Psychology of procrastination

Strategies to sitting down and actually doing your work

As students, it’s safe to say most of us are all very familiar with procrastination. Whether you’ve fallen into its trap yourself, or you’ve seen it first hand from your housemates, procrastination is all around university campuses. 

Even though we know procrastinating our responsibilities isn’t a great way to live life, many of us are guilty of putting off each new task we’re presented with.

Why is this something we continuously come back to, even when we often have the best of intentions to complete an assignment early on? 

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Oregon, Elliot Berkman says the decision to work on something is driven by its “subjective value” meaning how much we value finishing the task in that moment. We procrastinate when the value of working on something else outweighs the value of working on the project in that moment.

It seems clear that mental effort is intrinsically costly, so people choose to work on tasks that are mentally easier. Therefore, even though it makes sense that we should put more effort into harder tasks, we’re actually more likely to procrastinate when we think a task is going to be more difficult. 

This is why we often find ourselves choosing to “make a productive playlist,” “clean your workspace,” or “make yourself a snack so you’ll focus better,” instead of actually sitting down and starting the work. This is disadvantageous because it makes us feel seemingly accomplished even when we have yet to even attempt the actual task at hand. 

If we procrastinate because the subjective value of a task is low, how do we increase something’s value in our minds, and in turn, increase the motivation to complete it? 

One way to combat procrastination is to decrease the value of whatever is distracting you. If you’re someone who distracts themselves from an assignment by cleaning your room, or going to the gym, try and focus on the negativity of those distractions, or convince yourself why it would be unpleasant. For example, think about how tedious it would be to clean your room, or how boring it is. 

Of course, taking occasional intervals from work can be necessary for our mental health and wellbeing. Even so, taking these breaks too frequently can become an unproductive distraction from our responsibilities rather than a warranted mental breather.

To increase motivation, try to connect the assignment to your “self-concept.” Focus on how each particular assignment is going to lead to passing your class, getting your degree or getting your dream job. When you connect an immediate task to your life goals or your core values, you fill the deficiency in the subjective value of the assignment or project you have to complete. 

It’s easier said than done, but the main way to combat procrastination is to push past the unproductive distractions and focus on the big picture. Why is this project necessary for my life goals or my core values? How will completing this now help me to accomplish what I want in life?

Procrastination is a normal tendency, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to live life without it. As students, finding a healthy balance between necessary mental breaks and unwarranted procrastination is vital.

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