Procrastination is bad.
"What a bombshell," you're probably thinking, "what a fresh perspective! Why didn't anyone tell me before? This will revolutionize my life!"
Yes, I know I'm probably not the first person to tell you that procrastination is bad. I don't think you can get a high school diploma today without being told at least four hundred times that procrastination is bad. I can only remember reading that procrastination is good once, and that was in The Four-Hour Workweek, which is... non-traditional, to say the least. Anyway, I'm not planning to dispute that procrastination is bad, but I do want to change the way you think about it with a little neuroscience.
What We Already Know
Analyzing how the brain works is tough, so most writing on procrastination avoids talking about the brain itself. Instead, it focuses on how your environment affects what you do and how that, in turn, affects your work. This philosophy of treating the brain as a sort of "black box" is called behaviorism. You might have heard of it if you've taken a psychology class. It's taught us a lot of useful things about procrastination, for instance:
- People make mistakes. When you procrastinate, you don't leave yourself time to find mistakes and fix them.
- Procrastination leads to stress. Stress can be bad for your work, your relationships, and even your health.
- When you procrastinate, you don't leave any extra time to work, so if you underestimate how long your task will take, you miss your deadline. Unfortunately, people aren't very good at estimating time.
These are all great reasons to fight procrastination, but most of us know them and we still do it anyway. With this series, I'd like to explore the things we can learn about procrastination by analyzing it from the inside out, that is, putting aside behaviorism and seeing how procrastination relates to the brain on a physical level. Let's start by looking at how the brain causes procrastination, and how we can use the way the brain works to avoid it.
Speaking from experience, I know that it's easy to feel cursed when you seem to struggle with procrastination more than your peers. Well, the good(?) news is that they're probably dealing with it, too. We are all wired to procrastinate. When the brain thinks about doing something unpleasant or tedious, it's actually a little traumatic. The same part of your brain that reacts when you see a baseball sailing toward your head is reacting to what you're thinking of doing, and it's objecting strenuously. So when you open Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, or whatever it is you do to avoid working, even if the content is stale and you're not entertained, you still start to feel better simply because you made the bogeyman of work go away. You can't reason your way out of it. Even when you know that the only logical thing to do is start working, there's always part of you that is only living in the moment and does not approve. So unless you've found a way to avoid ever thinking that something you have to do is unpleasant, your brain will want to procrastinate as a matter of survival.
The bright side to this instinctive procrastination is that it fades away about as quickly as it appears. If you can push through that initial panic and make yourself start working, then work stops being a baseball sailing towards your head. It's not a danger anymore. It's just the way things are. The part of your brain in charge of keeping you out of peril doesn't notice it anymore, and the more analytical part of your brain, which can consider the ramifications of procrastinating versus working, takes over. While this doesn't mean that the task at hand will be easier, it does mean that the things you know about procrastination and the work you need to do will be clearer when you decide whether to keep working.
In other words, it's easier to keep working than to start working. It's a bit like Newton's First Law of Motion. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion tend to stay in motion! When it seems just unbearable to get started on something, and you want to watch some videos instead ("just for a few minutes"), try to remember two things: what you're feeling is normal, and if you can make yourself start and get even a little momentum, then the urge to slack will fall away very quickly.
You'll never win the war on procrastination. Sorry to break it to you. I won't, either. It's just not how we're wired. There's always going to be another battle with it around the corner. Thankfully, each of those battles is more winnable than it seems at first glance, so fight on! You might surprise yourself with what you can accomplish with only a little more grit.
In the next part, I'll look at what happens in the brain when you learn and how procrastination impacts it.