By Kristine Keller
Next to love and the Olympics, procrastination is the most universally shared experience among humans, a common language practiced and understood in every pocket of the globe. Procrastination knows many dialects: Mastering War and Peace days before the final exam or the toothless man at the laundromat who confessed he waits until his cavities “speak out loud and announce themselves as wounded” before giving in to a dental cleaning. If procrastination is the impetus of lackluster grades and dyspeptic dentists, why not choose the path to least resistance and actually do something on time? Taking a cue from Buddha, this is where the Four Noble Truths of Procrastination are divined.
Truth number one: Procrastination is on the rise. The earliest forms of procrastination date back to ancient civilization, with historical texts from Cicero of Rome to Shakespeare lamenting the malady of waiting until the buzzer. However, research reports that due to an increase in technologically advanced societies, we’ve not only been experiencing more commitments and deadlines, but we also have more ways of procrastinating than previous agrarian societies. Your grandfather might have been on to something when he admonished you for tweetin’ and twatin’ on them Berry and Apple devices.
Truth number two: Procrastination occurs the more boring and unpleasant a task becomes, and this effect is compounded by a delay in reward. Studies by tax services report millions spent in overpayments due to errors caused by people completing tax-return forms minutes before the due date. Since we don’t actually receive our payments until months after the tax deadline, procrastination rears its slow head. Your accountant might have been on to something when he called you 100 times before the IRS deadline.
Truth number three: Those who purposely place tasks aside might do so out of crippling self-doubt. There are few worse feelings derived from an amorphous body of work and so a cycle of “those who can’t do … procrastinate” originates. Dr. Albert Bandura, the father of self-efficacy research, notes the more emphasis individuals place on their internal control over their productivity, the higher their levels of competency when completing tasks. This has been well documented in forms of self-regulation like physical exercise and healthy eating habits. Your trainer might have been on to something when he implored you to ignore the panting and run one more mean mile!
Truth number four: Procrastination can actually be beneficial. A surge of arousal, caused initially by procrastination, could lead to an increase in productivity. Two prominent psychologists, Dr. Yerkes and Dr. Dodson, discovered a link between arousal and performance where they found that performance is enhanced with just the optimum level of arousal; too much arousal will hinder one’s productivity, while too little won’t enhance it at all. Leaving a week to write a paper might not cause your laid back synapses to release adrenaline and kick yourself into high gear, but leaving two days before the due date might be just what the neurotransmitter ordered. By day three, as you feel your deadline increasing its slow jog to a fast run, your adrenaline feels the jolt and releases an optimum level of anxiety; this process causes an increase in attention, motivation and performance. I might be on to something when I tell you that optimum levels of procrastination might actually help you effectively ride the deadline tide.
So how does one reach Nirvana, the state of dutiful, plan-ahead behavior? For starters we grab our self-efficacy by the horns. Researchers note self-efficacy levels can be increased through the process of modeling. In short, by observing someone else achieve the same task successfully, fear levels decrease and confidence increases.
The process of chaining, whereby smaller actions are gradually reinforced until they lead to a complex behavior, also may reduce procrastination.
Gymnast Gabby Douglas might have gotten verbal praise for her first cartwheel, followed by a standing ovation for a triple-twist round-off, culminating in the holy grail of rewards, a Gold Medal for her all-around performance in the London 2012 Olympics. As long as the individual smaller behaviors lead to a predictable reward or success, the behavior will reinforce itself. So, even if you have to give yourself your own reward, like treating yourself to an indulgent Lost marathon, just for suffering through a dentist visit, do it. Eventually small reinforcements will lead to bigger rewards.
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