02 December 2019
I guarantee you’ve more than once suppressed that slippery guilt that comes with putting off today what could be done tomorrow.
And you have no idea how long this topic has been on my own to-do list! (This is a long one, but we cover a LOT of good stuff.)
So it’s not news to anyone that students are some of the worst procrastinators. They know they have due dates coming up, but instead of planning to work concurrently on all current assignments, they focus too much on the first one due. Instead of planning to complete assignments in good time, many students find themselves again and again panicking on the night before each due date.
By postponing tasks which make us anxious in favour of mood-enhancing activities, we temporarily feel better. Studies showed that students who procrastinated in Term 1 were less stressed than those knuckling down. But by Term 2 the tables had turned dramatically.
It’s such a pervasive habit.
Do we enjoy it? …hardly! In hindsight we would almost always manage our time differently. 85% of 28,000+ people polled want to kick the habit.
“But, I work better under pressure,” insist some of my students.
Me: “Oh, really? So at some point you did complete tasks in good time, but you found that the quality just wasn’t as good as when you rush it at the last minute?”
…I’m yet to have a student show that to be the case.
No blame. No judgment here. It is the habit they’ve defaulted to. And they rationalise it because habits are uncomfortable to change. And admitting to procrastination is socially awkward.
Parents lament, “Why have they not yet learned to manage their time, to complete tasks without a stressful scramble to the finish line?”
One thing we know for sure at this point is that, despite best efforts, decades of diligent parental nagging has done little to alleviate the problem!
It’s part societal hand-me-down: Society models this behaviour to our younger generations (cramming before tests, grrrr).
But deeper than that, it’s part inescapable human biology. A fight between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.
Most of us realise that delaying gratification today would pay big dividends tomorrow. But against our better judgement, our present-self wilfully sabotages our future-self’s happiness – as if our future-self was some stranger we don’t care about at all.
In fact, brain patterns of subjects told to think about themselves in 10 years, looked much the same as when they were told to think about a celebrity. A different area of the brain activates when subjects think about their current-self. It’s like the brain sees ourselves now and then as two different people.
Maybe society will eventually curb its predilection for procrastination. But it’s unlikely, given there are suggestions that it’s genetic. And anyway, that will be far too late for current students speeding their way through school, careening from due date to due date.
So is there any hope?
By the end of this you’ll have a very good handle on why we procrastinate, and a few practical steps to put in place. Try them yourself, then share the knowledge with your most incorrigible son or daughter.
Battling brain biology
Why does it feel so hard to change? Even if we want to…
Because our brains are trying to do what is (or was) best for our survival.
I think of our brains’ not as logic machines, but as a jumble of competing cognitive heuristics, shortcut ways of thinking that would usually lead to the best chance of survival.
Being aware of every single detail of your lived experience in any one moment would be overload. To stop and carefully consider the infinite possibilities would have us frozen to the spot, a ready-meal for hungry lions. Instead, our brain is constantly looking for patterns in the stream of input, which it compares to a consolidated mass of past experiences. From that, it jumps to a conclusion: a feeling, an understanding, a physical reaction in the moment. These ‘shortcuts’ were handed down to children whose parents’ brains made the right conclusions in order to avoid being eaten by that lion.
But because of these shortcuts, our impulses are not always the most ‘rational’ or ‘helpful’ in modern situations. These days, many if not most students are more often avoiding homework than lions.
But our brains can’t evolve as quickly as our society does.
So we must learn (a little) about our brains in order to avoid them taking shortcuts that our future-selves will regret.
Much like all the never-pressed buttons on your microwave, we’ll never be making the most of that marvellous machine inside our heads if we don’t browse the instruction manual once in a while.
Let’s start with a quick biology lesson, then move on to a touch of psychology.
Prefrontal cortex vs. Limbic system
One of the strongest physiological motivators is the brain’s ‘addiction’ to dopamine. You’ve heard of it: ‘the feel-good hormone’.
