Procrastination. What is it and how stopping it can benefit us.

Procrastination. What is it and how stopping it can benefit us.

Understanding the reasons for which we postpone what is “good” for us?

I know that in order to stop a toxic behavior, one must understand what is determining it first.

We hear the term procrastination quite often lately. It essentially means to postpone or delay the beginning of an action.

This is a concept that has been tackled ever since ancient times, at least from Plato. Philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle have even created a word for procrastination, akrasia, which is a synonym with the lack of control over oneself and if I might add, acting against one’s healthy judgement. To frame it differently, we are postponing what is good for us.

According to a more modern definition, procrastination is the act of postponing certain tasks or actions. Whether we call it akrasia or procrastination, we are referring to a force that stops us from doing the things that we have to do.

The opposite of akrasia is enkrateia – being in control of yourself. Henophon said that this is not just a virtue, but the ‘foundation of all virtues’.

But why do we procrastinate?

Some psychological studies show there our view of ourselves in the present does not coincide with our view of ourselves in the future. This means that our brain has the tendency to appreciate immediate rewards more than future ones. In this regard, let us look into an interesting experiment: ‘The Stanford marshmallow experiment’. Between 1960 and 1870, professor Walter Mischel from Stanford University studied a series of behaviours regarding ‘the delay in reward’. Briefly, kids were offered a choice: to get one marshmallow instantly or two in 15 minutes. During the 15 minutes, the marshmallow was in front of the kid. (Cruel, isn’t it?) The subjects of the study were then observed throughout their lives. The conclusions are interesting: the kids who waited for 15 minutes had more accomplishments in life, better grades, better education, better jobs and have been more fit.  We can say that this capacity of postponing the reward is associated to success (it’s the patience that we were discussing here<-click).

Going back to how we see ourselves now vs. in the future. When we set ourselves an objective, let’s say weight loss, we set an objective for the future. It is easy to set things for the future, especially if they are not very specific. But our actions to achieve that objective are our present responsibilities. This is the problem: our present self adores the quick reward and postpones the rational objectives. So weight loss is postponed for that mouthwatering slice of cake. We all know what a healthy menu looks like and that sugar is our no.1 enemy, with long term effects such as diabetes, cardiac diseases, Alzheimer etc.

Our present self sees the risk of severe conditions in tens of years and in most cases, reaches for the slice of cake.

While looking for scientific explanations for procrastination, I’ve found this Harvard University experiment. Subjects were asked whether they wanted to join a savings plan that required an automatic transfer of 2% of their salary to a savings account.

Option 1: joining immediately

Option 2: joining in one year

33% preferred the first option and 67% the second, which further demonstrates the idea of ‘postponing what is good for oneself’.

And why do we like quick rewards?

Million years ago, our ancestor had fundamentally different problems. They were not concerned about saving plans or the next career step. They just wanted to avoid becoming the meal for a saber-tooth.

Therefore, for a very long period, we have been preoccupied by the present and by surviving risks. This is why we have the desire for a quick reward.

Our brain has evolved throughout million of years and it certainly needs time to adapt to a new environment and to a more complex lifestyle.

Therefore, the manner in which we act in relation to instant rewards is influenced by the inheritance of millions of years and, according to the studies, the capacity to postpone an instant reward for a later, but more valuable one, is associated with success!

Good luck!



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