Procrastination and the Magic Recipe for Stress-Free Success
Does the phrase “I’ll do it tomorrow” ring a bell? How about “there’s not enough time now, I might as well not start”?
Don’t feel bad if you’re nodding along right now. You’re not alone, fellow procrastinator. In all honesty, I say phrases just like those on a daily basis.
They never seem to be in relation to playing basketball or hanging out with friends. I can’t recall a time when they surfaced during an internal debate over watching television or browsing social media. Instead, they only seem to surface when I have work to do.
They rear their heads the moment I have to study for an exam or write some deadline-impending essay. Weird, right? Well buckle up, because it’s about to get weirder. I lie to myself, too.
I tell myself that I work better under pressure. “Putting it off will actually make me more effective,” I say. Does less time make for better results? Does panic and stress birth increased productivity? Does stress breed creative thought?
If you’re like me, you know the answer to each of those questions is a resounding “NO!” But if you’re like me in that sense, you’re also like me in the sense that that resounding “NO!” makes little to NO difference. So why do I do it? Why do I procrastinate?
I just tend to put things off in favor of… of what?!
Most of the time I truly don’t have anything better to do with my time than to dedicate it toward the very thing I am putting off. In fact, as my fingers strike the keys that are leading to these very words, I am ignoring incoming text messages. And it’s not because I don’t want to talk to the people texting me; it’s because the moment I reply to them, I know that they’ll send something back and the expectations for my replies will continue, thus creating more and more “work”.
Okay, okay… maybe a little dramatic. Texting isn’t work. I know. But it’s just another task that lands on top of the pile. And the pile seems to be growing endlessly.
It would be so much easier to complete my homework and studying as early in the day as possible and leave myself free (sometimes) during the nights to do whatever it is that I want. So why do I wait until 7 o’clock at night to pull out my study materials? Why do I feel like a child dreading the first day of school, walking slower on my way to the bus stop while seemingly ignoring the fact that I would have more time for, well, literally everything I want to do if I stopped dilly dallying?
An article published by Psychology Today may have some of the answers to my questions. They specify that the pain centers of the brain (for physical pain) can be activated in response to other stimuli. This article specifies social pain as the cause of the activation of pain centers, but notes that other stimuli have been shown to activate these same pain centers in the brain. These stimuli, it turns out, include everything from math to the simple visualization of pain.
I can’t remember a time that I was physically in pain from studying, or from having to write ONE MORE RIDICULOUS BOOK REPORT ON A BOOK I DON’T CARE ABOUT!! — Sorry, I got a little emotional there — but maybe that’s the point.
Emotional and psychological pain centers are activated in almost the exact same way as physical pain (the main difference being the lack of a nociceptive input from somewhere outside of the brain). Therefore, if these two pain centers are activated similarly and located in similar locations…
See where I’m going with this?
We experience (a form of) pain when we do our homework! But good luck telling that to your mother the next time she asks you why you’re still just sitting there staring at that blank math worksheet.
The stresses associated with having to learn new material or performing adequately on exams where that material is tested can actually cause a strain, or psychological pain.
We discover pain before we even start the activity!
Visualization of pain was something identified as activating the pain centers of the brain in people that had chronic low back pain. As it turns out, I just so happen to have a chronic psychological pain from countless hours of studying and endless exams that I have taken in my life. Believe me now, mom?
If we can visualize the pain subconsciously, what would be our natural response to said pain?
Personally? I tend to squirm and try to stop whatever pain I may be subjected to. Yeah, I know: real macho. But can you really blame me? If the natural instinct is to avoid pain, I would assume that avoiding perceived pain is pretty normal too. So when we are procrastinating, our brain is just trying to tell us to avoid subjecting ourselves to more pain. Good call, brain.
Feeling better yet, procrastinator? Have you forgotten about that paper you're supposed to be writing? Hey, at least you now know (to some degree) the neurological mechanism of procrastination, right? Give yourself a round of applause! Just kidding.
Don’t embrace that excuse. After all, is the understanding of the neurological mechanism of procrastination going to write your paper? I didn’t think so.
What you want to know is how to fix it. What is the big secret?
I’m glad you asked. You see, different areas of the brain are activated at different time points when a painful stimulus is presented. Now I don’t know about you, but I tend to not realize the “pain” of working or studying in the moment. In fact, I barely feel stressed during the work. I simply have a task to do and I work until that task is done. Once it is done I always feel this underlying weight lifted off my shoulders from having one less thing to do. For whatever reason, however, I never seem to be able to focus on this aspect of studying or working before I start studying or working. I just have to do it.
Boy… Nike was really on to something with that slogan of theirs…
Once you start, the perception of pain vanishes. Your brain and body realize that the pain it had visualized before starting the task is non-existent (most of the time). You find yourself sailing through the next chapter of reading. You buzz through the book report that’s due at the end of the day. The anatomy review you have to complete before Thursday’s exam becomes a walk in the park.
Starting a task takes a bit of willpower. Depending on the task, it may take a lot of willpower to force yourself to begin. But that small amount of willpower is all it takes to skip over all of the pain. And, after all, who wants to feel pain?
Just do it.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences