Science explains procrastination

Ryan Smith, News Editor

As high school students, procrastination consumes even the best of the Lancers. As they go through their school activities, many decide that whatever needs to be done doesn’t need to done immediately, and their work is often snubbed in favor of checking Instagram or SnapChat. Humans are wired to act that way, but that should no longer be an excuse. To avoid being eaten alive by a perpetual to-do list, and to push themselves to full academic potential, students should be more aware of why exactly people procrastinate–and how they can stop.

Battle of the Brain

When somebody is trying to decide between doing their homework now or later, there is essentially a war breaking out between two parts of the brain. One side, the prefrontal cortex, is the planning part of the brain and wants to be disciplined in work. The prefrontal cortex is relatively new in the world’s evolution, and it is the part of the brain that gives humans an edge over their savage animal contemporaries. The other side of this cerebral conflict is the limbic system, which includes the pleasure center, and wants one to do what makes them happy–like put off homework. The limbic system is ancient and automatic, hearkening back to the times of the Neanderthals. People have always wanted to seek pleasure. Therefore, in the battle of the brain, the limbic system is likely to emerge as victor, translating to more procrastination and more wasted time. This is all in an attempt to rid of the misery one feels when they look at a daunting assignment.

Barbara Oakley, professor at Oakley University, says that in procrastination, “You actually feel a physical pain in the part of your brain that analyzes pain.” There is fear to start something potentially overwhelming and uninteresting.

Anissa Medina, senior at La Serna, seems to agree about the pain and lack of interest that plagues lazy students. She says, “I think people procrastinate mainly because they’re not interested in what they need to get done.  It isn’t really until the last two years of high school that students are able to start taking these elective classes that they’re actually interested in, and since they tend not to have a passion for the majority of their classes before this, they shirk their responsibilities, their homework, studying–whatever.”

The release given from this misery by procrastination is initially effective, as a pleasure hormone called dopamine is released, but ultimately, the procrastinator in question will become guilty and have lower self-esteem. To make matters worse, dopamine slightly alters some neurons in the brain so that one is more likely to procrastinate later.

Now vs. Later

Reuben Rahmeyer, sophomore, says of procrastination, “From experience, I would say that if people feel like they can finish work in the same amount of time before it’s due, there’s no point in starting early.”

With these words, Rahmeyer is a disciple of temporal discounting. Temporal discounting is a technical term for underestimating or overestimating the priority of a reward based on how far away it is in time, and how it works is strange, if not interesting.

A YouTube video by AsapSCIENCE gave this example: “If I offered you $100 today and $110 in a month, most would take the $100 and run, but what if instead I offer you $100 in a year and $110 in a year and one month? Suddenly you might say to yourself, ‘ If I can wait a year, I can wait the extra month’, but the time and value difference are exact same in each example.” Basically, nothing will seem important until it has to, even when the thought makes little sense. Why do you think so many students have fallen victim to cramming honors/AP summer assignments in the last weekend before school starts?

How to Stop Procrastination

In considering why we procrastinate, it is easier to consider how to combat teens’ greatest academic affliction. Here are some proven strategies:

1. Start

It may sound like common sense, but the first order of business in accomplishing tasks is starting them. Studies have shown that the first step is the most difficult one. Fear, pain, and disinterest often discourage students from beginning an assignment–as mentioned above–so they will prolong the assignment by  over-complicating it, putting themselves under the illusion that they are doing real work when in actuality they are not moving forward. Once the work starts, however, a psychological concept known as the Zeigarnik Effect may come to the rescue. The Zeigarnik Effect states that once a task is started, an urge to finish will develop, so beginning an assignment may just be half of the battle.

When starting homework, it is also a smart move to work on the hard tasks first so that there is more energy available for the taxing assignments.

2. Subdivide

Working through a monstrous to-do list could be more easily done by breaking up work into less overwhelming chunks and setting realistic deadlines for each segment. Take, for example, the efficiency of the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique, developed by author Francesco Cirillo in the early 1990s, utilizes a timer to directly balance focused work periods and restful breaks. The timer is set for twenty-five minutes of completely uninterrupted work, with unwavering focus and no distractions (if someone does get distracted, they must end the pomodoro cycle and start over). After that time, a five-minute break is given, and then one would have to work again for twenty-five minutes. After four Pomodoro cycles, a longer half-hour break is allotted, and so on. Manageable units of time and regularly scheduled, yet not overwhelming breaks in the Pomodoro technique make goals seem more attainable and minimize the feeling of burnout so that one can be more productive.

3. Unplug

As teenagers in the world here and now, technology is the greatest blessing, and the greatest curse. Every day, Americans browse social networks for a whopping 12.2 billion hours, and the Internet serves as the biggest distraction from homework for teens. The Internet offers several opportunities to break with your homework schedule, so if it’s helpful, choose apps that will help monitor Internet use and block websites for certain periods of time so that you can stay on track–examples include Freedom for Windows, Mac, and Android as well as LeechBlock for Firefox.