websites, for instance, while preparing to write this article.
Procrastination, as you may have figured out by now, is the practice of
carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to urgent ones. Or, doing
pleasurable tasks in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus delaying
performing impending jobs.
We know we have important work deadlines, exams to study for, and even more
tedious tasks such as sorting out bills and taking the dog to the vet for yearly
But when deadlines loom, mundane tasks suddenly become more appealing —
tidying your office area as opposed to writing a report, or cleaning the car
instead of revising for an exam.
Chronic procrastinating stems productivity and affects our state of mind by
generating worry and stress. As deadlines approach, they cause feelings of
frustration and guilt for not working on a task when we were meant to.
So why do we choose to mess around when we need to knuckle down and do what
we know to be important?
The value of mundane tasks
In order to procrastinate, we need to have an appreciation of the value of
our behaviours. That's to say we know that we're undertaking a short-term, less
important task, instead of doing something essential.
The part of the brain that acts as the control centre for deciding whether to
perform certain behaviours is the prefrontal
It plays an important role in assigning positive (or
negative) values to outcomes, and encoding what actions were
performed. This process means you are more likely to do something if it
previously resulted in a good feeling.
This area of the brain is therefore important for making value-based
judgements as well as for decision making in general; we undertake certain
behaviours because we've learnt that they make us feel good.
Neurotransmitters in the brain process rewards
and generate pleasurable sensations. Rewarding behaviours result in the release
of the neurotransmitter dopamine
in the brain.
And, dopamine reinforces such behaviours in turn, making us
feel good and increasing the chances that we will perform them again.
Putting tasks into perspective
The tasks we tend to occupy ourselves with when procrastinating are those
with a small, immediate, and short-term value, instead of the important, more
valued task where the reward is delayed.
This is an example of temporal
discounting; basically, we overestimate the value of an outcome
when it can be gained immediately.
Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent a reward is perceived
to be. In other words, we discount the value of large rewards the further away
they are in time. This is called the present
And it explains why we're more likely to partake in low-value behaviours
(checking Facebook, for instance, or playing computer games) — because getting a
good score on a test next week is further away in time, so it's less valued
than it should be.
As time passes, the temporal proximity of your deadline increases. The value
of doing well in your assessment, or getting work in before a deadline is still
just the same as before, but greater immediacy means it becomes more important
that you complete the task.
Another more personality-based theory of procrastination is the "arousal
seeking" idea. This suggests procrastinators may be a certain
personality type, in particular people who are thrill seekers.
Leaving an important deadline until the last minute increase levels of
stress. And carrying out the task in the last minute leads to a rewarding "rush"
once its complete. This reinforces the idea that such people work better under
Procrastination may be a facet of personality. Or it could be that exposure
to so many immediately rewarding activities makes it difficult to perform
certain less pleasurable, but important tasks.
There are a variety of techniques to help people work effectively and
minimise distractions and procrastination.
The Pomodoro technique, for
instance, breaks work sessions into manageable 25-minute slots, allowing a
small reward at the end, such as five minutes access to Facebook or a short
Then you have to return to another 25 minutes of work; the technique can aid
productivity across the whole day. A similar approach is self-imposing
shorter-term deadlines for a large project, breaking it up into manageable tasks
with immediate outcomes.
This increases the proximity of the deadline and decreases the chances of
having to carry out the task at the last minute. This technique can work as
simply as making a timetable or list of smaller tasks, and then rewarding
yourself once each task is complete.
With so many daily distractions, we seem to live in a procrastinators
paradise. Accepting that we're prone to procrastinate allows us to manage our
behaviour and be more productive.
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