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The science behind procrastination and how you can beat it.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but when it comes to procrastination, freedom is your enemy.

Procrastination has been around since the start of modern civilization.

All images by Darius Foroux, used with permission.


Historical figures like Herodotus, Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and hundreds of others have talked about how procrastination is the enemy of results.

One of my favorite quotes about procrastination is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today."

The funny thing about procrastination is that we all know that it’s harmful.

Who actually likes to procrastinate? No one enjoys doing that. Me neither.

And yet, procrastination was the story of my life. When I was in college, this would happen every semester:

In the beginning of each semester, I was the coolest mofo on the planet. Relaxing, going out, enjoying myself. Big time.

I experienced no stress whatsoever. However, about a week before my exams, I would freak out. "Dude, why didn’t you begin earlier?" I would tell myself.

And what would follow is an ugly sight of me, with a bunch of Red Bull cans, locked up in my room, freaking out while I was studying.

Research shows exactly that: When you procrastinate, you might feel better in the short-term, but you will suffer in the long-term.

It doesn’t really matter why you procrastinate. Some love the pressure of deadlines. Some are afraid to fail so they put it off until the very last moment. But one thing that all procrastinators have in common is that procrastination has a price.

A highly cited study from the American Psychological Society journal, by Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister, discusses the cost of procrastination. They found that it is related to:

  • Depression
  • Irrational beliefs
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Stress

So when it comes down to the research, procrastination is not innocent behavior. Scientists believe it’s a sign of poor self-regulation — and they even compare procrastination to alcohol and drug abuse.

Why do we procrastinate anyway? Most people who procrastinate will tell you that it’s a habit that just sneaks into your system.

The years after I got out of college were again a struggle in terms of starting and finishing work. It’s not something you can shake easily. Every time I had a business idea or wanted to start something, it went like this:

Every time I had an idea or a goal, I would start, but along the way, things would go wrong. I went from start to total chaos.

Distractions, other ideas, other opportunities, failure, negative self-talk, etc., would get in the way.

And the results are always the same: I never get anything done.

To me, the key finding from that study I mentioned before is this:

"The present evidence suggests that procrastinators enjoy themselves rather than working at assigned tasks, until the rising pressure of imminent deadlines forces them to get to work. In this view, procrastination may derive from a lack of self-regulation and hence a dependency on externally imposed forces to motivate work."

Self-regulation, self-control, and willpower are all things that we overestimate. We think: "Yeah sure, I will write a novel in three weeks." In our minds, we’re all geniuses and mentally strong. But when the work comes, we cop out.

Sure, everybody fears to step outside of their comfort zone — that’s why we call them comfort zones. It takes courage to make a bold move. But it sure doesn’t take any courage to complete small tasks like paying bills, printing out something for your boss, doing taxes, etc.

The truth is, procrastination has nothing to do with the actual task either.

For me, completing tasks — any tasks — while procrastinating went like this:

There comes a moment, I call it "the slope of procrastination," when you give into one distraction and you give up being productive.

And it always starts with just one thing. You think: Let’s watch the news for a second.

Then you think: I might as well watch one episode of "Game of Thrones." Then, a Casey Neistat vlog. And then another YouTube video. Then, a little bit of Facebook. And so forth.

It ends with a bang: "This is the last time I’ll waste my time!" Yeah, right.

What we really need, according to all of this research, is a system for doing work.

A lot of people shy away from routines, systems and frameworks because they want to have "freedom."

But I’m sorry to disappoint you: When it comes to procrastinating, freedom is your enemy! If you want to get things done, you need rules.

What are some things that research proved to be effective?

  • Self-imposed deadlines
  • Accountability systems (commitment with friends or a coach)
  • Working/studying in intervals
  • Exercising 30 minutes a day
  • A healthy diet
  • Eliminating distractions
  • And most importantly: internal motivation

If you combine all of those things, you'll have a system.

The deadlines create urgency, accountability will create responsibility, working in intervals improves your focus, exercising will give you more energy, so does a healthy diet, and eliminating distractions will take away the temptations.

But there’s no system that can help you if you don’t have an inner drive. People overcomplicate that concept, but it’s simple: Why do you do what you do? If you don’t know. Make something up. That's your motivation.

If you know why you’re doing something, even the most annoying tasks might become bearable.

Those tasks will become a part of the bigger picture.

So, instead of diving into work, take a step back and think about why you do what you do. Then create a system that supports that. It’s not rocket science. Just science. And maybe it’ll help you become more productive!

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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