The XYZed has scoured the internet for the most popular questions asked by self-starters – and now we’re answering them. We spoke with Dr Amy Reichelt, a neuroscientist and BrainsCAN-funded researcher at Western University, Ontario, to work out why people procrastinate, and to learn some strategies to avoid putting off the things we need to get done.
Even the most capable and functional people face the problems of procrastination and struggle with self-control. The XYZed has already explored the benefits of switching off smartphones and social media to improve productivity, but it can always be easy to put things off until the last minute.
Dr Reichelt defines procrastination as “the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to urgent ones. Or doing pleasurable tasks in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus delaying performing impending jobs.”
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Why we procrastinate
“Our brain is hardwired to want rewards,” says Dr Reichelt, “and the brain chemical dopamine gets released when you do things that feel good.”
Dopamine reinforces such behaviours in turn, making us feel good and increasing the chances that we will perform them again. We continue to undertake certain behaviours because we’ve learnt that they make us feel good.
Dr Reichelt says “procrastination means putting important things off to the last minute, usually by doing less valuable but immediately gratifying things” that give us the dopamine hit we’re after.
“An example could be not studying for an important exam which could boost your career,” she says, “and instead checking social media feeds – like Twitter or Instagram – which only give you a little kick of dopamine.”
She says that this can be dangerous if left unchecked. Some people have a lower tolerance for addiction to easy-to-gain rewards, and the inherently struggle to work towards delayed-yet-increased gratification. Others might need the risk, urgency and thrill of pulling an all-nighter to get important things done.
“Chronic procrastination stems productivity and affects our state of mind by generating worry and stress,” Dr Reichelt wrote in an article about the problems of procrastination published on The Conversation when she was a Research Fellow at UNSW, prior to moving to Canada.
“As deadlines approach,” she said, “they cause feelings of frustration and guilt for not working on a task when we were meant to.”
Dr Reichelt believes that because self-set goals are often the hardest to keep, self-starters who are prone to procrastination put themselves at risk of self-blame and the anxiety that comes with it.
Dr Reichelt’s smart solutions
So, how can we start to avoid putting the big things off in order to focus on the things that give us the dopamine hits our brains are addicted to? We asked Dr Reichelt to share some of her favourite methods that self-starters who need to combat their procrastination problems can use.
Here’s her top three:
- Divide and conquer: “Break large goals down into smaller chunks, so you get little rewards along the way rather than working towards a distant goal.”
- Sprint hard, then rest: “Set a timer when you are working, as described in the Pomodoro Technique. 25 minutes of hard, focused work gets you five mins of doing something small and rewarding – like browsing social media or going to get a coffee.”
- Be kind to yourself: ”Be realistic with what you can achieve in a day. That way, if it all goes wrong and you aren’t as productive as you’d like to be, you aren’t disheartened.”
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