The pain of procrastination: the inevitability of every exam season

It’s that time of year again. Essay deadlines, exam dates and long library sessions. All too often it seems that our focus wavers from our work and onto mindlessly scrolling through our phone. Fantasising about upcoming holidays, organising our inbox and sharing memes with friends becomes an all too familiar process. Procrastination seems to defeat even the best of us, so how can we turn our attention away from brooding and back to the books?

What is procrastination? Everyone is guilty of it, but why do we continue to do it? Contrasting to common belief, procrastination actually has little to do with a lack of time-management or laziness. Essentially, it is the inability to manage competing emotions that make you feel anxious to commence a task.

As discussed by the BBC, research has demonstrated that there are structural differences in the brains of procrastinators. The first is the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain which processes our emotions and acts as a ‘threat detector.’ It perceives present threats to our wellbeing and attempts to remove them. When we are faced with a task that makes us feel anxious or insecure, the amygdala perceives this as a genuine threat. Procrastination is consequently a temporary solution to eradicate stress and the pressure we put on ourselves.

Another factor that has us reaching for our phones and not our revision is the poor connection between the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC). The DACC decides what action to take, blocking out competing emotions and distractions in order to keep us on track. The brain’s inability to filter these interfering emotions, therefore, presents a struggle for procrastinators. Sometimes, our brain structures promote procrastination.

Unfortunately, this isn’t to say that we can simply use our brains as an excuse for a lack of motivation -sorry! While our brain structures can contribute to procrastination, certain behaviour doesn’t help. As of 2018, one in five people suffer from chronic procrastination according to Science Insider. When we choose to procrastinate, we launch a battle between our pre-frontal cortex (which regulates our self-control) and our limbic system (which provides short-term pleasure and reward). This momentary relief causes a cycle whereby our brain consistently seeks a reward in place of work.

Long-term, procrastination can have effects on our wellbeing. This includes being more likely to get ill, high levels of guilt, anxiety and stress, low confidence, low energy and depression.

What can we do to break this cycle? Fear not, there are solutions! A plethora of mindfulness apps can aid in strengthening connections between the amygdala and DACC. These include Headspace or Calm. Through the use of guided meditation, the consequence can often be feeling more awake in your life and motivated in your work.

Self-deception techniques can be employed to trick our brains into not getting too overwhelmed. For example, try breaking up a task into smaller tasks, to focus on step by step. By focusing on the process over the outcome of the work, the prospect of a task is not so intimidating. Similarly, why not try setting time-bound goals? Giving yourself mini-deadlines for certain aspects of a task helps to stimulate motivation.

Each of us has different times of the day in which we work the best. Whether morning or night, tackle the hardest tasks at your peak times. This allows us to use our time more efficiently.

Optimise your environment. Working on a sofa, in front of a TVand surrounded by your flatmates may not be the best way to enhance your work ethic. Surrounding yourself in an environment which allows you to maintain focus and feel driven is an important component in combatting procrastination.

While it may be inevitable, we should not necessarily feel guilty about taking frequent breaks and giving into procrastination. Time spent away from the task at hand can provide new inspiration and idea, and a fresh eye upon return to the task. It’s easy to become caught up in thought, which can so often be counterproductive.

So, when you can’t bring yourself to face one more page of revision notes, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s biology.


Image: Vic via flickr 

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  1. The pain of procrastination: the inevitability of every exam season – The Student | Power Over Procrastination

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