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Procrastination: it’s all in your head

Procrastination: it’s all in your head

It’s a worldwide phenomenon and we’ve all been there. We know that certain tasks must be done, but instead, we do something (anything!) else– bingeing a Netflix series, googling down internet rabbit holes, reorganising the kitchen cupboards, or doing nothing at all. We procrastinate until we can’t anymore, or worse until it’s too late. In both instances, dealing with the consequences of our delaying tactics is never pretty.

  • You lose time you’ll never get back.
  • Procrastination fosters poor personal, academic, and professional performance.
  • It causes stress, anxiety, and guilt.

You’re not being lazy

It would be easy to label procrastination as the result of poor time management or, worse, sheer laziness. But the science simply does not support this. Procrastination is a complex psychological issue that has much to do with how our brains are hardwired.

The limbic system is one of the oldest and most dominant portions of the brain. Its processes are mostly automatic. When you feel like your whole body is telling you to flee from an unpleasant situation, it’s your limbic system talking. It’s also tightly connected to the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is newer, less developed, and as a result, a somewhat weaker portion of the brain. This is the part of your brain where planning, complex behaviours, expressing your personality and making decisions happen. Because the limbic system is much stronger, it very often wins the battle, leading to procrastination. We give our brain what feels good now: instant gratification.

“Procrastination is an emotion-focused coping strategy. It is not a time-management problem, it is an emotion-management problem.”- Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.

Pychyl goes further to say that “We have a brain that is selected for preferring immediate reward. Procrastination is the present self, saying I would rather feel good now. So, we delay engagement even though it’s going to bite us on the butt.”

The word “procrastination” itself comes from the Latin “pro”, which means “forward”, and “crastinatus”, which means “till next day.”

Cognitive causes of procrastination

Fear of Failure

Linking the task to our self-worth is often the crucial mistake that leads to deferring a task. We can often go to self-defeating lengths to prevent feeling judged.

Fear of Success

Fear of success is often overlooked but for some, there is the fear that success can be too difficult to maintain, for others, cultural pressures may bring deep shame on those who fail, while others simply fear competition and not winning.

Some procrastinators avoid success because on some irrational level, they expect to be negatively labelled as ‘selfish’, or ‘arrogant’, if they are successful.

Similarly, for others the fear of success is based on low self-esteem issues, feeling that they are not worthy of success.

Lack of Self-Confidence

People who suffer from procrastination tend to have lower self-esteem and in turn be less confident than others. If you do not feel good about yourself, you may feel that others are cleverer and that you can’t bear to showcase your perceived inferior work.

Perfectionist procrastination

Perfectionists are always striving for the best and, as such, are constantly criticizing their own work. For some perfectionists, the fear of failing, or producing work, they perceive, to be of a low standard, can be so overwhelming they never get around to starting anything.

“Plenty of time” procrastination

Many people find it difficult to start a project when they know the deadline is a long way down the line. This type of procrastination is clearly visible in people who often struggle to start an assignment earlier than a few days before the deadline and hence pull many all-nighters to submit on time.

Also, consider your tasks that don’t have deadlines: they are often devious by nature because there is no end point. It may be something you know is for the better but you keep putting it off. This is because there is no accountability.

Pandemic based procrastination

In particular, the pandemic seems to have driven an increase in what’s calledbedtime procrastination,” a term coined in a 2014 study by health researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In this type of procrastination, people put off going to sleep to engage in leisure time. Chinese social media users renamed it “revenge bedtime procrastination” in 2020—referring to people taking revenge on the work day by staying up to have fun—and the highly relatable term went viral on Twitter.

“Productive procrastination” is another pandemic-fuelled buzz term. This is when people avoid one task to complete another, such as putting off a big work project to scrub the grout in the bathroom. While it may not seem as harmful because you are completing a task and achieving some level of productivity, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The big report still needs to get done and putting it off just adds to stress levels.

Getting lost down the internet rabbit hole

Getting side-tracked while online is not the same as conducting research. Let’s just be honest about that. But we are all victim to this at some point. With pop-ups and pings, it’s almost impossible not to.

Based on a poll I did with my followers and connections on LinkedIn, and from what I hear from my students daily, losing large chunks of time to research, which sends them down all sorts of internet rabbit holes, accounts for the biggest symptom of procrastination.

With the best intentions to conduct necessary research online, students often find themselves “quickly checking social media” or “having a quick look at that TED talk” someone recommended, or simply going off track by clicking links within online articles. 

Some of the best strategies I’ve come across to avoid this misstep is to have someone else conduct the research for you so that you only review it. That way you can stay focused on the articles already in front of you.

Use a timer and stick to tight timeframes to complete the research aspect of your thesis writing time. If you have an hour to work on your thesis, allow only 20 minutes of internet research and forty minutes of writing, for example.

Manage your time effectively by letting people know how much time you have for a phone call or a Zoom meeting. Tell them at the start of the conversation that you only have 10 minutes, that way you’ve set expectations and there’s less chance of wasting unnecessary time.

Cull your email inbox by unsubscribing to mail you never open anyway. Pause your mailbox during focused thesis writing time. Mark emails to be read later and set aside a specific time slot in your day to check and reply to emails instead of being distracted by incoming mail.

Forget about multitasking and switch to single-tasking. You’d be astounded as to how much you can get done in a relatively short amount of time when you deliberately focus on accomplishing just one thing in a set time.

Trick your brain to overcome inclinations to procrastinate

  1. Do the worst thing first. Putting off dreaded tasks will sap your mental energy while checking it off your list will make you feel more productive.
  2. Create smaller chunks. Make the job smaller by defining tasks that feel more manageable. Commit to only do the first one and see how you feel afterwards.
  3. Try the 10-minute trick. Set a timer and commit to working on the task for just ten minutes. Work as hard as you can during that time.
  4. Work in public. Leverage the power of positive pressure by publicly committing to your goals. It can be as simple as telling a friend or posting a tweet.
  5. Give yourself a reward. Pick something self-indulging that would make you very happy as a carrot for your limbic system. That’s your gift to yourself should you work—even a little—one sub-item of the task you’ve been avoiding.

Another important factor is your environment. Design your workspace in a way that minimises distractions, whether physical or digital. This means putting your phone in another room while you work, only keeping the necessary tabs open in your browser. 

Working from home? Work at an uncluttered table and consider investing in noise-cancelling headphones.

You can also implement “micro-costs” that require you to make an effort to procrastinate, such as having to use a separate laptop for gaming. The additional delay could give enough time to your prefrontal cortex to kick in and help you change course.

Want to learn more? Watch this video.

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