We’re born with a fully-developed limbic system, an area of the brain which evolved a long time ago to deal impulsively with the present, getting us through our moment-to-moment lives as primates – food, fight, flee, etc. When our actions satisfy what our body is signalling that it ‘wants’ (food, rest, affection, anything but schoolwork…), the limbic system is rewarded with dopamine.
Our prefrontal cortex, however, evolved more recently, and develops over the first decades of our lives. It allows us self-control, and to focus despite distractions, and to plan for the future. Whether that be the next ad break or retirement, thanks to that part of our brain, we can anticipate what will make our future-selves happy. Without it we would only be aware of this moment, our actions fully dictated by our current emotions.
|Limbic system||Prefrontal cortex|
While both brain regions come in very hand, they are in opposition to each other, causing that guilty discomfort we experience when we procrastinate. And for better or worse, the limbic system is stronger.
That has been a really good thing. It kept us alive by making us rest when we were exhausted, find food when we were undernourished, run and hide when we heard roaring. But for most Australian school students, those primary needs for staying alive are well and truly taken care of (by Mum and Dad). And so, now our limbic system spends its days rewarding us for couch time, fried food, and escaping life-threatening maths assignments with just a few more minutes of Facebook or Fortnite.
Our prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, knows full well that our future-selves would thanks us for getting an A on every assignment, opening up that dream career pathway.
Some good news is that we all get better at overriding our limbic system as we age, through continued prefrontal cortex development and through experience. (And through practice, if you’re fortunate enough to have learned all this early on.) Think of those off-the-rails teens you thought were doomed, but who then finally settled down in their late twenties and are delightful people now. (Maybe that was you?)
So, that’s all well and good, and important to keep at the front of mind when making decisions.
But it’s cold comfort to school students in the throes of childhood and teenage (*shudder*) brain development.
Unless they’re also aware of their brains’ biases, they can remain at the mercy of their tyrannical limbic system for decades.
Now, getting back to those heuristic shortcuts I mentioned.
People don’t like to admit it, but if you’re human, YOU are biased. Sorry, not sorry.
Experimental psychology is gradually discovering and disentangling these biases, and they are fascinating – you should definitely browse the wiki list of cognitive biases. You’ll find excuses for so many regrettable decisions. Cunning advertisers use them against us. But as individuals, we rarely stop to think about what our brain does ‘behind the scenes’, without us asking it to, without our knowledge.
If you have the internet, you’ve heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment from the 1970s: kids left alone in a room with a marshmallow, adorably trying to resist eating it because they’ve been promised another one if it’s still uneaten in 15 minutes. Torture for them, internet sensation for everyone else. Please, watch again now, I insist.
It’s a window into delayed gratification, and it’s all about the prefrontal cortex winning out over the limbic system. The less cute findings of such studies are that those youngsters who can delay gratification longer do better in education, and lead healthier more successful lives.
Hyperbolic Discounting aka Present Bias is the brain’s tendency to go for smaller immediate gratification (one marshmallow now) over a bigger payoff later (two marshmallows in 15 minutes).
The further into the future the promised pay-off, the less importance we place on it. So people make choices today about their future that they don’t stand by when that future time comes. Queue regret. Next you’ll swear to make a better choice next time. And then, surprise surprise, when the time comes, you override that promise you made to yourself.
You can test your own hyperbolic discounting by asking such questions as:
- Would you prefer to receive $50 now or $100 a year from now?
- Would you prefer to receive $50 five years from now, or $100 six years from now?
Maybe you did the smart thing because you knew this was only hypothetical. But you’re not alone if you chose the immediate $50 in question A, but the delayed $100 in question B. But now realise that Question B is the same choice as Question A, only you’re making it for yourself five years into the future. The 12 months starting today feels more significant than the 12 months five years down the track, especially for teens.
So even though it may not feel like it now, if you’re asked in five years whether you want to change your mind, you may well just take the $50.
