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Why Do We Procrastinate and How To Find Motivation *College Edition*

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

As I tell people, to tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up. —Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University

By Emily Sun

Let me just preface this by saying that I am not perfect  when it comes to getting things done. In fact, I’m far from it. Like many people, I am constantly searching for answers: why do I stay up unnecessarily late, why are Youtube and Netflix  black holes for time and short-term pleasure, why do I find it so difficult to motivate myself to work on assignments earlyeven if I have the timeand most importantly, why do I fall into this cycle when deep down I know it bothers me? What is keeping me from reaching my productivity potential and how can I change that? 

We frequently use “procrastination” interchangeably with “laziness” and a “lack of motivation.” But, just as stomach pain might be a symptom of anything from food intolerances to serious diseases, chronic procrastination is often a marker of a more serious problem. So as tempting as it might be to call a procrastinator out for their apparent lack of work ethic (whether it is directed at yourself or others), stop and ask yourself: is that really going to be helpful? No one wants to be “lazy” or “unmotivated,” and being scolded at may only intensify damage. As Plato said, “no one desires what is bad.” 

Intention vs. Action

As a result of chronic procrastination, there is typically a large disconnect between intention and real action. Have you ever made an ambitious checklist, only to feel overwhelmed and proceed to put those items  off again and again? And eventually catch yourself ruminating about all the things you should have done instead of spending that time tackling the very tasks causing those worries? Akrasia, stemming from ἀκρασία in Ancient Greek, means “the state of acting against one’s better judgment,” and though not exactly the same as procrastination, is the closest term I could find. Akrasic behavior occurs when, despite knowing what is the best thing to do, you simply don't do it. An example of such behavior would be playing video games at 3 a.m. despite having an exam at 8 a.m. the same morning.

Logically, this doesn’t even make sense, yet it is so common. Contradicting and delaying behaviors have everything to do with motivation (or the lack thereof), ultimately driven by emotional components like anxiety and fear. This makes sense because we are wired to minimize negative emotions to the best of our abilities. This emotional coping looks different from person to person, and contrary to popular belief, students who exhibit maladaptive behaviors like procrastination are frequently perfectionists and high achievers.

Smart people procrastinate… a lot.

That’s right it has been suggested that intelligent individuals oftentimes procrastinate because they can get away with it. Congratulations? Not so fast. Although not reflective of personal capability, procrastination remains an unhealthy symptom which manifests from a few major factors, typically involving 1) setting too many or too big of goals without a plan, 2) high expectations from self and/or others, 3) the tendency to avoid, delay, or put in less effort when one anticipates a difficult or overwhelming task--you could call this a form of self preservation-- called avoidance coping, and 4) low mood and energy levels. Regardless of the exact personal reason, the link between everything seems to be negative emotion.

Understand and accept how you feel 

A 2020 psychology study conducted at the College of New Jersey showed a correlation between negative emotions and increased procrastination the following day. Thus, a self-perpetuating cycle may be formed, where low mood leads to low motivation which leads to more feelings of negativity. Unfortunately, the same study showed that positive emotions did not seem to significantly decrease next-day procrastination, suggesting that negative emotions play a greater  role in behavior than other emotions.

These coping mechanisms often feel bearable to chronic procrastinators, especially if one is able to be successful time after time. But, procrastination has been shown to cause many health issues such as heart disease due to excess, prolonged stress put on the body. And if that’s not enough to incite change, consider the unnecessary emotional toll it takes on the body with the following analogy:

The Analogy- now you know some background, here is how to change

You are asked to read a short story aloud in your bedroom. Completing this task is probably easy because there is little to no pressure. Now, imagine you are asked to read the same story in front of a big crowd of people. It now becomes far more daunting, even though it is the same exact task. What if I stumble? What if people think I am boring? Or what if I forget how to read? These mental stakes make you feel that you are in actual danger, triggering the body’s innate fight or flight response: you choose between tackling the danger and running away from it. Perhaps in this case, it feels easier to just run away. The problem is, the perceived danger in this situation is just a mental construct. Unlike running away from a tiger, the tasks we procrastinate on are usually those that we must tackle at some point. We cannot run away from them forever because one day, the present will become the future. Accepting this as a fact is crucial.

By understanding that certain things cannot be avoided, we must begin considering our future selves. In 2018, The Journal of Applied Psychology: Applied published research studies concluded that feeling more connected with one's future self correlates with more objective, healthy behaviors. These studies also suggest that future-oriented thinking can ultimately increase current motivation, and if one views the present to future as continuous, then any act of healthy behavior automatically makes the future self healthier. If we view our present and future self as a continuous projection, we no longer see any action as isolated, but rather as a building block in the tower of life.

In this light, we suddenly realize that even the smallest steps can leave us better than where we started off. And what was once a fear of stepping outside our comfort zones becomes a new stream of actions that are positively reinforced by every small victory. Eventually, action becomes a habit. Each failure, then, is not a failure of you as a person, but rather an obstacle to overcome and a gentle “hey, keep trying, and be proud of how far you’ve come.” Unfortunately, it is also true that for chronic procrastinators, the comfort zone = no growth. The pain of completing required tasks is necessary to break out of the procrastination cycle, sooner or later. Keeping in mind that our present continuously flows into the future, we probably want to get a small head start on them… no not tomorrow or even in an hour. Now.

Quick recap

  • Procrastination is the act of putting off tasks which we view negatively

  • These negative thoughts always intensify because mandatory tasks need to be completed sooner or later

  • Knowing this, we must acknowledge these feelings instead of dismissing them. It’s not about bettering time-management or laziness, it’s about bettering mood and motivation.

  • View our present and future selves on a continuous line. Everything we do today will affect our future selves (and time still rolls when we ruminate and overthink)

  • We should prepare for difficulties but also be gentle to ourselves, remembering that this ultimately a change in mental habit: productivity is just the happy side effect.

  • So start small:

    • Remind yourself of the the little successes

    • Have someone or something to keep you accountable

    • Talk to someone you trust when you feel stuck

    • Work with someone else who has similar visions as you

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