Odds are that many of you reading this post are procrastinating. Some of you may be asking yourselves, what exactly does that word mean again?
Wikipedia defines it as ‘The act of replacing high-priority actions with tasks of lower priority, or doing something from which one derives enjoyment, and thus putting off important tasks to a later time’
Often this behaviour is diagnosed by frustrated parents as plain old ‘laziness’.
But there’s a little more to it than that. Lets look at why we do it and what can be done to overcome it.
Why do we Procrastinate?
There is a natural tendency in humans to over or underestimate a reward or achievement based on how far away in the future it is.
Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent a reward is perceived to be. Meaning the further away the reward is the more likely we are to discount its value. This is often referred to as Present Bias.
Think about the following example;
If I was to offer you the choice of €100 today or €110 in 1 months time most people would take the €100 today.
Now if I was to give you the choice of €100 in one years time or €110 in 1 year & 1 months time, bets are that far more people would wait that extra month.
In both offers the wait time between getting that extra €10 is the same. This example goes to highlight the inclination we all have to choose more immediate awards.
What does science you say about all this? Well its been known for years that enjoyment provides the brain with Dopamine hits. Dopamine hits are good. Well at least they feel good. Small and continuous rewards modify neurons making you much more likely to repeat that behaviour.
A good example would be playing a game on your phone at the expense of studying for an upcoming exam like the Leaving Cert.
Playing the game provides you with an immediate dopamine hit and is easily repeatable enjoyment. Whereas the rewards of achieving results in something like the Leaving Cert may be greater but are more abstract as they are unlikely to have been experienced before and aren’t immediately obtainable.
Prefrontal Cortex vs Limbic System
The Limbic System is one of the most dominant parts of the brain and is the driver of our emotions and subconscious. The pre-frontal cortex is weaker and less ‘automatic’ but is responsible for the ‘getting the job done’ aspect of our thinking. The moment you’re not consciously engaged in a task, your Limbic System takes over. You give in to what feels good – you procrastinate.
So what can we do?
Identify: The first thing to do is put a finger on when and how often you procrastinate. Being simply able to identify the behavior is the most important factor in avoiding it. Ask yourself honestly if you have a habit of doing something unimportant at the expense of doing something more worthwhile. Facebook anyone?
Eliminate: Many people have a deluded sense of their own will power to avoid distractions. You may think that having a Tablet, Smartphone and Laptop to hand is essential to effective study but it’s definitely not. These things are often nothing but a distraction waiting to happen, I studied for my Junior and Leaving Cert without one in my room and did just fine. If you have trouble studying put yourself where there are no distractions. Ask friends or family for help formulating ideas in how to cut off interruptions.
Start: This is one that seems obvious but think about it. Procrastination happens when you avoid doing things. To actually do something you have to start if first. If you start a task you aren’t procrastinating anymore. Yay! You have to make that first decision to get the ball rolling. For most people this is the most difficult part. Tasks are NEVER as difficult as they appear beforehand.
Plan: Map out and prioritize your tasks. Break them down into bite size manageable chunks. For studying I used to go for 25 mins before rewarding myself by taking break.
Reward: Reward yourself for sticking to your plan. If your reward is to take a break, apply the same focus and dedication to you breaks as you do to being productive. Give yourself a set break period and stick to it. Log onto Facebook, comment on that video of a cat surfing and get back to work.
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