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Life is fragile. Don’t waste it.

8 Feb 2020

Author: Kristina Olsevska

It was Monday, 27th of January when I started to write this article. The day before brought devastating news for sports fans around the world. The great Kobe Bryant, his sweet little girl, and 7 others perished in a helicopter crash. He was 41, his daughter – 13.

Life is fragile, yet unconsciously we still think that we have enough time. So, we postpone, we delay, and we procrastinate, not even being aware of how bad the “I’ll do it later” mantra is to our health.

The negative effect of procrastination

One of the first studies to document the pernicious nature of procrastination was published in Psychological Science back in 1997. APS Fellow Dianne Tice and APS William James Fellow Roy Baumeister rated college students on an established scale of procrastination, then tracked their academic performance, stress, and general health throughout the semester. Initially there seemed to be a benefit to procrastination, as these students had lower levels of stress compared to others, presumably as a result of putting off their work to pursue more pleasurable activities. In the end, however, the costs of procrastination far outweighed the temporary benefits. Procrastinators earned lower grades than other students and reported higher cumulative amounts of stress and illness. True procrastinators didn’t just finish their work later — the quality of it suffered, as did their own well-being.

“Thus, despite its apologists and its short-term benefits, procrastination cannot be regarded as either adaptive or innocuous,” concluded Tice and Baumeister. “Procrastinators end up suffering more and performing worse than other people.”

It’s not just students who fall into the “I’ll do it later” trap. According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done, around 20% of U.S. adults are chronic procrastinators. 

These people don’t just procrastinate occasionally; it’s a major part of their lives. They wait for the night before the deadline to finish a project, they delay an important call for the next day and then for the day after that… They wait for an opportune moment, but somehow it never comes. 

Unfortunately, over time chronic procrastination has not only productivity costs, but measurably destructive effects on our social relationships and our mental and physical health, including:

Why we wait?

Ishan Daftardar of ScienceABC claims, that, for starters, human brains are wired to do so. We can picture the entire process of dealing with a tedious task as a fight between two parts of the brain: a battle between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviours we need for survival: eating, reproduction, caring for our young, and fight or flight responses. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, has been associated with central executive functions, involved in selecting relevant information and ignoring irrelevant information for the task at hand; in other words, it’s our inner “planner”.

When the limbic system dominates, which is pretty often, the result is putting off until tomorrow what could (and should) be done today.

It is futile to blame your dirty procrastination habits on heredity, star signs, or the weather. Your choice to procrastinate all comes down to one simple thing – the wiring of your brain.

Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt etc.

“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,” states Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Okay, so what can I do to stop procrastinating?

You can find a lot of tricks & tips related to this topic. Some, like Denis Waitley at Success say:

  • Take five minutes to list the things “you were going to do tomorrow."
  • Look at your list—and do one thing on it right now.
  • Pick a time (today) to work on the list.
  • Quit trying to be perfect.
  • If what you’re putting off involves other people, talk to them.
  • Ask yourself, What’s the worst thing that could happen if I did this today?
  • Imagine how you’ll feel once you do whatever it is you’ve been postponing.

But, to be honest, I like the approach suggested by Ellen Hendriksen (Ph.D.) better. It’s more conscious. 

The key takeaway from this article is to learn your patterns first! There is an excessive amount of diverse information on who, why, and how procrastinates. For some it will click; for others it won’t. Understand how your unique mind works, what’s triggering you, and build your actions around them. Don’t follow the advice that clearly doesn’t work for you.

And remember – life is fragile. Don’t wait for the right moment, it won’t come. Carpe diem!

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