As any student knows, it can be tough to get things done without getting hopelessly distracted. When you have an assignment due, Facebook becomes more interesting than ever. You get the urge to bake before an exam, despite not knowing how to make anything beyond packet-mix cupcakes. Your room suddenly needs an urgent clean in STUVAC, and it must absolutely be done before you can start any work.
Basically, once the procrastination bug hits, anything is more interesting than the task at hand. It’s easy to despair once you realise how much time you’ve wasted, but it turns out it’s not really your fault at all. Our bodies are hard-wired to procrastinate, and there’s science to back it up.
Even though you know you need to study, your brain often has other plans. The limbic system is the part of your brain responsible for emotion and behaviour, amongst other things. It’s a system of structures including the hippocampus (responsible for memory) and the hypothalamus (responsible for body temperature, hunger, sleep and much more). One of the system’s tasks is to stop you from doing unpleasant things. Touching a hot surface, for example, would trigger a response in the limbic system to stop you doing that. The system also tries to stop you doing things you don’t want to do – like studying.
The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is responsible for processing information and making decisions. Basically, it’s in charge of the thoughts and actions you take to reach a goal. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex requires you to consciously engage it. When you think “I should start my assignment” you begin to kick it into gear. But the limbic system is always waiting, ready to take over as soon as you disengage from the task at hand. Unlike the prefrontal cortex, it’s automatic, which is good for things like body temperature and memory, but bad when it comes to productivity.
When you start to get distracted from an unpleasant task, the limbic system starts a process called 'immediate mood repair'. Doing a more pleasant task provides the brain with a small amount of dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that helps the brain control our pleasure and reward centres. If you do or see something good, you’ll get a little hit of dopamine. Your brain likes this, and you’ll be more likely to keep doing whatever it is that releases the dopamine. In the case of procrastination, you’re being rewarded for not doing the task that you’re supposed to because it feels better for your brain.
Some people are more predisposed to procrastinating than others, but it’s possible to train your brain to reduce how often you do it. A lot of it involves thinking about the future to imagine how good it will feel to finish the task, or how bad it will be if you don’t get it done in time. You’re thinking about trading some small dopamine hits for one bigger one at the end. A range of strategies recommended by experts are also just a Google search away.
So next time you catch yourself watching Netflix instead of studying, don't feel bad! It’s in your nature. Just be sure to get everything done by the deadline - unfortunately lecturers don’t accept ‘scientifically-backed procrastination’ as an excuse.