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  • Saskia Lackner

Why do I procrastinate?

Tomorrow I have a talk about procrastination. Haven't finalized it yet. So why do so many people (like me) tend to wait until the last minute to fulfill needed and important tasks? Why do we wait until tomorrow to finally start?

Tomorrow - the mystical land where 99% of all human productivity, motivation, and achievement is stored. We expect to have more energy tomorrow, or more concentration. But there’s always another tomorrow it seems.

If we look into the reasons for procrastination we can see that we mostly decide to do what promises a "short-term reward": something that is simply more pleasurable than the task we try to avoid, and so we can also avoid the feelings of displeasure, boredom, or anxiety. Let’s be honest: we all need that dopamine, the rewards, to feel good, especially now.


Most often, we procrastinate on tasks that are extensive and complex or require a self-controlled, prolonged, regular effort instead of consisting of short, clearly time-limited steps. The avoided tasks have unpleasant, difficult, tedious, or boring parts that make it difficult to complete them quickly (Höcker, 2017).

So procrastination is enhanced if

· We feel an aversion to a task

· We lack realistic planning

· There is deficient time management

· Or a problematic prioritization

· We misjudge the performance or task scope

· We fear failure or criticism

· We don’t identify with a goal


But the effect is that we drag along those tasks, and the longer we do so, the more frustrated we get. More and more our motivation will suffer and the task will appear even more unbearable, even more difficult. And sometimes, if we don’t identify with it, the task simply lacks purpose and might bore us to death.

So, how do we get out of this vicious circle?

The main reason for procrastination is the inability for self-regulation, a skill to recognize reasons for impulses and to control oneself.

Think of someone who wants to ride an elephant: this inability to self-regulate consists in the disagreement from the "rational" neocortex (the rider), which "orders" something, while the older and more emotional limbic system then (the elephant), however, does not "obey", because the "reward" is missing.

Now, don’t you understand the elephant?


Up until a few years ago, it was believed that with willpower you can do anything; willpower just means effort. Think of the Jimmy Cliff song “You can get it if you really want…”

Self-regulation, however, is a skill that is cognitively shaped, like an inner, imaginary muscle of "will". Meanwhile we know that this muscle can be trained and its capacity can be increased, e.g. by successive learning of habits and implementing them into your daily life. This willpower arises from the synchronization of conscious and unconscious control systems.

Training that skill and achieving self-regulation successfully not only means a better performance, but also an impact on your social life:

· Better coping strategies

· Higher social competence (better relationships)

· Improved learning performance

However, we also know that self-regulation is made more difficult if you’re facing stress, because your system will have less energy resources for controlling your impulses.

How can you foster them anyway?


Try to implement "executive functions" and habits that make it easier for your brain, like:

· implementing recurring rituals and structures

· The brain learns general rules and not individual experiences regarding habits

· Practice these habits frequently even if it is for a short time only

· Sports on a regular basis help

· any form of stress reduction, e.g. meditation helps your

This way you’re halfway there, because you already set conditions that enhance automatisms and reduce acting on impulses only.


Ask yourself:

· Which internal or external conditions (especially) lead to procrastination?

· Under which internal or external conditions am I more likely to succeed in starting on time and working efficiently?

· What can I do to eliminate inhibiting conditions as far as possible and to create conditions that are helpful for me?

· How can I schedule "rewarding" activities in my free time?

And after that find techniques that help and support you, e.g. the Pomodoro technique or reverse psychology. How it works? Restrict your working or learning time and forbid yourself to work more than 1 hour at a stretch. It can work the same way cliffhangers in TV shows work: unconsciously you will want to continue. This is how you can use the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage.


Let me know if it works - tomorrow!

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