Why do we procrastinate, and how can we stop?

Study Together Team

5

minutes

Productivity

Procrastination is not just incredibly frustrating, anxiety-inducing, and unhelpful - it’s also pretty much universal. You’ll be happy to learn that you’re not actually lazy or unmotivated, but that the human brain seems to be wired for procrastination. However, not all hope is lost. Keep reading to learn why we procrastinate, and how to break the habit. 

The Science

Procrastination can be defined as the avoidance of important tasks by focusing on more fun ones. We’ve all been there: a deadline is looming and instead of writing our paper, we’re scrolling through Instagram (or re-organising the kitchen, which feels absolutely thrilling compared to our paper). 

Not many people know that procrastination is triggered by a battle between two parts of the brain: the limbic system (aka the pleasure and emotion centre) and the prefrontal cortex (aka the planning and decision making centre). The limbic system has been around since birth, controlling our moods and instincts such as hunger, pleasure, sadness, or fear. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, develops later in life. The part of our brain that makes decisions and assimilates information, scientists believe the prefrontal cortex is what separates humans from animals. 

When we’re facing a task and it comes down to the battle between these two systems, the limbic system typically wins because the prefrontal cortex is weaker and less developed. Most of us are wired to choose a little bit of pleasure right now over an arduous task, even if we know the pleasure won’t last.

Breaking the Loop

Be honest: does procrastination make you feel good? Most likely not. The habit likely makes you feel anxious, stressed, guilty, ashamed. Some people avoid completing tasks out of fear of being judged for their work, while others enjoy the rush associated with racing to meet a last minute deadline. Whichever type you are, overcoming procrastination is possible - though not easy. Below are a few ways to “avoid the avoidance”.

Tips

  1. Worst = First. That thing you’ve been dreading for ages? Just get it over with. Once you realise that it was *relatively* easy, your next tasks will seem like a walk in the park. 
  2. 2 minute rule. If it will just take two minutes, do it now (for instance - wash that plate in the sink, fold your laundry, send out that one email). 
  3. Chunk up your work. Break large tasks into smaller ones, and your mountain of work will immediately seem more manageable. 
  4. Dangle a carrot. Promise yourself a reward for completing your task, and watch that paper practically write itself.
  5. Your study environment. Design your workspace (whether at home or at the library) in such a way that limits distractions - physical and digital. That means: bring those cups back to the kitchen, leave your phone in another room (or on airplane mode), and close those 20 unnecessary tabs in your browser. 
  6. Progress, not perfection. If you focus too much on the idea of a perfect final end product, you’ll never get there. Begin with baby steps and refine your work along the way. Just start, your future self will thank you. 

What type of procrastinator are you, and how do you snap out of it? Let us know in the comments below.