I have a problem. During my first time at uni, literally all of my assignments were completed at 3am the night before the deadline, enabled by copious amounts of tea and sugar while a flat party raged downstairs. Second time I swore it’d be different. I was older, wiser, more mature, I told myself. My mum bought me a book on procrastination which to this day I have still not read. This should tell you how well that resolution went. Having clearly not learned my lesson, I decided to delve into the science behind why so many of us students repeatedly put off those essays until the last minute, whereupon a caffeine-induced frenzy of typing becomes the only option we have left.
Procrastination is not, as you might think, purely down to poor time management. This can of course exacerbate the behaviour, but the accompanying guilt and anxiety that commonly plagues chronic procrastinators implies there is also an emotional aspect. The current school of thought is that procrastination stems from mixed feelings about a task, and that failure to self-regulate emotion is the main culprit. There is a link between impulsivity and procrastination, but it is more than just being easily distracted. It is in fact down to a tug-of-war between the limbic system (the brain’s emotional centre) and the pre-frontal cortex (decision-making). The pre-frontal cortex is only switched on if we are paying attention to the task in hand, but if we switch off or let our minds wander, the limbic system takes over. It defaults to mood repair, whereby we start to choose activities that instantly make us feel better, rewarding us with a short burst of dopamine. Think of dopamine as a little hit of happiness, which keeps us coming back for more, continuing to choose those enjoyable but distracting activities, rather than face the Dreaded Essay. This does not teach us how to deal with stress in the long-term, and while we may feel better at the time, as that deadline draws closer, we experience a serious detrimental effect in performance, well-being and levels of anxiety.
While there is no quick fix, there are quite a few suggestions put forward by psychologists that are worth a try.
• Reward yourself at intervals with little treats or five minute breaks, steadily increasing the time spent working to get you used to focusing for longer.
• Self-imposed deadlines aren’t as effective as external ones, but they still work.
• Try positive re-framing – instead of ‘I hate essay-writing’, try saying to yourself ‘I enjoy being productive’.
• Make a list of why you want to complete the task i.e. more free time, better grades, working towards a career or qualification you really want.
• Remove temptations – put your phone away, clear your desk, don’t have the TV on etc.
• Get other people to hold you accountable. Tell a friend or family member that you are working today, and that they have to make sure you finish on time by reminding you of your commitment or putting you back on task if you get distracted.
• Practice self-forgiveness. This helps to break the vicious cycle of negativity, guilt and procrastination. The more you accept and forgive yourself for past mistakes, the less likely you are to repeat them.
So now you know the why, and hopefully have some ideas to put into practice about how to stop putting off the inevitable. As for me, it’s currently 3am, and the deadline for this article is tomorrow… oh the irony.