Don’t worry, I’ll do it later: the problems with procrastination

February 10, 2020 — by Viraaj Reddi and Aaria Thomas

Sophomore Ishaan Bhandari sat at his desk, surrounded by stacks of worksheets and piles of notes. It was the night before his chemistry honors stoichiometry test, and he was actively working to learn everything covered in the past month. 

“The entire chemistry unit, I didn’t pay attention or take notes,” he admitted. “I had to stay up one night until 5:30 a.m. learning everything that was taught and doing all the homework.”

Despite spending all night trying to learn the concepts, he woke up too tired to have mastered them for the test. He proceeded to score much worse than he wanted to. 

Bhandari’s procrastination is typical of millions of students and professionals. Although it’s widely agreed that procrastination leads to problems, many students struggle to shake the habit. Instead, they push everything to the last minute, ignoring past experiences telling them to start their work earlier.

Knowing these negative consequences, why do so many people procrastinate? 

According to psychologist Hal Hershfield, the problem lies in the evolutionary traits and natural tendencies of human beings. 

“We really weren’t designed to think ahead into the future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now,” Hershfield told The New York Times. 

Hershfield found that parts of people’s brains perceive their future selves like strangers whose problems are irrelevant to the current moment. 

Especially when people are under stress, the tendency to make rash decisions is heightened. Stress activates the brain’s amygdala, which views the task as a threat and puts it off in favor of immediate satisfaction and gratification.

In schools, this tendency takes the form of academic pressure. 

MAP and Digital Photography teacher Alex Hemmrich said he sees many students feeling pressured to excel in STEM classes such as math or science. He has noticed his students working on these subjects in his classes, leading to procrastination and rushed work on the assignments he gives.

While students may not recognize the reasons behind their procrastination, some try tactics to avoid it.

During first semester, senior Chris Feng tried focusing on one task at a time. Feng said the strategy worked, but he abandoned it in January and now finds himself procrastinating again.

“Now, I do my calculus homework during my third period when I have computer science and computer science when I have government,” Feng said. “Government homework is the only homework I do during the night.”

According to professor Fuschia M. Sirois of Canada’s Bishop’s University, the pleasant feeling people receive from procrastination encourages them to repeat the behavior. This in turn creates a habit that’s difficult to escape, and with no preferable alternative, the body subconsciously selects procrastination as its default setting. 

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer told The New York Times that people’s brains are always looking for relative rewards. If they have a habit loop around procrastination but haven’t found a better reward, their brain will continue cycling it again and again until they give it something better to do.

The best cure to procrastination, Brewer said, is for people to trick their emotions into choosing a better alternative than avoiding the work, often by associating positive feelings with the work itself. Though this method is easier said than done, Brewer suggests that habitual procrastinators can try to remember the positive results of completing the task, such as others’ joyful reactions or comparing it to a similar task with a positive outcome. 

Another study by professor Sirois found that there was a correlation between students who had high stress levels and the tendency to delay starting tasks. To decrease procrastination-caused stress, Sirois suggests those wanting to use their time well should try to forgive themselves when they fail to get done tasks as quickly as they want. A forgiving attitude gears the mind toward positive outcomes. 


Junior year overload and its consequences

Senior Oscar Khowong remembered frequently procrastinating during his junior year. 

“It was just a lot of work to do,” Khowong said. “On top of classes, it was just hard to study a lot. At one time I liked swimming too, so it was just hard to manage my time.”

Since entering his senior year and becoming more organized, Khowong has begun procrastinating less. One technique that works for him is to keep a calendar to write down everything he wants to finish on a certain day. He finishes the easier and simpler tasks first, as he feels better after he gets things done.

English teacher Amy Keys suggests that her students keep a notebook or planner where they write the assignments and their due dates, not just on their phones.

She makes a point to encourage them to write all of the week’s assignments in a planner in the beginning of all her classes, but she noticed few truly follow her advice. Instead, most choose to find the assignments on Canvas later. 

“That is a form of immediate procrastination,” Keys said. “The more we depend on technology, the more trouble we can get ourselves into. I see more and more people not actively taking charge of writing what assignments are due.”

Keys believes writing down tasks allows students to be more aware of what they have to do and when they have to do it by. Keys also gave advice on how to prioritize and grind through various assignments. 

“Do the hardest homework while you’re still the most awake or the most fresh,” Keys said. “Leave the work you like because if you like it, it’s kind of like a treat for yourself you can put off until later.”

Keys encourages students to push through the weeks and make it to the break that is just around the corner, a strategy she herself uses. 

“There’s a break around the bend,” Keys said. “There’s a light at the end and it’s OK. I can push through if I’m feeling a little frustrated.”

To help his students avoid procrastinating, Hemmrich checks in daily with them and sets smaller deadlines within projects and assignments to help them stay on track.

Hemmrich thinks it is important for students to learn skills to avoid procrastination for their future. 

“Life is infinitely more complex than high school,” Hemmrich said. “Working a job is nothing at all like studying for a test. It’s not about the individual or how much you can flex on your colleagues. It’s about the collective. One’s lack of care or tunnel vision can easily create chaos for the entire group, so it’s essential to remain timely and self-aware.”

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