Why we procrastinate and how to combat it (the scientific way)

Procrastination. Everyone does it (and I certainly do). It’s one of those things that is absolutely great early on (so much time left), but quickly, those weeks turn into days, and then hours (uh oh). Suddenly, you’re at the panic point. There is literally not enough time to get everything done.

80 – 95% of college students procrastinate, with over 95% wishing they did it less. But ultimately, no one is making you procrastinate. So if we don’t want it, and we have total control over it, why do we do it?

Turns out, we are just plain unempathetic. Research using fMRI  has found that when we think about our self in the future, we activate the same part of the brain as when we think about a total stranger. This means that when we procrastinate, our brain thinks we think we are passing the problem (and the work) onto someone else. Unfortunately, that person is us. With a whole lot less time.

Another study asked students to decide how much of a concoction of ketchup and soy sauce they would drink. Those who had to commit to drinking it that day only mustered up the courage for two tablespoons, but if they only had to consume it the following semester, they were willing to drink half a cup. This dramatic increase stems from our lack of empathy for our future self. By failing to self-regulate our behaviour, we are prioritising an instantaneous mood boost now, over the consequences in the future.

When trying to combat procrastination, if we remind ourselves that in 10 minutes, or an hour, or a weeks time we are not going to suddenly want to do that dreaded task, then we may actually have a chance of getting it done early. This concept of connecting to our future self is known as future self-continuity, and can have many benefits, like improved decision making, goal pursuit and well-being.

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Sourced from Cubiclebot

On average, older people tend to procrastinate less. However, this is not because of a true growth in self-control, but rather the adoption of strategies to deal with this behaviour. So the earlier you can find a way to tackle procrastination, the better.

Learning to self-manage and self-regulate is key. I love nifty little apps, and so as I procrastinated a lab report, I thought, maybe there is an app to help with this. After a few trials, I found two gems on Google Playstore, Accomplish: To-Do list reborn and Clear Focus (sorry they’re both android only).  I’ll look into Clear Focus next time, but for now, I will focus on Accomplish.

Accomplish is an app which allows you to create a to-do list, and then drag and drop the tasks into a calendar. It is really easy to move them around, adjust their lengths and finally tick them off when you are done. If you do not tick off a task by the end of the day, then it returns to do the to-do list for the next day. This is perfect if you are little ambitious or underestimate how long tasks will actually take because you won’t forget about them the following day.

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Source: Google Play

I personally find myself drowning in lists scribbled on spare pieces of paper. I am constantly reshuffling them, and figuring out when best to do everything. This in itself is procrastination.

Breaking large tasks up into small ones makes them seem more achievable, and reduces the initial inertia to get started. By beginning the day with a plan, and segmenting that massive lab report into quick 15 – 30-minute tasks, it all suddenly becomes very easy. Accomplish is perfect for this. You can also start to get a better perspective on the timeline, allowing you to see how procrastinating now will affect you later on.

 

Now, planning out your day is the first step, but making the most of those segments is even more important. My next tip is using a Pomodoro timer, so tune in next time for scientifically backed procrastination-beating tips.

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