this task (it helps to break a lengthy task into smaller milestones)
- The time you’ll need to spend on each goal
- The resources you’ll need to complete the task
- The process to follow from start to finish
Once you’ve laid all these out and made sure you have all the resources nearby, spend a few minutes working on the first goal. Chances are that, once you’ve started, you will want to continue at least until the first goal is complete.
#2: Prepare for Distractions
In today’s day and age, distractions are one click or swipe away. So, it’s extremely easy to start something and end up wasting your day on Netflix!
To avoid this, you need to plan for distractions. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Put your phone on silent, in a different room
- Download the resources you need and cut access to the Internet
- Create a list of distractions – put a piece of paper and a pen nearby and every time you feel the need to do something else, write it down. This way, you alleviate the need to do something right away.
These are but a few tips to help serial procrastinators get things done, but there are a lot more interesting techniques in these Udemy courses.
#3: Just Do it
Yes, it is the Nike trademark, but it’s also the easiest way to get rid of procrastination. Put off all distractions and just do the work you need to do. Also, learn to recognize what triggers your anxiety and find the environment that keeps you away from disruptions (whether it’s people or devices).
So there you have it. Putting important things aside until there’s no other way but through is part of the human condition. The sooner we learn to make peace with this aspect, we can move on to understanding how to work around it and how to actively suppress those triggers in our daily lives.