Procrastination

I’ve been thinking a bit about procrastination. It’s finally spring in Minnesota, and it seems that along with 60-degree weather and sun, we’ve tend to put off whatever needs to get done.

Over my time working with students and reading about brain research on learning, I’ve learned there’s actually a scientific reason why we procrastinate. Even the thought of doing something we don’t want to do, like thinking about homework when it’s finally warm outside, activates the part of our brains associated with pain.

So that’s why my kids groan when I ask them to unload the dishwasher! Now we can understand why procrastination happens: because it’s actually painful to do the tasks we don’t want to do.

The science also tells us that when we procrastinate we get a momentary fix—like eating a piece of candy—for your brain. BUT we’re still thinking about the thing we don’t want to do.

Procrastinating is like eating candy and getting a stomach-ache at the same time. Sounds miserable. Feels miserable.

The good news? There’s a way to stop it. The pain center in your brain—the insular cortex—calms down within 20 minutes of getting going. So there’s truth to the saying, “Just get started.”

Here’s a technique to help you do just that!

It’s called the Pomodoro; you can read about and practice it in greater detail during our Learning How to Learn classes and in the book Learning How To Learn by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski.

Step 1. Find a quiet place and shut off all distractions

This means putting away the phone and even setting filters on your computer that block notifications. You can use noise canceling headphones or earphones to keep your concentration.

Step 2. Set the timer for 25 minutes

We’re most effective when working in small bursts. Check out this timer, it’s a great way to tune out the rest of the world while you get started on your projects. There are also iPhone apps as a great alternative. One of the most popular is called “Forest.” For younger students, set the timer for 10 to 15 minutes.

Step 3. Just get started

As we said before, the pain associated with doing tasks calms down just minutes after you get started. Twenty-five minutes is doable. Go for it!

Step 4. Reward yourself

When the timer goes off, give yourself a reward, a piece of candy or a few minutes on social media, a snooze, or talk with friends. You can listen to music, scratch your dog’s ears, or zone out on YouTube if you want to—it’s your reward! Even better, take advantage of this warmer weather.

If your mind wanders, that’s OK. Notice and bring it back to the task at hand. A couple more tips: You’re not trying to finish your project; you’re practicing beating procrastination. If you remember something important, jot a quick note and continue working. How many should you do in a day? That’s up to you. Start with 1 or 2 per day. Last bit of advice from Doctor Barbara Oakley: don’t switch tasks during your Pomodoro. Pick one task and work on it until you’re done. If you happen to finish, move on to another. But NO multitasking allowed!

For more information on fighting procrastination and other actionable strategies to finish the school year strong, check out our Learning How To Learn classes. We’re here to help.