We all do it — some more than others. Everyone has delayed starting an unfavourable task. You’re probably procrastinating right now. As law students, there is an endless supply of readings, assignments and papers to be done and, yet, our houses are immaculate or we are entirely caught up with Netflix (all of Netflix). It’s important to remind ourselves of the end goal: becoming a lawyer.
[span style="font-size: 12.16px; line-height: 15.808px;"]The demands and rewards of this profession should be incentive enough, but just in case, here are a few things to know about procrastination and a few suggestions to prevent it.
[/span]So why do we procrastinate?
Despite our best intentions, we decide to put off the tough stuff. According to Psychology Today contributor Elliot T Berkman’s article, our ability to start a task is directly related to the task’s subjective value in that moment — how we feel about the task compared with other tasks. This decision is impacted by the task’s deadline and the effort required to complete it. There will always be a tendency to work on simpler tasks over those that are more intellectually demanding. The reward of finishing the task will occur in the future, and so we offer little value to this “future feeling” in the present.
Berkman also suggests: “When we write that procrastination is a side effect of the way we value things, it frames task completion as a product of motivation, rather than ability.” Even if we excel at a certain task, if we lack the drive — or the ambition — to accomplish it, the work will be delayed. Perhaps we have the ambition to complete the big-picture project, such as finishing law school, but we fail to connect each task along the way to this larger goal — such as starting a class’ readings right away.
No matter what the severity of procrastination, there is a toll on mental health. One way or another, the delayed start can only add stress to an already stressful situation. Procrastinators may proclaim that “they work better under pressure,” but this logic is detrimental to one’s health. When we are stressed, our body releases cortisol, the stress hormone, as part of our “fight-or-flight” response mechanism — but we need a physical act, a fight or flight, to use the cortisol and re-stabilize our hormones. Otherwise, it builds up in our blood stream. The elevated amount of cortisol can affect our cognitive function, our sleep and our ability to ward off disease (to list a few).
So what can we do?
We all work differently. Personally, my “cure” for procrastination is being busy. I have found that if I have no time to waste, I won’t waste time! This concept is greatly dependent on my use of an agenda or calendar. If I am looking at my agenda and there are no significant gaps of time, I won’t delay starting a task. I write everything down: from classes and meetings at school to groceries and gym time. When I have down time or don’t write out the details of my week, I can get into trouble.
This may not be your style. Timothy Pychyl, another contributor to Psychology Today, writes that “establishing a low threshold to task engagement fuels motivation and changes perception of the task.” Therefore, the more we recognize and allow ourselves to feel rewarded at each step of the project, the more incentive we will have to complete the project. By this logic, break down the task into smaller assignments and be aware of the length of time each assignment will take (overestimate this number). Attach a reward for yourself at the completion of each smaller assignment. Finally, think about why you are doing this task. Is it to get your degree? Is it to pass a class? How well do you want to do in this class? What kind of impact will a good or bad mark in this class have on your life? Write it all down and put it in plain sight.
Find that self control
Pychyl writes “the solution to distraction lies in recognizing what distracts us and then either deciding to eliminate the menace (for example, shutting off Facebook while I'm at the computer) or declaring an intention to indulge it at a specific time once some work gets done.” The schedule should help, and if you are still motivated to accomplish the big-picture goal, the willpower to start should not be far away. Use a little self-discipline and just get going: any progress is progress.