The Science of Procrastination in 3 Minutes
We all are guilty of succumbing to procrastination now and then, especially when we have to complete a task that we are not particularly excited about doing (and any job comes with some of *those* tasks). Our level of motivation to achieve a given task and our perception of the reward both play integral roles in our likeliness to put off the task.
The following video explains the science behind procrastination in a light (and entertaining) way.
As the video explains, our human tendency to over or underestimate the value of a reward that completing a task will deliver is based on its temporal proximity – or its closeness in time. If a deadline for an undesirable task is far away, say two weeks as opposed to two days or two hours, our brains are likely to “temporally discount” it in favor of working on other tasks that will provide us with more immediate rewards. Which leads us to procrastination.
Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent the reward is perceived to be. The further away the reward is the more you discount its value. This is referred to as hyperbolic discounting, or present bias.
When we experience something positive, our brain sends a dose of dopamine, which modifies the neurons and makes you more likely to repeat the behavior that brought the reward. Reading an article on the Internet, for example, provides a small and continuous reward that we can achieve quickly rather than a one-time future reward.
Think studying for an exam. Until temporal proximity increases the value of the reward that studying will provide (a good grade on the exam), we are likely to discount its reward in favor of more immediate rewards that we can achieve until the exam date gets closer. (Cue pulling an all-nighter 24-hours before the exam).
How does understanding the science behind procrastination actually help us improve our productivity?
- The Pomodoro technique suggests that we can be more efficient by breaking our to-do lists down into manageable, definable tasks that can be accomplished in 30 minutes or less (“Organize outline for annual report” as opposed to a more daunting to-do of “Write the annual report”). Creating self-imposed mini-deadlines improves your work habits and helps you manage deadlines that are farther away.
- Giving yourself 5 minute breaks or simple rewards in between tasks, such as taking a brief walk, can help you stay motivated among varying tasks by breaking down large projects into smaller to-do’s that provide more immediate rewards. By gradually increasing the amount of work time you put in, you will improve your high-level functioning.
- Instead of looking at a task as “25 minutes of doing something I don’t want to do,” focus on the enjoyment of achieving an unpleasant task – or the reasons that accomplishing the task will help you to achieve a higher goal that you are working toward.
- Avoid distractions – and avoid unnecessarily distracting others. Procrastination is a symptom – not a cause – of being improperly motivated. Putting obstacles in the way of your procrastination habits can help keep you on track. Turn off the Internet, shut your office door or get out and work elsewhere from the office for a few hours in a new space to break the habit of distraction and stay on track.
- On the reverse side, respect your co-workers’ time the way you’d like them to respect yours. If you appreciate having an hour to focus on a task without being interrupted, do the same for those you work with to enable them to be their most productive as well.
In the end, it simply comes down to managing your intrinsic motivation and perception of reward to overcome the habit of procrastination.
If you’re interested in learning more about the psychology behind motivation, check out The Willpower Instinct by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, explaining the science of self-control and tips for improving your happiness, health and productivity.