Understanding procrastination and techniques to avoid it

Procrastination is a widespread phenomenon in the workplace as well as educational institutions. Surprisingly, it turns out that procrastination is triggered due to activation of the centre for physical pain in the brain. Get my two best tips for handling procrastination.

Procrastination. When you find yourself putting off an important task by busying yourself with less urgent and/or more pleasant activities. This is perhaps one of the biggest time-wasters in the workplace as well as when studying. In fact, a paper by Piers Steel from the University of Calgary found that 80-95% of college students procrastinate from time to time. These activities can be anything from checking your phone and checking Facebook to catching up on latest news. Basically anything you might derive pleasure from doing.

I bet you have also found yourself procrastinating when facing a large assignment that needed to be completed, but getting started took so much energy that you postponed it by doing other tasks less urgent or less important. Hence, it is a problem worthwhile spending some time on figuring out how to work around.

Scientists have found that the centre in the brain that is also related to physical pain is activated when we face a less pleasurable task. This pain is relieved by doing a more pleasurable activity. This means that procrastinating is a completely natural response as you would usually try to avoid pain whenever possible. However, the pain is only relieved temporarily and will be relived as soon as you return to the original task again.

What triggers procrastination is sometimes called a cue. This take on many forms such as a location, time of day, time of week, a feeling or reaction. Think, for example, about when you arrive at home after work, this is a common time of day to procrastinate.

Understanding the science behind procrastination allows us to better understand how to counter it or avoid it. It becomes apparent how and why certain techniques can help avoid wasting time on procrastination. In fact many techniques are easier to apply than you might think.

Here’s the two most helpful techniques I have picked up along the way:

The Pomodoro technique
This is a very simple technique. It involves setting a timer for 25 minutes for focused work with no interruptions what so ever! When finished reward your brain with a break. Talk to a colleague or go for coffee. It turns out that the centre in the brain related to physical pain is activated by thinking about end products. This techniques shifts the focus to the process instead, i.e. just spend some time progressing which makes it easier to get started – this is also when you are most likely to get into a state flow. I have found this technique highly effective as it time-boxes your work and you set a relatively short deadline to create a sense of urgency.

Eat your frogs first
This is to perform the most difficult tasks first when your brain is “fresh”. This can be taking on your most difficult task of the day as the first thing, or at an exam, doing the most difficult assignment first. This entails two advantages: 1) A fresh brain is best equipped to avoid procrastination. 2) If you hit a snag during the difficult task or assignment you now have an option to set it aside and let your subconscious work on it while you perform other tasks. If you’re lucky you may return to the task and have that eureka moment. Our brains like to work in the background, just think about dreaming at night – this is your brain finishing some unfinished thoughts.

I’d like to hear from you if you have found other useful techniques that have helped you beat procrastination.

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