This behaviour might be rationalised by considering that short-term gains are sometimes more guaranteed. Who knows whether the long-term promises will ever eventuate? Perhaps the bloke with the promised $100 will be nowhere to be found in a years’ time, let alone 5 or 6 years… so the difference in perceived risk is less.
When it comes to procrastination, we take the choice which will make us feel good now, because who knows what the future holds. Maybe the world will explode, in which case it will be silly to have wasted those precious final hours writing an essay that no one will ever read.
So then the current struggle comes down to an individual war with the self.
The battleground, the brain. The best weapons, self-knowledge, self-awareness and psychological tricks.
Start combatting procrastination today
Now that you understand what you’re working with (or against) you’re in good form for the fight ahead. And because I don’t think I could have explained the techniques for overcoming procrastination habits better, I’m going to recommend that you also read Bell Beth Cooper’s blog which explains 8 strategies really worth trying. But stay here for now – I’ll remind you at the end.
It can take a bit of honest trialling of some of those techniques, because they wont all work for everyone.
But let’s look now at just one that I stumbled into years ago which works pretty well for me (usually).
Remember those of my students who insist that they work well under pressure?
Well, if it’s pressure they want… I say, fake it ‘til you make it.
An impending deadline (or the concomitant consequences) can certainly spur some people into action. But there are ways to trick your brain into perceiving the pressure of a time limit, and yet still complete tasks ahead of time. Without the risk of something cropping up and causing you to run out of time.
Set a fake due date in your diary a week ahead of the real one. Now make yourself believe in the little fantasy you’ve created. Tell yourself you MUST have it done by then or you will fail. That is THE due date. Then if you still procrastinate, guess what, that’s OK!!! Because when you inevitably pull an all-nighter to finish it, you stay up the night before the fake due date and JUST! – GET! – IT! – DONE!
You wake up the next morning with your assignment done, and Oh! It’s a miracle! It’s not due for another week.
Cellllllll-a-brate good times, c’mon! Do do do do do do do do do do!
If it’s up to scratch, great, you’ve earned yourself a whole week’s less stress than your friends! Sit back and enjoy watching them panic, while you work on the next assignments. Or become the champion who lends everyone some advice here and there. Up to you.
If, however, the finished product hasn’t turned out as great as you hoped (most likely), no worries! Unlike all your classmates who will stay up the night before the real due date and hand in a bleary-eyed shambles, you now have a bonus week in which to polish it up from a ‘C’ or ‘B’ to an ‘A’.
Teachers sometimes play this little game on their students’ behalf by planning all along to “extend” the due date at the last minute. But we can’t be relying on people to trick us into doing the right thing all our lives. The sooner we learn to trick ourselves, the less stress we experience.
By beginning to master our own brains, we start being able to master whatever comes our way, calmly, confidently. Waving away obstacles in our path with the chill composure of Yoda, or like Hermione in Charms class.
At first it may take a lot of effort to take the fake due date seriously, but use the force, young Padawan. Go through the motions. After each practice, it becomes easier. Until voila, you’re in a new habit. A helpful, healthy one, for once. And it will feel goooood.
I can’t lie and tell you that reforging habits is easy. But we (thanks to behavioural scientists) know how it can be done. When forming new habits, if you’re lucky, you can start with the feeling of wanting to do it, which then leads to the action of doing it, which then reinforces the feeling, so you do it again, and so on, etc, etc, until the habit is set.
But if the feeling isn’t there to begin with, YOU CAN start by just making yourself DO the action, or getting someone else to make you do it. Each time you force yourself to do the intelligent thing, your brain edges a little closer to changing the old habit. By doing the action enough, your brain starts to get the good feels which come after getting the job done prior to doing it.
And it really pays off.
It’s hard to overstate the high that students feel when they have completed an assignment a week ahead of everyone else.
Again, I really recommend that you now read Bell Beth Cooper’s blog for great examples of how to trick yourself out of procrastinating. Don’t put it off for later. Do it now.