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Why You Procrastinate (Because: Neuroscience)

Is procrastination a bad habit or a hard-wired character trait? Don’t wait another minute to learn what science says. Plus, 6 expert tips to nix it now.

“Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” Benjamin Franklin said. I bet he didn’t make this pronouncement when facing the pressure of final exams. Nor did he offer any reason for why we’d do something so self-sabotaging.

But it turns out that our brains offer clues as to why.

Why you procrastinate

“You procrastinate when you’re feeling negative emotion towards something you don’t want to do, and this sparks a fight between two parts of the brain,” says Timothy A. Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. “Our amygdala (center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation) goes to battle with our prefrontal cortex (home of executive function — planning, goal setting).”

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“Think of the amygdala as more impulse-driven,” says Pychyl. “The prefrontal cortex helps us to more slowly process information, remind ourselves of goals, and inhibit impulses, and [it] doesn’t fully develop in humans until we are about 25.”

Dr. Pychyl thinks of procrastination as an “amygdala hijack,” kicking off a fight-or-flight response to process our anxiety about an upcoming task. “Whatever we feel negative or anxious about, it’s human nature to procrastinate,” says Dr. Pychyl. “You don’t want to have the negative emotions, so you avoid the task and get the temporary break from those emotions you don’t want. We learn very early in life how to do this, and there are very real costs.”

The costs of procrastination

It may not make logical sense to put off what you need to do today. But as Dan Ariely wrote in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, our misguided behaviors are systematic and predictable — making us predictably irrational.

Regardless, it’s worth giving these behaviors their walking papers. According to the “Longitudinal Study of Procrastination, Performance, Stress, and Health: The Costs and Benefits of Dawdling,” published in Psychological Science, researchers Dianne M. Tice and Roy F. Baumeister note that procrastination has been linked to serious conditions, including depression, irrational beliefs, low self-esteem, anxiety, and stress.

Are you a true procrastinator?

Procrastination is certainly not a new phenomenon. According to productivity-focused writer and entrepreneur Darius Foroux, “Historical figures like Herodotus, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and hundreds of others have talked about how procrastination is the enemy of results.”

While everyone may procrastinate from time to time, The New York Times recently reported that 20% of people are true procrastinators: “One out of five people, researchers have found, fall into a category they call chronic procrastinators, or ‘procs’ (rhymes with crocs). The proc consistently procrastinates in multiple areas of his or her life — work, personal, financial, social — in ways that attendees describe as wreaking havoc, undermining goals, and producing perpetual shame. Researchers have built scales to separate the true proc from the occasional procrastinator.”

Dr. Joseph Ferrari, DePaul University psychology professor, who has published around 70 papers on procrastination, told The New York Times, “I’ve always made the argument that everybody procrastinates but not everyone’s a procrastinator — because everybody may put off a task, but that doesn’t make you a procrastinator.”

Stress and delay vs. procrastination

As you think about procrastination, don’t confuse it with stress, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Studies like this one from Health magazine show that a reasonable level of stress may even make you more motivated, resilient, and focused as exam time approaches.

There may also be an upside to delay. We all use deferment to set priorities and make adjustments (e.g., you and your professor mutually decide to postpone a meeting for several days due to scheduling issues). But delay is voluntary, rational, and purposeful.

Procrastination is none of these things. While there may be an upside to productive stress and delay, there’s never an upside to procrastination.

5 ways to fight procrastination

Scientific evidence helps us understand what causes us to procrastinate. And it may be a relief to know you’re in good company if you wrestle with what Dutch philosopher Joel Anderson calls a “culpably unwarranted delay.” But neither helps much when you’re wondering how to make yourself crack open that textbook to prep for next week’s exam. Even if you’re not a proc, keep an eye on your own delay tactics.

“For some people, procrastination becomes a problem when your amygdala runs wild and avoidance becomes a habit,” Dr. Pychyl says. “Individuality plays a part, and if you’re impulsive and develop a habit that’s hard to break, you might become a procrastinator.”

Based on brain research and behavioral best practices, these 5 guidelines can help you retrain your mind and kick your procrastination habit now:

1. Trick the brain into caring about your future self

“If something causes long-term pain, we think that’s ‘future self’s’ pain,” says Dr. Pychyl. “One key is to trick the brain into caring about the future self.” UCLA social psychologist Hal Herschfield conducted brain imaging research to measure how a person thinks about their present self, their future self, and a stranger. It turns out that our brain function for the latter two are similar — meaning that we think about our future self as a stranger. We think, “That’s not me,” so we discount future rewards for our future self.

Fortunately, a bit of meditation can be enough to help you warm up to the “you” of the future. Dr. Pychyl’s former student and psychological researcher Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon led undergraduate students through a guided meditation tape twice weekly for four weeks, asking them to imagine their lives at the end of the semester and what they’d be doing during that time. After four weeks, many of her students developed more cognitive empathy for their future selves, and that empathy was related to a decrease in procrastination.

2. Break your goal into small steps

If you’re in the habit of putting things off, Dr. Pychyl suggests that you look at the task causing those negative emotions and ask yourself, “If I were to do this task, what would be the next action?” In other words, break down complex tasks into several simple, sequential tasks.

Buddhists refer to our chaotic, agitated, and easily distracted mental state as “monkey mind.” (You may recognize it as having so much going on that you can’t think of where to start.)

“You have to give the monkey something to do,” says Dr. Pychyl. “Hey Monkey, what’s the next action? Pretty soon, the monkey is more concerned about the next action than the emotion.”

3. Do the hardest thing first

Focus on the most difficult aspects of your studies, such as the toughest subject or the part of the textbook you’re dreading the most. If you’ve been putting off a paper, sit in your chair and don’t get up until you’ve finished a draft, or at the very least a paragraph (remember the earlier advice about breaking down big goals into small steps). Then take on the other parts of your studying, also moving from hardest to easiest. By confronting your worst fears first, you’ll feel less daunted by what still needs to be done. And you’ll take on the toughest task when you have the most energy instead of when you’re falling asleep on your books.

4. Plan your time

If you have a lot to do, don’t wait until the end of the day to reboot and assess what still needs to be done. After a few hours of intense studying, take a break and evaluate your overall progress and what else you need to tackle. Do this before closing the books for the night.

Another time management tip: Time yourself on tasks you do often (such as reading a chapter or writing a page of a paper). Write down how long it takes so you have clear expectations of when you’ll finish and how long a future assignment will take.

5. Build in some accountability

If you have a studying goal, share it. Tell a couple of friends or classmates what you plan to do so you’ll be accountable to them. For example, if you need to skip happy hour on Wednesday night to study for Friday morning’s final exam, tell your friends about your study plan — e.g., you’ll be at the library from 4 to 9 p.m. reviewing your notes on early American history. Ask them to touch base with you afterward to ensure that you stuck to your plan.

Procrastinator or not, are you ever going to feel like opening that textbook and studying for a final exam you dread? Probably not. While you may not love it now, though, your future self will love you for it later, and you’ll make the studying process less stressful. Just get started.

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