The science behind procrastination and how to beat it.
Why don’t you feel like doing the work that is most important to you?Why do you keep wasting day after day on things that are ruining your life? How to feel productive from inside and not just a force from your willpower?
Let’s understand the science behind your procrastination.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination is the act of delaying a task or a set of tasks that usually are important to you. It means postponing meaningful and important tasks that are good for you in the long run.
I have a writing job and need to finish my paper by today. Instead of doing it, I postpone it for tomorrow.
This is procrastination.
I will start my diet from 1st January because now the year is almost over.
This is procrastination.
My finals are from next month but I don’t feel like studying. I will start tomorrow. I swear to God.
This is procrastination.
Dr. Piers Steel, a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary and the author of “The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.” defined procrastination as self-harm.
In short, Procrastination is an unproductive habit.
Why do we procrastinate?
People say you procrastinate because you don’t have strong goals, you are lazy, you are irresponsible, etc.
I can assume these blames are true to some extent but you know deep down somewhere in your heart that these are B.S.
Lets understand the science behind our procrastination.
Reasons for procrastination number one.
The first reason is the immediate gratification.
You hate doing work that is not rewarding enough. Not rewarding in the present but you know it will be rewarding in the future.
Our brain doesn’t like the tasks that don’t give us immediate satisfaction. What is immediate satisfaction? Immediate satisfaction is the release of happy chemicals, like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin in our brain.
Why we go for immediate gratification:
Our brain likes immediate satisfaction or gratification because this is how our ancestors were trained.
Let’s go back a little in time.
One of our ancestors was foraging for food in the jungle. He was looking everywhere for something to eat. Anything, for god’s sake. He was exhausted and hopeless and suddenly, bam, there was a ripe mango on a branch. Happiness spread on his face.
He got that mango, ate it, and satisfied himself.
There was nothing to save, nothing to preserve and our brain identified instant happiness was a key to survival.
The thing for long term planning and preserving food came later when humans started to live as a community. Things were too late.
I cannot tell the whole story, the ancestor died later because of a stupid fight with a clan member.
Reasons for procrastination number two.
You procrastinate because you formed a habit. Doing your work at the last moment, or delaying every day is a habit. Watching a youtube video while you have to prepare your presentation is a habit.
In terms of neuroplasticity, watching youtube videos instead of doing your work forms neural pathways in your brain which fires every time when you repeat it. And what happens when it fires every time?
I guess you heard this, Neurons that fire together also wires together. The pathways get strengthened and become difficult to break or stop when it converts into a habit or addiction.
So, next time you watch a youtube video you are just strengthening that pathway. When a pathway gets stronger, the brain tries to repeat the process.
It is all a vicious circle.
How to stop procrastination?
There are two ways to stop procrastination. One way is a permanent fix that would take time and is very difficult to do depending on your level of bad habits.
The other one is a quick fix.
A. Quick Fixes: This name is misleading. These techniques under this category are not quick fixes in a sense but support the permanent fix. Let see the techniques to understand it better:
- Get started: This technique applies to get started on your work. But getting started is not easy. If it was, you would not read this article.
Few ways to get started are:
Planning in advance: The night before you go to sleep if you plan in advance what you are going to do the next day, it is more likely you will finish your work because your brain will already have instructions on what to do. If you become more specific regarding your plan than it will be better.
Practical planning: I plan my whole day in advance before I go to sleep. Though, I still cannot complete all my tasks in a day and I have been doing it for five months, but I am at least doing my tasks rather than postponing it.
Don’t plan to climb Mount Everest in a day, when you are just starting.
The problem with us is we want to achieve everything in a day and what happens later is that you don’t meet your goals and become disheartened and think you will never do anything good in your life.
But, the truth is that day comes when you achieve extraordinary results only if you prepare for it constantly. Without preparation, good luck.
Plan small, plan logically. For example, if you want to learn how to play guitar, then only plan to play it for five minutes or ten minutes for the next day.
Link Buildings: Link buildings also known as implementation intentions is an ‘if-then’ plan. If I play my guitar for 10 minutes then I will start reading a book for 15 minutes. When I come from the office, I will go for a run, etc.
The power of the five-second principle: Sometimes you just need to start your work and that’s all. When you sit in front of your computer and don’t feel like working on your manuscript, just count to five in your head and start. After that, you keep working. It is that simple.
2. Giving rewards on completion of a task: Promising a reward after doing your work can do wonders. Remember how our parents promised us to give us rewards like bikes or video games if we achieve 99% in our board exams.
That is again long term but still, that worked. Promising rewards like going for ice cream on completing your excel work can also work or calling your girlfriend only if you go to the gym today.
Don’t judge me, I have seen weirder examples.
3. The immediate consequence of not completing your work: Just like promising a reward if you plan immediate consequences for not completing your task, it helps in performing your activity.
For example, you can make a deal with your friend to pay 100 rupees if you fail to do your required work. The point is putting yourself in pain for not doing your task.
4. Awareness: We do most of our work in autopilot. Starting from brushing your teeth to going to bed at night. Heck, we are not even conscious about our own breath.
