Deeper Read: Dr Jen Explains Why We Procrastinate
Dr Jen Martin is Breakfasters’ scientific brains trust. She’s also the founder of Melbourne University's science communication program. In this story, she sheds some light on why we procrasinate – and what we can do to stop.
It’s Friday afternoon. You’ve known for weeks your final report is due by the end of the day. But somehow you’ve managed to put off working on it until now. And you can’t possibly get it done in time.
According to one researcher, procrastination is ‘a common pulse of humanity’. Why do we procrastinate and how can we stop?
Just do it... soon
Procrastination is ‘voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay’.That’s right. We know putting off doing something is going to be bad, but we do it anyway.
It’s easy to imagine procrastination is a recent thing, a result of the constant barrage of social media and other digital distractions. Not at all: procrastination has been around for a long time.
Egyptologist Ronald Leprohon translated some 1400 B. C. hieroglyphics as ‘Friend, stop putting off work and allow us to go home in good time.’ And Hesiod the Greek poet advised not to ‘put your work off till tomorrow and the day after’back in 800 B.C. Ancient Greek philosophers coined the term Akrasia, which is a state of acting against your better judgement.
In a study of more than 1300 adults from six countries (including Australia), about a quarter of people reported that procrastination was one of their defining personality traits. Other research found one in five people qualify as a chronic procrastinator. In a study of uni students, only one percent reported they never procrastinate.
Is procrastination actually a problem?
One of the first studies attempting to get a handle on the effects of procrastination followed the academic performance, stress, general health and procrastination habits of U.S college students in 1997.
In the short-term, procrastinators were less stressed than others, presumably because they chose fun stuff over study. But in the long run, procrastinators got lower marks and experienced greater stress and more illness compared with non-procrastinators. Since then evidence has been mounting: putting things off can seriously undermine our wellbeing.
The procrastination war
Procrastination has been the subject of much research over recent decades, and there’s no one cause. In fact procrastination is psychologically complex.
What we do know is that despite being commonly associated with laziness, procrastination doesn’t have much at all to do with time management skills.
Put simply, procrastination is a war between two parts of our brain: the limbic system (think of it as your inner 4-year old) and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system seeks instant gratification while the prefrontal cortex is involved with planning and decision making.
The limbic system is one of the oldest parts of our brains and tends to function on auto-pilot. Anytime you’re not consciously engaged with a task, the limbic system leads you to give into what feels immediately good. The limbic system is powerful and wants pleasure now. As a result, we value immediate rewards much more highly than future ones.
In contrast, it takes effort to kick the more recently evolved pre-frontal cortex into action.
What this means is that distant rewards, even if they are big ones, don’t have much sway over us compared with immediate pleasure. Procrastination isn’t a bad habit; it’s pretty much hard-wired into your brain.
Research published last year also suggests procrastination may have more to do with managing emotions than time. Brain scans suggest people who procrastinate more are less successful at filtering out emotions and distractions.
How impulsive are you?
Piers Steel from the University of Calgary is one of the word’s experts on procrastination. He analysed more than 200 procrastination studies and found a clear link between impulsiveness and procrastination.
People who tend to act impulsively are also likely to procrastinate a lot, which makes sense. In one instance, we should wait but instead do whatever it is now. In the other instance, we should do something right now but instead we wait. The common feature is self-control.
Another factor is self-confidence. If we doubt our ability to successfully complete a task, we are much more likely to put it off.
Unfortunately it’s unlikely you’ll be able to settle the ‘do it later versus do it now’ war once and for all and never procrastinate again.
So what can you do about it when you find yourself procrastinating?
Ask yourself why
Perhaps the most important thing is to notice you’re procrastinating and ask yourself why. Is the task too big and overwhelming? Are you missing some of the tools you need to get it done? Do you genuinely not care about getting it finished? Are you surrounded by too many distractions?
Once you know there’s a specific problem, you can do something to fix it.
Start and reward yourself… in intervals
One of the best tactics to beat procrastination is just to start. But of course, that’s the whole problem. So instead of telling yourself you have to complete the whole thing, commit five or ten minutes to starting one small part of your task. Building a habit of simply making a start can be one of the most effective ways to tackle procrastination.
And once you work for the specified period, give yourself a reward. Merlin Manne has a good approach for this, called the (10 + 2)*5. It’s a version of the Pomodoro technique.
The idea is that before you know it, you’ll be engrossed in your task and kicking goals.
Stop beating yourself up
Interestingly, one study found forgiving yourself for procrastinating makes it less likely you will procrastinate next time. By forgiving ourselves, we minimise the negative feelings we associate with a task that can lead us to avoid doing it again in the future.
And if you can focus on how good you’ll feel once something is done, you’ll have much more motivation in the here and now to get started on it.
Set deadlines, be specific and remove distractions
It’s a well-known fact that deadlines spur many of us into action.
Having a firm and costly deadline is an excellent way to get stuff done. And contrary to what you might think, it’s ok for this deadline to be self, rather than externally imposed.
It’s also extremely helpful to think about your task in concrete specific terms. You are significantly more likely to do what you need to do if you focus on the how, when and where of getting it done. Being specific requires your pre-frontal cortex to take over.
Finally, commit to getting rid of distractions. Turn off your WiFi and phone, and don’t check email. Your limbic system will always be tempted by whatever distractions are on hand.
So instead of reading this blog post, is there something else you should be doing right now?