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The Science of Procrastination

Procrastination is defined as the avoidance of doing a task that needs to be accomplished. It could be further stated as a habitual/intentional delay of starting or finishing a task despite its negative consequences. It is a common human experience involving delay in everyday chores or even putting off salient tasks such as attending an appointment, submitting a job report or academic assignment or broaching a stressful issue with a partner. Although typically perceived as a negative trait due to its hindering effect on one’s productivity often associated with depression, low self-esteem, guilt and inadequacy, it can also be considered a wise response to certain demands that could present risky or negative outcomes or require waiting for new information to arrive. Various types of procrastination (such as academic/non academic or behavioural/ indecisive) have their own underlying causes and effects. The most prominent explanation in present literature draws upon “Intemporal discounting, task averseness and certain personality traits such as indecisiveness and distractibility” as the common causes of procrastination.

What Drives Us To Procrastinate?

Procrastination has spread throughout the human society. But why does it happen?

Basically, the human brain is programmed to procrastinate. The process can be considered as a battle between the Limbic system of brain (unconscious zone including pleasure center) and the prefrontal cortex (the internal planner) when the brain faces a tedious task. When the limbic system dominates, which is pretty often, the result is putting off until tomorrow what could (and should) be done today.

It is futile to blame your dirty procrastination habits on heredity, star signs, or the weather. Your choice to procrastinate all comes down to one simple thing – the wiring of your brain.

The prefrontal cortex is what actually forces you to finish your job. However, it does not work by itself. We need to put effort as well. Just as you lose focus on a task, the limbic portion dominates and you become more interested in doing something that pleases you; procrastination occurs.

Procrastinators want people to believe that they’re busy, so that people don’t evaluate them negatively by calling them lazy. When procrastination kicks in, the following changes occur in our brain.

The amygdala is the section of the brain associated with our automatic emotional reaction to a situation. In moments of being overwhelmed, such as having many tasks to do or a particularly difficult one, there is a fight or flight reaction.

Both are forms of procrastination – the brain is protecting us from negative feelings. The norepinephrine chemical takes over, causing increased levels of fear and anxiety. that’s when adrenaline gets pumped into the picture.

Our brain is like a drug addict. We are addicted to dopamine, which is produced by pleasurable experiences, and so long as a task has a higher likelihood of producing dopamine, our brain is addicted to perform these actions while actively avoiding others. This is the scientific explanation behind procrastination.

How To Avoid Procrastinating

  1. Write down your goal and give yourself a deadline. A goal without a deadline can be put off indefinitely.
  2. Break your goal into small pieces. The bigger your goal or the change you want to make, the more quickly it can send you into overwhelm. So if your goal feels daunting, break it into manageable, bite-sized steps. Remember, you don’t have to know every step of the way; just the next few steps immediately ahead.
 Your next steps will become obvious as you move along.
  3. Visualize the future you want.Imagine the emotions you will feel.  Picture yourself in a favorite place celebrating what you’ve accomplished. Imagine those who love you most celebrating your success.
  4. Harness fear.  Fear is a powerful emotion that can keep us mired in excuses. Yet, by focusing on what you don’t want, you can harness it in your favor. So write down how you will feel a year from now if you do nothing. Be brave and really honest with yourself about the cost of continued inaction. After all, if nothing changes, nothing changes!
  5. Build accountability.  Enlist a support team or an accountability partner or, as I suggested in Stop Playing Safe, recruit your own Personal Board of Advisors to help keep you focused and on track. Set up a time to check-in regularly and let them know ways in which they can help. For instance, to remind you of past accomplishments, and why you set about making these changes in the first place.
  6. Reward progress. Set up a reward system to ensure you celebrate progress and small successes as you go along.  Whether a fun activity with friends, or a treat for yourself, make it something that acknowledges your progress and effort.
  7. Act bravely daily. Starting today.  Building momentum is crucial as you start out. So commit to stepping out of your comfort zone at least once per day.  Beginning today – before your fear-laden excuses, disguised as sheer laziness, kick in again.  It can be something really small. After all, it doesn’t matter how fast you are going, so long as you are stepping forward in a direction that inspires you. So take that first step, then another, then another… after all – life rewards action!
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