Fighting Procrastination

We’ve all been there: a late night with coffee in hand, furiously typing and trying to make sense of an assignment that is due the next morning. We had a week to do this work! Why did we put it off to the last minute? The answer to that question is simple. We’re human. This is how our brain works. You see, procrastination is a habit formed in the brain that many people struggle to overcome. It’s not simply about being lazy or unwilling to do work. By understanding why procrastination is a habit, and reframing our thoughts and actions around doing difficult work, we can create more lasting rewards for our brain and thus feel the relief that comes with being responsible and, ultimately, successful.

Procrastination is the manifestation of a habit of avoiding stress and self-doubt. This can apply to making difficult phone calls, reaching out to an instructor about an absence or looking for a job as much as it can apply to completing our school assignments. Our brain wants to protect us from stress (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.).We do something other than the task at hand because we’re afraid of failure or of being judged, so we make the decision to not do what we’re afraid of. It’s as simple as that.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) is quoted as saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When we compare ourselves to others, or to the standards set by instructors or potential employers, we can feel anxiety about our output. We may harbor doubt about our ability to write the perfect essay, to plan the perfect PowerPoint presentation, or to write the perfect cover letter. The thing is, there is no perfect essay. There is no perfect presentation. Yet our brains, when protecting us from the fear of being judged, often keep us from doing anything well (Pittman & Karle, 2015).

Instead of allowing us to run into the fire of judgment, our brains find other, more relaxing, interesting or seemingly necessary things for us to do in order to put off doing what we find to be stressful. We know what we should do, but deep down, we’re deciding not to do it. Our brain rewards us by sending us away from our work to watch the latest Netflix show – which happens to continuously stream to the next and the next – which makes us feel temporary relief, compared to the stress of work.

The Habit Loop

Procrastination runs in what author Charles Duhigg (2012) calls a habit loop, a neurological pattern that is identified as a trigger, a routine response and a reward. When we can recognize what our brain is doing when we’re avoiding work, we can work to make the process productive for us (Bennett, 2016).

For example, our English Composition class instructor assigns a first draft of an essay and it’s due next week so we can do a peer review session in class. It’s painful to think that our classmates will review our work or that our instructor will assess our writing. Our brain starts the habit loop: it is triggered by anxiety (Duhigg, 2012).

The next phase of the loop is the routine – the behavior itself. This is what we recognize as procrastination. We are triggered by the anxiety, and then via the distracting behavior we have chosen, we ignore the task that gives us anxiety by avoiding it (Duhigg, 2012). How? Oh, so many ways! We look at Instagram or Facebook. We watch our favorite YouTube channel. We go out for long dinners with our friends. Sometimes we try to justify the avoidance of work by finding something to do that we believe helps us become better people or makes us feel accomplished. We have our go-to, procrastination-inspired cleaning rituals, our dog walks, or a nutritious salad to craft. These are necessary tasks to do, right? Indeed, completing good-for-you tasks that our brains use to justify protecting us from the anxiety at hand are the routine in this loop.

The loop ends with a reward – the relief we feel when we don’t have to do the work, the trigger that started the loop. We may feel a true sense of accomplishment, which is our reward after a good kitchen sink scrubbing or a round of laundry folding. Sometimes our brains are additionally fed dopamine, a chemical in our brain that positively affects our moods (Newton, 2009). We temporarily feel good when we scroll through Facebook, or after a binge-watching session of our favorite show, or if we eat a delicious cake that we spent time baking when we should have been at our computer, brainstorming essay thesis statements. Our brains don’t forget this good, albeit fleeting, feeling. However, ultimately this temporary relief will likely lead to unpleasant feelings of failure.

Modify the Loop

Now that we know that procrastination really is our brain helping us avoid immediate anxiety, the trick is to modify the routine in the habit loop. Unfortunately, we usually can’t change the trigger. We’ll often feel anxiety when we are assigned a big academic or life task. It’s the routine that must be changed to actual, productive work that results in completed assignments or projects.

One way to begin to adjust the avoidance routine is to try not to judge ourselves. Become aware of the ineffective, unhealthy routines you have completed in the past and acknowledge them as your brain’s way of attempting to take care of you. After this, you can take some concrete steps to retrain your brain’s idea of protection (Liou, 2010).

Develop a new ritual to help you form new habits and routines. Set up your desk in whatever way works best for you. Allow yourself to take no more than 10 minutes to organize your surroundings. Drink coffee or tea from the same “homework” mug. Chew the same gum or wear the same cologne – our sense of smell can connect us to other productive work sessions (Bennett, 2016).

Make a list of what you need to accomplish in the next few days. Be honest with yourself. The goals can be small and easily accomplished. Which small steps will lead you to your big goals? Complete the work you enjoy the most. You’ll feel so good about even your smallest accomplishment that you won’t mind traveling through the loop again in your new, positive way.

Start by making yourself work for 10 minutes at a time. Then, give yourself (your brain) some relief by watching a five-minute video or washing a few dishes for five minutes. Set an alarm, but don’t pick up your phone for any other purpose! Go back to work for 10 minutes and then give yourself another five minutes of relief. Step it up to 20 minutes of work with five minutes of relief. Step up your work session lengths until you can work for 45-minute sessions before stopping for a 10-minute break.

Over time, our homework trigger won’t hit us as hard if we create a different, more productive routine in response. It will take some diligent work to form new routines in a positive work habit loop, but the sense of relief that we feel by turning in that paper on time will be much greater and longer-lasting than the temporary relief we felt by avoiding the work in the first place.

 

References

Bennett, C. (2016, April 30). The habit loop. Retrieved from https://gdt.stanford.edu/the-habit-loop

Duhigg, C. (2012) The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York, NY: Random House.

Liou, S. (2010, June 26). Neuroplasticity. Retrieved from https://hopes.stanford.edu/neuroplasticity/

National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). 5 things you should know about stress. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml

Newton, P. (2009, April 26). What is dopamine? The neurotransmitter’s role in the brain and behavior. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mouse-man/200904/what-is-dopamine

Pittman, C. M., & Karle, E. M. (2015). Rewire your anxious brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic & worry. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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