The Science of Procrastination

Are you supposed to be working right now? If so then you should go back to that work and read this article later, it’s not going anywhere. Still reading? Never mind, at least you aren’t playing Candy Crush, or browsing Wikipedia…

Procrastination these days is a fact of life that many of us have come to accept. In fact it’s such a fact of life that 75% of college students describe themselves as procrastinators according to a recent study. In the rest of the population that’s a slightly lower 20%, but it’s still high and especially when you compare it to a survey from 1978 where only 5% of the population described themselves that way.

Why Is it Getting Worse

So procrastination is getting worse. Why? In all likelihood it has to do with the internet (always a handy scapegoat) which quite simply gives us more access to more types of procrastination than we would have had before. Thanks to the web you can now gain immediate access to any TV show, film, music, story or social networking account you like in seconds, which offers a lot more temptation than we’d have otherwise had.

And at the same time our experience with the web has primed us to expect information to come to us immediately, which many are saying has shortened our attention spans and dimmed our concentration making it much easier for us to get distracted than ever before.

Where Does Procrastination Come From?

So that’s why it’s getting worse, but why do we get distracted at all in the first place? Most of our behaviour is the result of evolution but what possible advantage could you gain from a lack of self-discipline and an inability to complete tasks sooner while they’re more manageable? The answer is thought to be something to do with the importance of being able to switch quickly to new stimulus and to make quick decisions. In the right context impulsivity does have survival value, as does the ability to be aware of outside distractions (which might be a lion creeping up to eat you). And if you think about it, few tasks in our evolutionary history would have involved the same kind of static focus as writing an essay or filling out a tax return.

Temporal Discounting

Another likely cause is a ‘cognitive bias’ known as ‘temporal discounting’. Cognitive biases are essentially loopholes in our thinking that allow us to come to flawed and biased results. In this case, temporal discounting describes the human tendency to ignore delayed gratification. That is to say, that if you were offered one hundred dollars right now rather than two hundred dollars at the end of the year, you would probably be likely to pick the former option because you weigh it as more valuable despite the obvious fact that you could be getting 100% more out of the bargain. This is why people will often buy on finance or buy smaller bottles of mayonnaise that don’t last as long.

The relation here to procrastination should be clear: with procrastination we get immediate gratification, versus the promise of an easier life when the deadline gets nearer weeks from now.

What to Do About It?

So how do you deal with this flawed thinking and evolutionary rigging? One answer is to use deadlines which will help to bring your ‘to-do’ tasks nearer so that they become more important when weighing up options. Self-imposed deadlines will work, but they will only work if there’s some kind of consequence for failure. Give a friend $100 and ask them to flush it down the toilet if you don’t complete your set task. Make sure it’s a slightly sadistic friend who will go through with the deal.

At the same time though you also need to recognise your own limits. The longer you put off any kind of reward the more alluring it’s going to be – because we always want what we can’t have. In order to ensure that you remain productive for as long as possible then, you should allow yourself some kind of reward throughout the process but make sure that it is controlled and short. That means avoiding any kind of reward that might be addictive in nature. Playing video games is a bad idea for instance.

Finally, be forgiving of yourself if you do slip up every once in a while. Studies show that those who forgive themselves for procrastination are actually less likely to put off important tasks the next time!



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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

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