Dr. Jill Alban, Ed.D., is the Director of Academic Support at Touro University California.
How many of us suffer from a chronic, debilitating addiction to procrastination?
To procrastinate is a serious problem, because to procrastinate is not to be able to do the things we want to do. It is a curse, and a costly one. Procrastination leads to hand wringing, regrets and damaged self-esteem.
Why do we do it? What can we do to overcome it?
I am the director of academic support at Touro University California. Touro is a Jewish heritage university. At our Vallejo campus, we award degrees in: Doctorate of Osteopathic Medicine, Doctorate of Pharmacy, Masters of Medical Health Sciences in Osteopathic Medicine and Masters of Medical Health Sciences Pharmacy Studies concentrations, Joint Masters of Physician Assistant Studies/Masters of Public Health, Masters of Science in Nursing, Masters of Public Health and both Credential and Master’s programs in Education. I was hired to make sure that as many students as possible succeed — passing their tests and their national and state board examinations.
Procrastination is a curse, and a costly one. Procrastination leads to hand wringing, regrets and damaged self-esteem.
I see students in all of the programs, although, I work primarily with the Osteopathic Medicine students. As a Learning Specialist, another aspect of my job, is to make sure that students who qualify for academic accommodations receive their accommodations; counsel students that score below the mean on tests, and are thus in jeopardy of being on probation (and at risk of flunking out at some future point); and meet with students that are on probation and help them develop compensatory strategies to succeed. In addition, part of my job is to assist all students with study strategies, time management, and most of all, encouragement. Our goal is to have 100% graduation rate, and at this time, we are at 98%.
It’s a new year and many of us have started thinking about various resolutions including why we procrastinate and how to overcome this impediment. Psychologists would love to figure out what is going on in the mind that makes it so hard to actually do what we set out to accomplish.
Procrastination is the avoidance of doing a task that needs to be accomplished. It is the practice of doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, or carrying out less urgent tasks instead of more urgent ones, thus putting off impending tasks to a later time. Procrastination can be a symptom of perfectionism. If we wait until the last minute before a deadline or exam we won’t disappoint ourselves if the outcome is not perfect.
Reflecting upon myself, this is the third paper I have written for this journal and it has been the most difficult. Just thinking about procrastination makes me want to procrastinate. I have had to hide my cell phone so as not to compulsively check text messages and close my office door to avoid distractions. I’ve also put into practice the 50-minute hour. According to a study of MIT students, it was found that 50 minutes is the most we can attend to one thing before we become distracted (MIT Academic Excellence.)
An important part of the 50 minutes of effort is that it is followed by a 10-minute reward. In fact, rewards are an important part of the incentive necessary to attend to our work and to overcome procrastination.
Procrastination can be a symptom of perfectionism. If we wait until the last minute before a deadline or exam we won’t disappoint ourselves if the outcome is not perfect.
The problem with procrastination is that while we are avoiding our work we are wringing our hands about what we are not doing. We are in battle with ourselves. One voice is arguing, “Get to work,” while the other voice cries, “I’ll study twice as much tomorrow.”
We are having an argument with two parts of our brain. But why then does the argument always end with procrastination winning?
One part of the brain is quite literally in conflict with the other. The prefrontal cortex is the decision maker. It is the part of the brain that can plan complex cognitive behavior. It is the part of our brain that wants to work, while the limbic system is the more primitive part of our brain. Why does the limbic system always seem to win? The answer lies in the amygdala.
The amygdala, Latin for almond, is shaped like an almond. It is a limbic system that is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those related to survival. The amygdala is involved in processing emotions such as anger and pleasure. It controls fear and anxiety — the fight or flight instinct.
Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering and a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, posits that when we are faced with a task we really do not want to do, our brain experiences it as pain. As soon as we turn our attention to a more pleasurable activity, for a moment the pain subsides and we bask in the sensation of doing something pleasurable.
The problem is that we then regret our distraction. To overcome the pain of the task, Oakley proposes that if we spend just 25 minutes of undistracted time attending to the task, a feeling of well-being will replace the pain.
To overcome the pain of the task, Oakley proposes that if we spend just 25 minutes of undistracted time attending to the task, a feeling of well-being will replace the pain.
Oakley suggests the Pomodoro technique, developed in the 80’s in which you take a timer and time yourself for 25 minutes of undistracted work. When the timer goes off, reward yourself-the reward is a very important part of the assignment. The Pomodoro technique got its name because pomodo
ro in Italian means tomato, and the timer, shaped like a tomato was used to keep track of time in the original studies .
Once you have mastered 25 minutes of undistracted time, your goal should be to work up to 50 minutes of uninterrupted study sessions. Research conducted on MIT students found that a 50-minute study session, with a ten-minute break in between, was the longest students could sustain undistracted attention. In addition, research also proposes studying in three-hour sets.
So taking this into consideration, how can we overcome procrastination?
- Overcoming procrastination does not happen instantaneously. Begin with 25 minutes and work up to 50 minutes of distraction free study.
- Plan for distractions-make a commitment to stay focused. This is where metacognition comes in to play-the capacity to think about our thinking.
- Plan the process-research has shown that if you visualize what it is that needs to be done it’s easier to get things done. If you visualize what needs to be done, you trick your mind into thinking this is something you have done before.
- Visualize where you are now and where you want to be. Imagine gratifying work and taking vacations you can afford.
- The key is to determine your goals and then break assignments into parts so that the work is not so overwhelming.
- Plan time-figure out how much time you need to accomplish your goals. Once you have made a schedule it’s important to stick to it.
- Most importantly don’t wait to begin work.
As Napolean Hill once said, “Don’t wait. The time will never be right.”
Keep in mind that the time will never be right. We will never think the conditions are perfect. But if you think about your thinking, plan for distractions, break tasks into small parts, and reward yourself you will accomplish your goals and your hard work will be rewarded.
Alban, Jill. https://blog.osmosis.org/…/lessons-new-director-academic-support-tourouniversity. [Accessed 2 January 2016.]
Cirillo, Francesco, pomodorotechnique.com/ [Accessed 2 January 2016.]
Hill Napolean. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/399. [Accessed 2 January 2016.]
Oakley, B. (2014). A Mind for Numbers: How to excel at math and science. Penguin, New York.