Present bias is not a preference for gifts in a blue Tiffany bag but a psychological term for what can lead people to procrastinate. Basically, present bias means that individuals tend to favor the present over the future and will accept a smaller, immediate reward rather than waiting for a larger payback down the road.
In the case of procrastination, that payoff is small indeed—it’s the momentary relief that you get when you don’t have to start that difficult task right now.
But that small spark of pleasure is deeply rooted in the human brain. The limbic system is considered a “functional concept that may be employed to explain various brain functions,” according to that site. It is primordial, and regulates human emotion, among other basic human functions.
Mastering Poor Impulse Control
We aren’t just impulsive puppets in thrall to emotion and pleasure, of course. You can simplistically think of the prefrontal cortex as being in a constant battle against the limbic system. It is a further evolution of the human brain, responsible for executive functioning, planning and decision-making. Part of growing up, maturing, it’s that prefrontal cortex that helps you get things done.
It’s in the opposition between these two sectors of the brain that gives procrastination the chance to slip in and outweigh the rewards of planning and patience.
Oh, and there are other influences at play.
Procrastination in a Pandemic
If you’ve been feeling particularly procrastination-prone lately, it’s not your imagination. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in delaying tactics. Remember that quick hit of pleasure that you get by putting off a project? Well, you need that split second of dopamine more now because other centers of pleasure—such as friends, parties, sports and other social activities—are simply not available.
You’re Not Lazy
Most people assume that they are just lazy when they put off tasks. That’s a simplistic and incorrect view of procrastination. When you procrastinate, do you sit there in dumb lassitude? Or do you actively seek out other jobs?
- Oh, I’ll just scroll through Instagram.
- Hmmm, feeling a little peckish, maybe it’s time for lunch.
- Gee, my desktop is looking crowded, maybe I should just sort out the icons.
- Laundry time!
This productive procrastination gets things done, but it doesn’t get the right things done!
When you put off tasks, it’s your limbic system fighting your prefrontal cortex. But you don’t have to let your base human emotions win. You can hold out for the bigger reward in the future when you have completed all your tasks. Reward yourself without the guilt of a prematurely won pleasure.
Here are four tips to gain an advantage over your basic human desire to not do what you really should be doing.
1. Schedule It Out
The first thing you might do is write a to-do list. It’s important to make your list small and achievable. Remember productive procrastination? You don’t want to fill your list with things that you want to do. Be sure to include the things that you really have to get done.
Here’s a quick win: Make the first item on your to-do list: “Write a to-do list.” Then, when you’re done flushing out that list, you get to cross off that first item and receive your tiny hit of dopamine for a task accomplished.
Our Students’ Tips on Beating Procrastination
2. Put It in Outline Form
It can be helpful to write an outline of your job. If it’s a written task, put your thoughts down on paper and get all those ideas spelled out. Then after you’ve worked through the problem or the argument, you can go back and fill in with details and embellishments.
You can think of the outline as steps toward a larger goal. If you have a big challenge ahead of you, it often helps to break it down into discrete chunks. The whole enormity of the job might have you searching for an anxiety-induced quick hit of social media, but if you break that big job down into smaller pieces, then it’s easier to get started and accomplish the goal step by step.
3. Eliminate Distractions
The pandemic work-from-home environment is rife with tales of working in shorts and flip-flops, with only a professional-looking top keeping you from social shame. If you’re looking to get things done, perhaps your first step is to get into a work outfit—work pants and shoes and all. That old adage of “dress for the job you want to have” can easily be adapted to “dress for the job that you do have.”
If you are the type of person for whom shiny distractions are a problem, get an app to help you manage your attention. Here is a helpful wiki that lists a slew of apps that can help you stay on track.
Throw a cloth over the TV. Working from home means that you are working in an environment with plenty of welcome and familiar distractions. Your television is a main source of wasting time. Just cover that inviting black screen so that you see just a pretty pattern and not an invitation to binge. (It’s a handy tip for quick interior design, as well!)
If you’re someone who wants a quiet and calm atmosphere, then consider investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. You can listen to music, of course, but make sure that it’s low and comforting and not a distraction.
4. Self Care
Perhaps the best advice is to take care of yourself. Uncover how you are feeling, see anxiety for what it is and don’t use those emotions to turn you away from the work that needs to be done.
Practice mindfulness. Being in the here and now can help you to correctly assess what needs to be done. Get enough sleep and make sure that all parts of your life are in balance.
Take small breaks throughout the day, even if it’s just a stretch every 15 minutes.
You’ve got this.
And, say, here’s a final tip on beating procrastination. If you’ve been thinking of taking a course at UC Berkeley Extension, then go ahead and start with a class!