Because we procrastinate

And how to stop procrastinating, explained with funny drawings and scientific studies: it’s a question of emotions

Did you ever sit down with the intention of finishing an important thing and then suddenly find yourself loading the dishwasher, or trapped on the Chernobyl Wikipedia page? Or to realize all of a sudden having to feed the dog, respond to emails, having to dust something or simply that maybe you should have lunch, even if it’s only 11 am? At any moment the day is over and the important thing you had to do is still there. For many people procrastination is that powerful and mysterious force that prevents them from completing the most urgent and important tasks of their lives, such as when trying to unite the same poles of two magnets. It is a potentially dangerous force that leads the victim to neglect their studies, be unproductive at work, postpone medical care or save money and time. A study by the Case Western Reserve University in 1997 found that those at university are used to procrastinating end up being more stressed, getting sicker and having lower grades.

The reasons that lead people to procrastinate, however, are not so clear. Some researchers consider procrastination fundamentally as the inability to know how to organize, as happens with other bad habits related to lack of self-control, such as food abuse, gambling problems or the tendency to spend too much. For others, on the other hand, it has nothing to do with laziness or bad time management, as many brilliant people who have above average results and tend to procrastinate. For these people, procrastination could be linked to the functioning of the brain and to the perception of time and of oneself at a deeper level.

The true origins of procrastination
For many psychologists procrastination is a form of avoidance, a coping mechanism (in psychology, those strategies adopted by people to cope with stressful situations) that has gone wrong that pushes people to “surrender to feel better”, says Timothy Pychyl, a professor of Carleton University of Ottawa in Canada that deals with procrastination. It usually occurs when people are afraid or anxious about a task that awaits them. To get rid of this negative feeling, see what you should do: starting a video game or opening a social network, for example. This makes it feel better momentarily, but unfortunately, the reality finally returns to be felt. When the looming deadline reappears, the procrastinators feel a strong sense of guilt and shame. But for an extreme procrastinator, these feelings can simply become another reason to postpone, thus turning that behavior into a vicious and counterproductive circle.

Tim Urban, who runs the blog Wait But Why, has an incredible and amusing, though not technical, explanation of what happens in the brain of a procrastinator. Urban calls himself a “master of procrastination”: when he went to university he waited for the last three days before delivery to start writing his 90-page thesis. Recently, Urban held a TED Talk (one of those conferences where important people talk for a few minutes about a subject they know well) about his tendency to procrastinate in an extreme way, using drawings to explain how different life is for an extreme procrastinator.

First, Urban describes how the brain of a non-procrastinator is made, in which there is a rational component that makes decisions, firmly at the helm:

A procrastinator has a similar brain, were it not for the presence of a small friend, whom Urban calls “the monkey of immediate gratification”.

The monkey seems to be fun, but in reality it will only cause problems, as Urban’s drawings explain:

This continues until the situation becomes desperate, and the prospect of ending the professional or scholastic career begins to be outlined. It’s time that what Urban calls the “monster of panic” enters the picture and drives us to move.

There are different types of procrastinators according to Urban. Some people postpone things to be done by making others, useless, like looking for Gif of cats. Others do sensible things – they clean the house, or they do their boring job – but they never get to devote themselves to what they really want to do in life, the most important things, the long-term goals. To explain this concept, Urban uses the so-called “Eisenhower matrix”, which takes its name from the American president Dwight D. Eisenhower, famous for his productivity. Eisenhower was convinced that people had to use their time doing the things they considered really important, the ones below are in quadrant 1 and 2.

Unfortunately, most of the procrastinators spend little time in these quadrants, says Urban, but they remain mostly in quadrants 3 and 4, doing things that could also be important but not urgent, and then make a brief jump to quadrant 1, when the monster of panic takes over.

For Urban this habit is really harmful because “the road to the dreams of the procrastinator – which leads to broaden his horizons, to explore his true potential and achieve results to be truly proud of – passes directly from quadrant 2. People can also carry on living in quadrants 1 and 3, but it is in the second quadrant that people are successful, mature and bloom “.

Urban’s explanation is personal, but it is also confirmed by psychological studies on the subject. Pychyl defines the tendency of our thoughts to dart from one place to another, preventing us from concentrating like the “monkey mind”. Psychologists agree that the problem of the procrastinators is that – instead of remaining focused on their long-term goals – they are tempted to give in to immediate rewards, which trigger the instant relief that psychologists call “hedonic pleasure”. The important objectives (those that in the matrix above occupy the first and second quadrant) are more difficult but in the long run they bring a feeling of well-being and more lasting satisfaction, which psychologists call “eudemonic pleasure”.

How to go back to being productive

Besides trying to be kinder to our future self, what else can we do to combat procrastination? According to Tim Urban, the classic advice given to procrastinators – that is, stop doing what you are doing and get to work – is ridiculous, since procrastination is not something that extreme procrastinators feel they can control. “While we’re at it, we make sure that obese people avoid eating too much, that the depressed avoid being apathetic … and please someone tell the beached whales to avoid swimming in the ocean,” writes Urban.

According to those who deal with the subject, however, there are simple tips that can help procrastinators make a move. Research shows that one of the most effective things procrastinators can do is forgive themselves. A study conducted by Pychyl and others shows that students who say they have forgiven themselves for postponing the study for the first exam have ended up procrastinating less for the second. This advice works because procrastination is linked to negative feelings. Forgiving yourself can reduce guilt, one of the main causes of procrastination. But for Pychyl the best thing to do is to recognize the fact that you don’t have to be in the mood to do a certain thing: simply ignore how you are and start doing it.

“Most of us seem to be implicitly convinced that our emotional state must be appropriate to the task we have to perform,” says Pychyl. But it is not like this: “We must admit to ourselves that we rarely want to do that thing, and that we must do it anyway”. Instead of focusing on how we feel, we need to think about what our next action is, says Pychyl, who advises breaking down things into small steps that are really feasible. If you have to write a reference letter, for example, the first step is to write the date. Even if they are small actions, the slightest progress makes you feel better about the task at hand and increases self-esteem, which in turn reduces the desire to procrastinate to feel better.

According to Pychyl teachers and parents should teach children to fight the temptation to procrastinate from an early age. “Many teachers think that children who procrastinate have time management problems. But they are wrong: they have problems managing emotions. They have to learn that we can’t always feel good, but that we must do a reason for it ». “It is said that once upon a time Mark Twain said:” If your job is to eat a frog, eat it as soon as you wake up, and if your job is to eat two, start with the big one, “said Pychyl.

Urban essentially says the same thing using a different metaphor. “Nobody builds a house. It is laying brick by brick and the house is the end result. The procrastinators have big plans: they love to fantasize about the splendid villa that they will one day have built, but what they have to become are the construction workers who methodically and with determination pose one brick after another, day after day, without giving up until the house is not o


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