august 21

What is procrastination, how does it work,
and how to beat it?

For many years, I was a chronic procrastinator. Since I hadn't found a solution in all that time, I decided to research and solve the problem for myself, as well as for other people in similar situations.
By this time, I had a lot of experience with self-observation, psychotherapy, and meditation, as well as a basic knowledge of psychology and neuroscience.

Procrastination is the act of putting off things and tasks "for later," even though the procrastinator is well aware that doing so will almost certainly result in negative consequences. It appears to be simple: instead of starting something important, such as a job, studying, or organizing the chaos in the apartment, the person suddenly starts doing something else, like surfing on Instagram, checking the euro exchange rate for the past year, or even finding a truly serious activity, like watching Robert Sapolsky's lecture course on the biology of behavior on YouTube.


Let's dig into it

Procrastination has been with us since ancient times; scientists have discovered evidence of this behavior in the documents of Mesopotamia's first civilizations. Hundreds, if not thousands, of scientific papers have been published on this topic in the last two decades. In the 1970s, about 4-5 percent of the world's population was classified as chronic procrastinators. It was already around 20% at the end of 2010s. Procrastination affects the productivity of one out of every five people on the planet. In the student population, this figure can reach as high as 80%.

According to scientists, the flow of information and the number of distractions (and entertainment) have multiplied since the 1970s. If there used to be a TV, a book, and possibly the drum of a running washing machine, a person with a smartphone connected to the Internet and a power outlet can now spend thousands of years in it, diversely and with pleasure, without getting up from the couch. At the same time, maintaining the illusion of being busy, dynamic, socially connected, and so on.

Obviously, procrastination received an unexpected boost during the covid, when many people found themselves outside of the work environment with its structuring conditions.

Now, what does procrastination mean from a psychological standpoint? There are several aspects to consider. The first is that procrastination is an ineffective strategy of emotional regulation. A person tries to avoid the aversive emotions that an upcoming task can bring up, such as fear and boredom. Instead, he opts for an activity that will provide him with satisfaction in a short amount of time.
The inability to deal with arising impulses is the second aspect that emerges. Despite the importance of the task at hand and the consequences of that choice, an impulsive choice is made in favor of an activity that quickly brings positive emotions.

Procrastination is a downward spiral in which the more one procrastinates, the more likely one is to apply this strategy to various plans, including work, family, personal space, and health. What's the reason for this? Because the mind perceives procrastination as a good way to get rid of negative emotions, dopamine is produced, and classic reinforcement learning occurs.

The third aspect is a low tolerance for the anticipation of a delayed reward, and thus a dopamine dose. Challenging work may yield results and benefits months later, whereas scrolling through a Facebook feed provides immediate pleasure, albeit in small amounts and with sludge, but the dopamine is there.

This isn't an exhaustive list. Procrastination has many components, and the reasons for it are different: perfectionism, fear of failure and its catastrophization, and misalignment of work goals and internal values. The tendency to procrastinate is determined by a multitude of psychological and neurophysiological factors, this is why some people procrastinate from time to time, which is considered normal, while others are essentially incapable of controlling their lives.


Misconceptions

Some people who aren't familiar with the real causes and manifestations of procrastination have attractive but inaccurate ideas about it.

Procrastination=laziness is the champion and most popular of these perceptions. And it all seems to add up: if someone doesn't do what he/she should, it's because they're lazy, and there's no need to bring up concepts or use nice long words to describe it. Despite their superficial resemblance, these phenomena are not the same. In other words, a lazy person does not necessarily have any goals; he/she simply does not want to exert himself for various reasons (e.g. fatigue), to put effort into anything, and is pretty comfortable with the situation.

The procrastinator, on the other hand, has goals, often lofty ones, but he/she delays their realization and the start of the action, causing distress and guilt, and substituting one activity for another. Active procrastination is a phenomenon in which the substituting activity is a productive process that is unrelated to the achievement of the procrastinator's important goals. Instead of sitting down and writing a strategy for a new project (the actual goal), he/she tackles cleaning or, for example, a Portuguese textbook.

Insufficient motivation. Multiple studies on the relationship between procrastination and a variety of psychic phenomena have found very little correlation between procrastination and motivation. To put it another way, a procrastinator can be a highly motivated individual who still delays. A highly motivated person, on the other hand, is more likely to seek out opportunities to achieve their goals.

The absence of willpower is the third typical perception of procrastination. Willpower and procrastination have been proven to have no meaningful link in studies. Willpower is a short-term act, while procrastination is a long-term avoidance mechanism.

Willpower is limited in the same way that mental energy is. It's similar to a strained muscle: prolonged high-intensity use causes tiredness and reduced functionality. This is simple to test: after a long day at work, you are unlikely to push yourself to sit down and begin a challenging task right away. However, once you've rested and re-energized (increased your energy level), or better yet, slept, you may get right to work.

This indicates that a procrastinator, like any other person, cannot go forward for an extended period of time just on willpower, no matter how strong it is. If willpower is used without regard for the fact that it must be renewed, without rest, it is quite likely to result in burnout and depression. Strong and trained willpower, on the other hand, is a tremendous resource to help us advance toward a goal, much like a muscle.


Consequences of procrastination

Of course, there are a wide range of them, spanning from psychological to social, and some may occur simultaneously.

