What should you do if you are about to procrastinate? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
I like to think I am an effective procrastinator.
For example, I am now procrastinating on other things I've planned while I'm instead taking the time to answer your very perceptive question. So obviously, whether procrastination is good or bad can depend on your own - and others' - perspectives and goals.
Procrastination can definitely fuel creative thinking. There are many times when some obscure article or other catches my attention, and off I go, sidetracked from my goals for a few minutes or an hour. Sounds bad, right? But then, three months later, like as not, I'd get asked a question when I'm in front of an audience of 500 hundred and by golly, the fact that I'd read that article would turn out to be highly relevant. Or I'll be watching the TV show Better Call Saul and think geeze, what an interesting camera angle... Fantastic shows on TV, in fact, served as creative fodder underlying our making of Learning How to Learn, which is now the world's biggest MOOC.
But if procrastination is overdone, of course, it can turn into a real problem.
I try to look at the big picture of I'd like to reasonably accomplish in a day, given whatever else I've got going on. For example, around finals time when I was a student, my ability to procrastinate was sharply reduced--I could take only a few minutes here and there as a sort of healthy rejuvenator. And when our children were young at the same time as I also held a 9-5 job, it was kind of hard to be an effective procrastinator. (Although children can lead to the most joyous forms of procrastination, depending on how you look at it!) But other times of life, like right now after I've turned in my latest book manuscript (yay!), I have the luxury to do some occasional procrastination. It's a lovely thing.
When I catch myself procrastinating, then,sometimes I let it go, because some procrastination is effective procrastination. On the other hand, when I really need to get stuff done, I try not to let my brain trick me into continuing my procrastination.
Here's how my brain tricks me into procrastinating. When I think about something I don't like or don't particularly want to do, that thought can actually activate the insular cortex--a part of the brain that experiences pain. In other words, it can be physically painful to think about something I'd rather not do. So what do I do in response to those feelings of pain? Simple, I switch my attention to something else. Voila--the pain disappears--but I've just procrastinated. (Here's afrom Learning How to Learn about how this process unfolds.)
To deal with the "procrastination trick" my brain plays on me, I trick my brain back. First off, I don't think about what I'm supposed to be doing--after all, that just activates my brain's pain centers. Instead, I just grab a timer, set it for 25 minutes, and focus as intently as I can (given my wandering mind, which I often have to keep bringing back on task) for those 25 minutes. When I'm done, I reward myself with a favorite song, a cup of coffee, or what have you. (This is the so-called Pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s.) Sometimes, if I get into the flow, I let myself go longer than the 25 minutes.
You'll find that after a few Pomodoros, over several days, somehow, it starts bringing the mind's focus into the area you are procrastinating on, and that area can actually start to seem interesting and enjoyable.
If you are studying something, though, it's very important not to procrastinate too much. Why? The image below, courtesy brilliant biochemist Guang Yang, of NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, provides the answer.
See those yellow triangles? Those indicate new synaptic connections of the type that form after you learn something during the day, and then sleep overnight on it. As you gradually learn something new, in other words, you build an underlying neural architecture! But the thing is, you can only grow so many neural connections in an evening's sleep. So you want to keep learning at least a little every day, so you build a solid neural structure. Last minute cramming due to procrastination is a very bad idea if you are trying to learn something well.
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