Sometimes you procrastinate without the knowledge of it. Whenever you don’t feel like doing your tasks, just stop yourself for a second and become aware of what you are doing, why you are doing, how you are feeling, and by doing that only you will start doing your work.
For example, whenever I sit on my computer to work on my novel, sometimes I don’t feel like doing it. I want to watch a video or to eat something or maybe just want to sleep. At that point in time, I just become aware of my feelings and I start working after a few minutes of analysis.
5. Don’t be too hard on yourself: At the end of the day we feel bad, we start reprimanding ourselves for wasting another day. Depression crawls in and we start thinking we are not good enough for anything. Our life is a waste.
The more you do this, the more depressed you will become over time. Don’t do this and give yourself a break.
Tell your brain that it’s okay that you have wasted another day but things will get better and you will work for it. You will read more blogs, books, and find solutions to change your lives.
If your life is messed up, then it is not going to change in a day, or a week, or a month or maybe in a year and if someone says changing life is easy then just take your guitar out and bust it on his or her head.
B. Permanent fix: Permanent fix going to take time and it is not going to be easy.
A permanent fix is rewiring your brain for good. I think you have heard about neuroplasticity. Our brain is not a fixed machine, which means it changes the shape of our brain by our daily challenges. The neurons wire itself by its daily use and shrinks too if it remains idle for too long.
Researchers put two groups of rats in two cages. One cage had a simple infrastructure and the other cage had a complicated or enriched infrastructure. The research showed that the groups of rats which had enriched infrastructure had bigger and complicated brain cells.
More studies have been done on musicians who play violins. It is found that people who played violins and also were right-handed, for a long period of time had complicated brain cells on the cortex which control the left hand.
Because the left hand performs most of the complicated patterns for playing the violin and the same is also true for guitarists. I am not going to talk more about neuroplasticity because this blog is getting too long.
The point is that our brain changes if you do something repeatedly over a long period of time. It creates new connections or pathways among the brain cells.
So, what this has to do with procrastination. The answer, everything.
The science behind procrastination is that your brain has wired itself for watching youtube videos instead of work, playing video games instead of working, eating junk food instead of healthy food, and now it’s time to rewire your brain.
Change your Reward System
Boredom can be your biggest enemy and your biggest friend, depending on your actions. Whenever we get bored, that means our brain is crying for happy chemicals. What we do, of course, we go for short term gratification.
Next time you go to the toilet, don’t take your mobile with you. Let your brain starve for happy chemicals. Let it cry. Feed it with your work. Feed less or feed more, it depends on you, but don’t feed it with unproductive things.
Your brain will start liking whatever you are feeding it over time, that is how habits are formed. If you are feeding your brain with physical exercise which you didn’t like in the beginning, your brain will start liking it after several weeks.
When you get bored for a long time, your brain starts liking whatever small spurt of happy chemicals release in your brain. Something is better than nothing.
Stop social media, stop visiting unwanted sites, video games (if these are unproductive habits) and let your brain starve
But the point is how to stop. If I could stop that easily I would have never come here to read the blog in the first place.
You cannot stop all your bad habits in an instant. You cannot stop playing video games, Facebook, Instagram, or eating junk foods. Maybe some people can, like those who have a stronger prefrontal cortex, in other words, willpower.
But most of us don’t. So, start with a single one. Maybe the easiest one or the most difficult one. After that go for others and between this time you will reveal something about you.
You will feel stronger than you think, hope will start to come back, belief will start to surface and other areas of life will also improve.
You will carry on like this for a while, quitting and adding new habits in your life.
This will take time and great energy from your side.
The best you can do at this stage of life is not doing anything rather than doing unproductive stuff. Better go to bed and sleep, but don’t switch on that pc and start playing games.
When you quit all the short term gratifications for good, you will enjoy the little things in life. Going for a walk, talking with your neighbors, reading books, becoming productive, etc.
The feeling of productivity will come from inside and you don’t have to force it.
I am not going to talk about habits here, that will be for another blog.
Whatever we do for our own good, there will be a spurt of happy chemicals in our brain. That is why you can work out, you can eat healthy food, you can make plans, you can make routines and form habits.
Don’t fall in the trap of watching a five-minute cat video. Your sole purpose is to starve your brain from happy chemicals. The more you starve, your brain will start accepting the small spurt of happy chemicals from your tedious work, or from a thing that you already love.
Keep doing it and things will start to get change over time. There will come a time when you will like being productive all the time. You cannot rest without being productive, cannot be happy without finishing your task, you will become the next Elon Mask of productivity.
Books Recommendation to Stop procrastination:
NOTE:* These are affiliate links. If you purchase something from these links, I will earn a small commission on your purchase.
- The complete guide to human habits and how to build one.
- 10 Types of Procrastinators. Are you one of them?
- 9 good daily habits to increase productivity.
- Again no motivation to work? You should read this.
- The science behind comfort zone and how to break it.
- How to bring the best version of yourself? 3 Untold secrets. Warning: very difficult to do.