  1. Low productivity. Everything is self-evident here: postponing work or study assignments until the last minute or for an indefinite period of time will not lead to high results in the long run. Career risks, reduced income, and poor grades are all part of it.
  2. Loss of confidence in one's self-efficacy. This is a suitcase with two bottoms: the more a person puts off, the fewer results he/she will get. The fewer the results, the less confident he/she can be that the activity will yield them. So, what's the point of starting at all?
  3. Apathy, anxiety, and depression may emerge against this background.
  4. A lack of motivation. "Why even start if I can't see how I can do things to the highest standard?"
  5. Expectations for the future dwindle.
  6. In terms of the general quality of life, there is so called "negative growth".
  7. Can cause a cognitive function to deteriorate in some cases


Okay, but what should I do with it?

The conclusion is that developing effective emotional regulation skills should be the first step in overcoming procrastination.

Psychotherapy is, naturally, the first option that comes up. Although procrastination is not currently listed in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, we can't go to the dentist with it.

Another option is to deal with the situation on your own. It may be a viable alternative for those who, for various reasons, lack access to a competent psychologist. You'll need awareness, certain skills, knowledge, and a high level of motivation to succeed. It's a challenging road to take, but it's not insurmountable.

Here are two excellent daily techniques for reducing the emotional pressure of procrastination and increasing awareness you can start with.

  1. Forgive yourself for the past procrastination.

Think back to the previous day, and if you see that you have been putting off important things, just say to yourself: I forgive myself for this procrastination today, unconditionally. Stay in that state for a few moments, as long as you feel comfortable, feeling the tension go away. Important: you forgive yourself only for past procrastination, not for future procrastination.

2. Stop promising yourself that you will do/start doing tomorrow what you keep delaying.

Once you notice this thought in the offing of your mind, catch and throw it out of your head, just don't let it into your mind. Be attentive, and you will easily be able to determine the moment when this thought appears and stop it.

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september 18
Selfie as an anti-procrastination hack
One of the causes of chronic procrastination is a lack of connection between the present and future selves. We act as if the person we will be in 10-20 years is a complete stranger. So you can do whatever you want now because someone else will have to deal with the consequences. This is something I know from personal experience, and scientific research confirms it.
By connecting with your future self, you begin to think differently about how you formulate your life goals and how hard you pursue them. You begin to realize that you are entirely responsible for who you are and what your life will become.

Close your eyes right now, and you can easily project from the present to the future, and see what your life will be like in 10 years if nothing changes in your behavior and attitude.

There are a variety of ways to create a connection with your future self. One you're sure to enjoy: use your smartphone's video recording feature to record a short message to yourself. From the future self who has achieved the goals you consider important, who is living the life you want to live in 10-20 years, surrounded by the people you want to be with, etc. Say exactly what you believe you need to say to your present self. Thank yourself for everything you've accomplished. It's even better if you draw it out in details on paper first.

It will only take you 20-30 minutes. You can perform this exercise whenever you feel your internal compass arrow pointing in the wrong direction.


Okay, why would I want to do this?

Projecting yourself into the future allows you to accept responsibility for your motivations, actions, plans, and thoughts. Because you are aware that you will inevitably be the person whose life will be comprised of the resulting outcomes.

Another aspect is that you clearly articulate it in several ways: mentally, visually, and textually, and then say what you believe is important to you in life - your vision of the future, the goals, and actions that correspond to this vision. This is a big difference for your psyche: vague thoughts and images versus clearly formulated and articulated theses.

By doing this exercise, you can start moving in the right direction because you already know how it feels to be the person you want to be.

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october 15
Procrastination and the amygdala
Procrastination may appear to be just a bad habit caused by circumstances, bad choices, or character traits, implying that it's a purely psychological phenomenon.
This, however, is not the case. Procrastination is caused by genetically determined characteristics of a specific person's brain structure. The enlarged size of the amygdala, a paired bean-sized brain structure located directly behind the temporal lobes of the neocortex, is one of these features.

The amygdala is frequently responsible for our fear-related behavior (although it is not the only part of the brain responsible for these reactions). In general, it seems that the amygdala is activated when an event associated with fear in any of its manifestations occurs.

Because fear is one of the aversive emotions associated with upcoming tasks that we try to avoid through procrastination, the amygdala takes over control of our behavior. Simultaneously, the part of the neocortex responsible for cognitive control in such situations, i.e. a rational and meaningful response to fear, recedes into the background. As a result, we make a decision without hesitation in favor of another activity that appears to be more pleasurable to us.

Can the amygdala be controlled? Absolutely. According to research, 8 weeks of daily mindfulness meditation reduces its size and, as a consequence, its influence on our behavior. Simultaneously, the areas of the neocortex directly above it thicken.

With continued meditation practice, these areas of the neocortex return to their normal thickness, but their structure changes, and the other part of the neocortex I mentioned earlier, which is responsible for cognitive processing of fear, gains more power over our behavior - which is very good! Actually, cognitive control over negative emotions is what causes procrastination to fade.

I've been practicing mindfulness meditation on a daily basis for over a year now, and I can confirm the study's findings in my own experience.

Concentrating on breathing is my favorite version of this meditation. Close your eyes and focus entirely on your breathing in and out, trying not to let your mind wander. It's okay if this happens; just come back to your breathing. Controlling your mind will become easier with practice.

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