The Science of Procrastination


Exams may be over, but no matter what subject you study, there is one thing every student can relate to – procrastination. But why does it happen and can we prevent it?

Procrastination, the act of delaying or postponing something for no apparent reason. Everyone does it – I even procrastinated whilst writing this article – but is it avoidable? Turns out there is some science in procrastination, so you can no longer blame your sparse schedule, your star sign or the weather. In fact humans are almost hard-wired to do it due to chemicals in our brain.

It occurs when we relate the importance of a task to its imminence in what is called temporal discounting. Essentially we begin to deem a task more important as the deadline gets worryingly closer whereas its actually worth the same percentage of your degree from the beginning because we see aimlessly scrolling through social media or napping as more rewarding than a good mark, right up until the last minute when the good mark becomes more important. And so we begin to cram.

Almost as if your body is working against you, the prefrontal cortex, which is located immediately behind the forehead, is what allows you to integrate information and make decisions. However, there’s nothing automatic about its function; you must kick it into gear by telling yourself you’re going to complete a particular task. And the moment you’re not consciously engaged in a task, your limbic system takes over. You give in to what feels good—you procrastinate.

The reason for this is that enjoyable activities give your brain a dose of dopamine, so when you play a quick game on the Playstation or catch up on Instagram your brain is receiving way more dopamine than it ever would from reading a text book, due to the fact that these activities give your brain frequent small amounts of dopamine, whereas the good mark on your coursework is a one-time future reward.

But how do you overcome this? Even though exams are finished for the summer, you should still know the best ways to work past these procrastinatory tendencies both for exams in the future and even during a particularly long day at work if you have a summer job. Sadly there is no cure, but a few suggestions have been made to try and make studying as appealing as possible (as hard as that may seem to comprehend). One idea is rewarding yourself regularly with fun activities such as snacking or a quick browse of the internet. This is based on the Pomodoro technique which involves setting a timer for a set amount of time (for example 25 minutes) and then when it goes off rewarding yourself with a five minute break before setting the timer again. Each time it goes off you should increase the time by 5 minutes, until you’re doing longer stretches of work.

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Another idea is to try and put a positive spin on what time you are using to study, so instead of thinking to yourself ‘only 25 minutes of torture left’ trying changing that to ’25 more minutes of being productive!’. You could even take 5 minutes to write a list of reasons to study which you can check to reinforce to yourself why you’re doing it.

In addition, experts suggest you should start your day again at 2pm. It’s easy to let the morning fly by without actually sitting down and completing anything and so you should take time at 2pm (extra strong coffee in hand) and evaluate what you’ve completed and determine which is the most pressing task to be completed next. If you wait until 5pm to evaluate your day then it is easy to convince yourself the day is over and that you would be better off tackling what is left tomorrow – hence procrastination ensues.

If you need to resort to urgent measures you should put obstacles in between yourself and the distraction such as turning off your phone, Xbox or the internet or even heading to the library.

Here’s a helpful video on procrastination and how to combat it, so you can procrastinate by learning about procrastination and also more tips that should make you feel like you’re doing something useful.


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