Don’t Let Your Dreams be Dreams

29 August 2016

I would do anything to avoid studying. On one occasion I was so disinterested in my essay, I decided to click through random Wikipedia articles. I ended up wasting an hour skimming pages on minefields in Croatia, blind mole rats and a comic book series called Cowboy Ninja Viking.

Everyone procrastinates at some point – even Leonardo Da Vinci was threatened with funding cuts from the Duke of Milan after putting off painting The Last Supper. We university students, however, are most likely to engage in avoidance behaviour. This was confirmed in a 2007 study by Piers Steel from the University of Calgary, who reported that 80 to 95 per cent of college students procrastinate.

This is hardly surprising. As an Arts student with only 12 contact hours a week, why wouldn’t I binge watch the entire series of Parks and Recreation when I have so much free time available? Surely next week’s readings can wait until after I’ve finished planning my outfit for Saturday and responded to the meme I’ve just been tagged in on Facebook?

In my experience, procrastination can go one of two ways. The nervous energy accompanying the last-minute panic of finishing an assignment can sometimes prompt a rush of creativity. This is what happened when I attempted to complete my first ever university essay on the morning it was due, which, quite remarkably, scored me an H1. I would soon learn, however, that this isn’t the best way to go about assessment. Later on in the semester, I received a plagiarism warning for a different essay. It turned out that in my rush to meet the deadline, I had forgotten to properly cite various paragraphs. Safe to say, I’ve never done that again.

The answer to why we procrastinate might lie in the result of our evolution as a species. The brain developed under conditions when survival mostly depended on dealing with our immediate surroundings. Our actions are therefore driven by a ‘pleasure principle’ which describes the urge to seek instant gratification and enjoyment without delay. When this fulfilment isn’t met, our psychological response is anxiety or tension. In the modern age, this desire is further fuelled by the immediacy of social media, which feeds these wants and needs with its instant connectedness.

Associate Professor Tim Pychyl of Carelton University, Canada, has found that procrastinators recognise the temporal harm in their actions. This manifests in the feelings of guilt experienced while watching Netflix when one should be starting a 2000-word essay. Despite this, procrastinators are unable to overcome the emotional urge toward distraction – i.e. continuing watching Netflix in their stressed state. Mood and emotion therefore play a dominant role in the behaviour.

So how can you overcome these tendencies and beat unproductive behaviour? You could opt for extreme measures like that of novelist Herman Melville, who supposedly had his wife chain him to his desk until he’d finished Moby Dick.

A more sensible approach might be to break an essay into smaller parts to work on each day, so that the prospect of completion is more tangible. Getting into the habit of completing your work first thing in the morning could also help. This is because you are most mentally capable of undertaking high cognitive tasks in the first two hours after you wake up, according to behavioural scientist, Dan Ariely.

Another strategy to counter temptation is to block access to distracting social media sites by downloading an app like SelfControl, for example. Consider that the average Facebook visit is 17 minutes long and 24 per cent of Australians check their social media profile more than five times a day. If you cut out time wasted on these sites, you’ll literally get back hours.

Most importantly though, don’t be so hard on yourself when you do dawdle. As proven by Pychyl after surveying 119 college students, those who forgave themselves after procrastinating on their first exam were less likely to put off studying for the second.

I’ll leave you with the story of Colonel Johann Rall, German commander of the Hessian Troops at Trenton during the American Revolutionary War. In the midst of a card game, a local loyalist slipped him a note warning that Washington’s forces were approaching. Preoccupied with his game however, the Colonel put the note in his pocket and continued playing. Early the next morning, Washington’s soldiers captured most of the Hessian forces and Rall was killed, with the note found unopened in his jacket.

Don’t be like Rall – get started on that assignment before it catches up with you!

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