How Procrastination Works and the Science of Beating It


When humans think about something we have to do we assign that activity a value. “How important is this?,” we think to ourselves. The further a deadline is in the future, the more likely we are to assign the work we need to do to get there a low value. This is why it’s so hard not to stalk people on Facebook when you’re supposed to be filling out tax information or reading about student loans. In that moment, looking at friends’ of friends Facebook bikini pictures has a higher cognitive reward.

We also have something in our brains called dopamine, which releases chemicals – we’ll call them pleasure juices – when something we like happens. The pleasure juices get flowing when you read funny Twitter updates and play Madden online. Dopamine is decidedly less present when you find out you have to go to the DMV soon.

That’s basically how procrastination works, although the scientific jury is still out on the exact inner workings of our brains.

The good news is that scientists have also been able to figure out the best ways people can trick themselves into getting things done. The most popular method people use is rewarding themselves. Set aside a half an hour to get things done and once that 30 minutes is up, do something different for 15 minutes. Repeat, then next time increase the amount of work-time to 45 minutes, etc.

Sometimes the best way to get started is to do just that. When your motivation is at an all-time low but the to-do list isn’t getting any shorter, just set aside 15 minutes to get work done. When that time is up you’ll either be able to veg out for the rest of the night guilt-free or get so wrapped up in the work that the lack of motivation will cease to even be a thought.

The good news is that when more than one thing needs to get done, you can procrastinate all of them. Lifehacker suggested working on one thing at a time and switching between projects to keep your mind active:

I gave up on trying to do exactly what I was meant to be doing in favor of always doing something. Frankly, I’m not sure we’re designed to focus on only one thing for eight or ten hours in a row. I’ve always found that it’s useful to have something else to be doing when you’re too burnt out to face the next thing on your list. That way, flipping back and forth between the two projects prevents focus fatigue.

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