Everyone procrastinates occasionally. However, between 20 – 25% of people are known as chronic procrastinators. They put off everything, in every area of their lives, which is sounding depressingly familiar to me. But why do we procrastinate? And what can we do to stop procrastination for good? Let’s start at the beginning…
Evolved To Delay
[P]rocrastinators seem more likely to make rash actions and act without thinking,” Daniel Gustavson of the University of Colorado Boulder.
Procrastination is an inheritable trait so if your parents were procrastinators then there’s a good change that you will be too. Sorry kids!
It is linked genetically to impulsivity and both are related to our ability to pursue and manage goals. This makes sense. In an uncertain world then being impulsive is beneficial. Eat the food today because who knows what tomorrow will be like. Fortunately most of us know what tomorrow is going to be like; pretty much like today! So putting off long-term goals is not helpful in the least.
Then there’s something from behavioural economics called Hyperbolic discounting. Simply put, humans have a tendency to prefer smaller rewards in the short-term instead of greater rewards in the long-term. So, for example, you are more likely to accept fifty euro (pounds, dollars etc) today rather than one hundred in a year’s time. Hyberbolic discounting is used to predict how populations may react to economic situations, but basically it’s a tool to measure impulsivity in populations.
Holding Yourself Back
So I could research that topic about procrastination and then write about it. Not only would I learn tools about how to stop procrastinating for ever but I’d also get a great feeling of achievement once it’s done! Or I could check Facebook for a bit … (True Story)
So we put off what we have to do to do things that will give us a smaller reward of pleasure in a shorter time. Even though we may feel guilty about doing it.
Sometimes we compensate for feeling bad by doing something else that’s necessary or is good for us. We might do a household chore for example, or exercise. So yeah, the task that’s stressing me out is no closer to completion but at least I didn’t waste my time.
Sometimes the deadline is so far off in the future that it’s meaningless to us. One study found that people were less likely to procrastinate on long-term projects when they thought of them in terms of days rather than months or years. Somehow, 365 days sound less than one year and we’re more likely to start on the project.
And then there’s what I’m inclined to call the Deadline Hit. It feels great when we make a deadline, even when we know that our work is not as good as it could or even should be. Once we make that deadline we feel great. And so we should, as our brains release dopamine in response to stressful situations. So in effect we reward ourselves for procrastinating by releasing dopamine to counter the stress induced by procrastinating. Yikes!
“Our brain is hardwired to seek rewards. [It] is able to work out the value of an outcome, so how rewarding the outcome of a task really is, and some things really do have a big reward like acing a test or getting your money back from your taxes, but at the same time there are other things that are immediate, less rewarding, but still rewarding, like playing a computer game,” Dr Amy Reichelt, University of New South Wales
In essence we sabotage ourselves for mini rewards and guilt instead of sticking it out for greater rewards.
How To Stop Procrastinating
So we know a little about what it is, but how do we stop ourselves from procrastinating? We do it by knowing what we’re really after.
You’re addicted to dopamine. We all are. It’s what our brains give us as a reward, even when the reward is ultimately damaging. Many drugs are addictive purely because they mimic dopamine and supply us with higher than normal amounts. In some ways all addiction can be traced back to our desire for dopamine, even if we’re addicted to wasting time.
So we need to:
Break the project into mini goals. Every job consists of tasks. In itself the job may seem too big, but lots of small tasks can be tackled easily.
Assign deadlines to the tasks. Get your deadline hits often. Frame the deadlines in days and not weeks or months.
Reward yourself. Ticked off a certain amount of tasks? That can be reward enough in itself, but if not, have yourself a treat.
Start. Don’t spend all your time planning and writing task lists. Jump in and start doing them!
You can look at Facebook or have a bar of chocolate. Just cross two or three tasks off your list first. If it takes less than three minutes then do it now. Few things are so bad that you can’t stand three minutes of it. Just do it. Draw a big line through it on your list, bask in the dopamine glow of achieving it on or before the deadline and move on.
Only two more tasks before I pig out on coffee and chocolate…