OPINION | Procrastination is boring, let’s trick ourselves out of it

I put this article off all week. I knew I had to write it, I knew I would probably enjoy writing it, I work here on purpose and my coworkers are waiting on me to get it done. So why wait?  

Everyone knows that procrastination is a part of a college student’s existence. At this point, we have probably all read articles like this one from McClean Hospital, which tells us that procrastination is not laziness, it’s “behavior caused by the stress in our lives or unfounded negative beliefs we have about ourselves.”  

The most frustrating thing about procrastination is we can point to underlying causes and even remove some of the blame from ourselves about it, but we still. Can’t. Stop. Putting. Things. Off. It’s stressful, it’s time consuming and it makes us feel bad about ourselves, but more than any of that, it’s boring.  

Part of the reason I procrastinate is because I know the stress of getting the assignment done will override the stress of not doing it perfectly, and I get into a cycle where I trust that stress to take over. This means I sleep less, and I don’t enjoy the work because I’m racing to get it done and hit submit on Canvas by 11:59 p.m. That doesn’t sound very boring. Stressful, yes, but not boring.  

Let’s look at it in a different way: I am presented with a variety of information about fields that interest me, and I get to absorb none of it because of how quickly I’m trying to work. Also, repetition of a broken cycle with no new results is absolutely boring.  

How dull that I am presented with a feast of knowledge, spend no time eating it and then scarf it down at the last minute. How predictable of me. How basic, how bland must the food taste if I gulp it down instead of allowing myself the time to savor it.  

If you watch a movie scene where a character tries to disarm a time bomb before it runs out, that’s exciting. If you watch the same movie scene thirty times in a row, it starts to lose its appeal. You just want to reach into the screen and cut the red wire for them because the answer seems so obvious to you at this point.  

I say all this knowing full well how hard it is to break a cycle. I have struggled with perfectionism my whole life, and only realized in the last few years that it serves as a symptom of underlying mental health needs that haven’t been addressed. I can call procrastination boring all I want, and that solves nothing for people with disorders such as ADHD or OCD, whose brains are constantly working against them.  

At the same time, reframing a common sticky situation can impact how we feel about it. We want so desperately to be interested in what we’re doing. Imagine if instead of getting into the same boring cycle that you do every time, what if you mix it up a little? What if you get a dopamine rush for completing just one paragraph, one sentence even, a day before the due date? WOW! Me? Starting a task before it’s due? Fascinating.  

Become your own guinea pig. What other incredible feats can I push Ellie toward? If I give her a piece of chocolate after she writes an article, does she write the article faster next time? Let me document the results of my studies. If I put on a particular song, can she write two pages of a paper? What other hoops can I make her jump through?   

I don’t just mean to reward yourself, either. I have found that making deals with myself doesn’t work, because I’m assuming the self who has to do the work will be just as rational as the self who holds the treat.  

Looking at myself as an easily frightened but determined little creature helps. Create the incentive but observe the behavior. You’re a scientist trying to see if the guinea pig will make it to the end of the maze. 

Hopefully, you’re in college because you’re interested in what you’re learning, but that interest is eclipsed by stress or boredom. See if you can make the stress boring, and maybe it’ll cancel out just a little bit. Eventually, you’ll remember why you’re at college in the first place and your natural interest in the subject will take over.  

Photo courtesy of hbr.org.