About this time of year, I see a spike of anxiety in my college students. Papers, term projects, mid-term exams all loom in the near future. Many tell me that they have procrastinated and now feel the pressure to perform. Some tell themselves — mostly falsely — that they do better under the gun. That they need the last-minute deadlines to spur them into action. In most cases, this is more stressful than effective. (I should know. This is my September blog piece. Posted on the 30th…)
Most of us do it. Procrastinate. Give in to our impulses rather than follow a clear, long-term path.
A recent study by Daniel Gustavson and his colleagues at the University of Colorado investigates why we procrastinate. The researchers, using techniques from the field of behavior genetics, discovered that there is a strong relationship between procrastination and impulsivity. Gustavson speculates that procrastination is a by-product of impulsivity — a trait which may have been useful in past times.
From an evolutionary standpoint, impulsivity makes sense: Our ancestors should have been inclined to seek immediate rewards when the next day was uncertain.
Procrastination, on the other hand, may have emerged more recently in human history. In the modern world, we have many distinct goals far in the future that we need to prepare for – when we’re impulsive and easily distracted from those long-term goals, we often procrastinate.
And that’s the rub. In modern times, impulsivity is far less valuable. In fact, to reach our goals, we often must delay gratification and focus on longer timelines. There is a whole line of research on this including, most famously, Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Test”, recently explained in the Atlantic and on the Colbert Report:
So, what if you’re one who would have failed the marshmallow test — unable (or unwilling) to delay gratification, like Colbert? Are you destined for mediocrity?
There is good news. We can strengthen self-control and the ability to set and reach longer-term goals. The key is understanding that we are dealing with skills, not personality traits. “Confusion about these kinds of behaviors [tremendous willpower in one situation, but not another] is erased when you realize self-control involves cognitive skills,” says Mischel.
It may be helpful to remember that “executive function” — central to self-control and originating in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) — can be trained. Here, then, are some ideas for athletes, students, and others pursuing long-term goals. These eleven strategies come from a large body of psychology research, but are beautifully presented by Celestine Chua on her lifehack blog. I have summarized them here:
- Break your work into little steps. (Think staircase.)
- Change your environment (especially when your environment triggers impulsive, procrastinating behavior).
- Create a detailed timeline with specific deadlines.
- Eliminate your procrastination pit-stops (e.g., distractions like social media)
- Hang out with people who inspire you to take action.
- Get a buddy. (For training, for inspiration, for accountability.)
- Tell others about your goals. (Tell others beyond your buddy in #6.)
- Seek out someone who has already achieved the outcome.
- Re-clarify your goals.
- Stop over-complicating things. (Avoid perfectionism as you are moving towards your goals. Focus on the process and the outcome takes care of itself.)
- Get a grip and just do it.