The Psychology Behind Procrastination

His heart pounds. He hastily opens his Calculus textbook to Chapter 3. He skims over every example problem from every lesson, trying his best to understand every concept and formula in the little time he has left. He glances at the clock and realizes he should never make a mistake like this again.

Just like any other MVHS student, junior Amogh Patankar can relate to an experience like this. He recalls the time he delayed preparing for an exam. “I had to study at the last moment and got a terrible grade on a math test,” he said. Patankar’s experience reflects the most infamous aspect of a high schooler’s academic career: procrastination.

It’s something we all do, no matter how hard we try not to. Time after time, we find ourselves pressing the “Submit” button on just minutes before the 11:59 PM deadline. Obviously, procrastination is not good for us – it just causes unnecessary panic and stress. But we continue to do it. Why? The answer actually lies deep within our minds.

Procrastination can stem from different causes, but it can be mainly attributed to impulsiveness and lack of self-control. Studies done by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, show that there is a positive correlation between impulsiveness and the likeliness of procrastination. Impulsive people cannot resist satisfying their short-term desires, and end up delaying their long-term tasks as a result.

A typical example of this is when you see a new video on YouTube, and you tell yourself “I’ll start my essay in just another five minutes,” and you go ahead and watch it. But then you see the video has multiple parts, and you can’t help but watch all of them. Soon, an hour has gone by instead of just “five minutes”.

But there is a particular something in our minds telling us to watch that new YouTube video. That “something” is our desire of dopamine, writes Alena Hall of The Huffington Post.  No, not the kind from a drug. Dopamine is a chemical that interacts with the neurons in your brain to give you a good feeling. According to AsapSCIENCE, whenever we do something we like, our brain enjoys a dose of dopamine. We feel the need to come back for more, which is why we procrastinate time after time again.

Essentially, procrastination occurs when impulsiveness overpowers self-control. The temptation cannot be resisted, and for a person that is especially impulsive, it is even easier to succumb to procrastination. The mind is aware of the consequences, but feels the need for that “kick” that dopamine offers.

Sometimes, however, it is not because of distractions or lack of self-control. It is because of the mood that the task before you creates. You might avoid starting your 10 page paper for literature because it is a huge assignment and you feel intimidated. You might push off studying for your science exam because you are scared of how difficult it will be. You might not want to do your math homework simply because you are not interested.

This is where the brain steps in. All of the emotions induced by the task at hand can lead to procrastination. As Amy Spencer writes for Real Simple, this is due to the work of the limbic system. This is the part of the brain that causes you to make unconscious actions, such as moving your hand away from something extremely hot. The limbic system prioritizes “immediate mood repair”, according to Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Carleton University. Likely, it will direct you to watching that new YouTube video in the place of starting your essay.

Essentially, when one procrastinates, their limbic system is overpowering another part of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex. Unlike the limbic system, it does not work automatically. The prefrontal cortex processes information and makes corresponding decisions, but it needs to be prompted in order to function and overtake the limbic system. Otherwise, procrastination will be the result.

Usually, procrastinators are well aware of the consequences, most likely from past experiences, but they will continue to do it. It may be due to poor time management or mishandling of emotions, but it could also be because they do not see the value of doing a certain task immediately.

The procrastinator may see enjoyable tasks as more pressing than starting their essay. He or she will not see the importance of starting their essay until the due date gets dangerously close. Patankar says this mindset is what caused his procrastination. He did not prioritize studying for his math test, and ended up doing it the night before. This led to his poor performance and an extremely stressful experience.

For the average MVHS student, stress is a major problem. Students at this school often overwhelm themselves in an attempt to stand out. Taking rigorous classes, combined with several extracurricular activities, is the perfect recipe for procrastination. Like Patankar, some students cannot do any more and end up pushing off their work to the next day. They are simply too tired to continue.

Unfortunately, procrastinating will only end up intensifying stress. As Sue Shellenbarger of The Wall Street Journal suggests, it is better for procrastinators to imagine themselves in the future when they have completed their work, and are feeling relaxed and content. Not only will this relieve you of your current stress, but it will minimize your future stress.

Despite how impossible it may seem, procrastination can be conquered – and it should be. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but one just has to understand how to deal with their current emotions and see that it is in their best interest to get their work done today, rather than tomorrow. Just try it out and see – watching that YouTube video will be a lot more enjoyable after writing your literature essay.