Because procrastination is such a common problem, especially for students, we are presenting a series of articles that explore the issue in depth. This week, we examine why the habit of avoidance can be so resistant to well-meaning efforts to change.
Christopher Scheer is a learning specialist at Touro University California.
Usually, when a person seeks relief from problems caused by procrastination, well-meaning and helpful people offer suggestions designed to replace one’s self-destructive habits with constructive ones. These might include:
- Careful daily schedule construction where time is blocked off in reasonable increments and scheduled breaks, and keeping to the schedule is a top priority.
- Using to-do lists or other task management organizational systems to break large projects or jobs into smaller, less onerous sub-tasks.
- Giving oneself rewards for progress or task completion, such as treats, rest, or a mini-splurge.
- Creating or seeking firm deadlines, accountability partners, or other methods of increasing the consequences of failure to complete a task.
These are all perfectly well-conceived strategies which can help enormously for those dealing with mild-to-moderate levels of avoidance. If you haven’t tried them, you should!
However, it needs to be remembered that implementing these changes is itself a significant project, and one which can therefore also be procrastinated and ultimately abandoned, often for the same underlying reasons — anxiety, perfectionism, depression, attention deficit — as those which delayed progress in the first place! For many who suffer from more severe procrastination, then, this is the horrifying Catch-22 ; the typical prescriptions, if they fail, as they often do, can reinforce and strengthen the disease they are meant to cure:
- The anxious or depressed have another reason to lose hope.
- The self-doubting gain a stick with which to beat themselves, while the perfectionist gleefully points to this new proof they are not flawless.
- The distracted can throw this latest self-improvement campaign onto their pile of quickly forgotten manias.
Currently, it is fashionable to talk about “lifehacking,” deploying scientifically proven “best practices” in all areas of life, from nutrition to time-management to even personal relationships. Yet, too often, the most important factor in attempting to improve one’s life or behavior is largely ignored: Motivation . And while it is possible to talk about the human brain as roughly equivalent to a biological supercomputer, the reality is that our decision-making processes are far too complex to easily understand, much less “mod” (modify). Rewriting the “code,” metaphorically, is possible but hardly trivial! 
It may be true, as Jim Rohn says, that “Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.” Yet replacing bad habits with positive disciplines requires making the right choice, and this decision-making process is fantastically complex — and, for many of us, highly resistant to change.
Think of all the inputs needed just to decide what we are going to eat for breakfast:
- How our body feels right now, and how hungry we are.
- Our “should do” conscience, which lobbies us to align our choices with goals we have decided upon, based on our self-identity: Is it healthy? Does it hurt the planet? Is it cool and trendy? Will it make me more attractive?
- Our “want to” appetites, pushing us toward foods that provide pleasure, excitement, comfort, or positive memories.
- Our assessment of what our options are, and what they will cost in terms of time, money, stress, etc.;
- Our entire lifetime of previous experiences with preparing and eating food.
That’s a lot to think about! Luckily, we have a good chunk of our frontal lobe devoted to processing all these inputs “subconsciously” so that we don’t have to laboriously spend hours weighing all the pros and cons of eating some oatmeal with banana. For those, the vast majority, who prefer the familiar, this may just involve eating the same thing as yesterday; for the novelty-seekers, estimated by psychological studies as about five percent of us, they can go with their “gut” or just open the frig and see what catches their fancy.
Unluckily, though, we are not really in control of all this submerged analysis. That means that if we find we are eating donuts every morning and decide we should switch to kale smoothies, doing so can turn out to be shockingly difficult — even if we believe the habit is killing us.
For a few mornings, perhaps, we can, with great effort, consciously remind and convince ourselves to make the healthier choice. Yet, we are likely to soon have a “weak” moment, usually when we are distracted, stressed, or tired, and soon the bad habit is renewed as our brain, frustratingly, rewards our avoidance of a feeling or task with a flood of pleasing neurotransmitters which numb our resistance. It is the same when we choose not to begin a challenging project or unpleasant task.
“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,” writes Touro University California Director of Academic Support, Jill Alban, Ed.D. “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.”
“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. We are having an argument with two parts of our brain.”
— Dr. Jill Alban, Touro University California
For the procrastinator, the part of the brain which usually wins these internal debates in the emotional limbic system, centered on the tiny amygdala, an almond-shaped group of nuclei deep within each temporal lobe – the so-called lizard brain. In a distortion of the “fight, flight, or freeze” evolutionary survival mechanism, “amygdala hijack” is overruling the prefrontal cortex, which is where rational planning emanates.
The first step in conquering self-destructive patterns of procrastination is awareness of how deep its roots go – literally millions of years ago, when our evolutionary ancestors first had to figure out how to avoid being eaten! However, while we all have the same basic brain structures, our reasons we procrastinate are widely variable, and so must the solutions we seek to reorient our behavior.
Next week: Beating Procrastination: Finding the Tipping Point
The Procrastination Series on EfficientLearning.org:
- Struggling with Procrastination
- Why Do We Procrastinate?
- Why Is It So Hard to Stop Procrastinating?
- Beating Procrastination: The Tipping Point
- Interventions for Severe Procrastination
- Prioritization vs. Procrastination
- Building Better Habits
- Tools, Resources, and Further Readings
1. The term Catch-22 comes from the 1961 Joseph Heller novel of the same name and describes “double bind” situations where occurs when two linked truths mean a person cannot confront an inherent dilemma they are facing. In the novel, the military supposedly has a rule in which airmen who were mentally ill were not obliged to fly (exceedingly dangerous) missions; but anyone who applied to stop flying based on this rule was showing a rational concern for his safety and, therefore, was by definition sane.
2. This is perhaps not surprising, since hacking is itself a concept derived from the manipulation of computers, which have no intrinsic motivation for their actions. This might be an argument for a “higher power” that can provide your “programming”!