Watch Professor Barbara Oakley’s talk on learning given at a TEDxOaklandUniversity.
Procrastination occurs to everyone at least once in a lifetime.
You have a deadline coming, but you find yourself putting work off. You turn to reading Facebook, checking your email or text-messages instead. Before you know it, you only have a few hours left and you rushed out your work, usually under stress.
Procrastination can be more than just a bad habit. Research has found that up to 20% of people are chronic procrastinators. These people not only have their career affected, the constant stress that they put themselves in during last-minute rush of meeting deadlines, affect their health as well.
So many understand the harmful effects of procrastination, but why do we still procrastinate?
When we know that we have serious work to do, the brain recognises it as something unpleasant. This makes the brain to activate areas associate to pain and induce you to turn away from the important tasks at hand. The brain, however, is inclined to short-term rewards. In a lot of cases, this means that we end up doing unimportant tasks or small fun things that give momentary pleasures.
Even though we know that the future rewards for completing important tasks are bigger, the mental and emotional rewards for doing small menial tasks seem more pleasant to the brain, at the present point of time.
The endpoint, or product, of a task is usually what triggers the pain. There is likely a psychological reason to this. For perfectionists, the fear of failure maybe the underlying reason for procrastination. Some people, however, may be indecisive. They may delay making a decision to avoid possible responsibilities for the outcome.
While procrastination is pervasive, it is a bad habit that can be overcome by changing your mindset, your behaviors, allowing yourself a conducive environment and tricking your brain.
Firstly, put away negative feelings. Once the pain centers of the brain is activated, making you have the thought of “I’ll do it later”, you need to make some conscious effort of pushing these thoughts away. As mentioned previously, the product is what triggers the pain. Instead of thinking “I need to get X done by Y”, think “I am going to start on X regardless of finishing or not”. Focus on the building the process without thinking of the outcome. In most cases, once you get started on doing something, the momentum will be built and the neurodiscomfort will disappear after working.
If you find yourself getting distracted easily, such as reading text messages, reading emails, remove yourself from the distractions. For example, find yourself a quiet place or turn your electronic devices off. Place yourself in a distraction free environment to better focus on your task. You may also use the Pomodoro technique to help you focus intently on doing one thing at a time.
Your brain needs incentives to get work done. Therefore, reward yourself after completing a task. Considering that chocolates have been found to release neurotransmitters that reduce pain and increase happiness, perhaps you would like a Hershey’s or two.
Have you had a mental block, in which you couldn’t think of a solution to a problem when you’re thinking hard, but the answer seem to come on its own when you are doing something else instead?
Or do you find that random ideas come easily when you are daydreaming?
Those are when the diffuse mode of your brain being activated.
The brain has two generic modes of thinking: Focused mode and Diffuse mode.
The focused mode is activated when you are intensely concentrating on solving problems. For example, when solving mathematics or science questions. Solving these kinds of questions require logical and rational thinking. The train of thoughts are closely connected to enable analytical and sequential problem solving approaches. Brain activity is highly concentrated in the prefrontal cortex, known for decision-making and executive function.
The diffuse mode, on the other hand (or brain), occurs below our conscious level. It is activated when we are relaxed. While it is not associated with any particular part of the brain, the whole brain is involved during the diffused mode. This mode is important for us to understand things in perspective, as compared to details in the focused mode. It is also during this mode in which most new ideas and thoughts are generated.
While the brain is unable to activate focused and diffuse modes simultaneously, the brain switches between the two modes naturally when we are learning.
However, it can be easy to be too involved in one mode. We can be too focused in solving a certain problem, and end up having a mental block as we cannot see the big picture of the problem. Or, we can be too relaxed or daydreaming away (procrastination zombies at work!) and not focusing on the work.
Having a good balance between the two modes is key to better learning.
If you find yourself having trouble working on a solution, or that you have spent a significant amount of time studying, give yourself a good break. Let yourself do something completely unrelated to your current work or study, so that the brain’s diffuse mode can happen and help you consolidate your learning in the background.
If, however, you find yourself daydreaming too much or have trouble concentrating, use the Pomodoro Technique to help you work on small tasks one at a time.
In the modern society with the many technology around us, it is easy to get distracted. Many times when we are distracted, we end up doing non-important tasks that also utilise the focus mode. Eventually the brain is cluttered with too many information and it becomes increasingly difficult to work on the important tasks at hand.
When you find yourself overwhelmed with too many information, take a walk, have a cup of coffee, stop doing work and relax fully. Let your brain rest and settle back, and allow the diffuse mode to do its job.
Take this chance to also do some exercises, even though it is only a few minutes. A healthy body gives a healthy brain.
This mind map is also available in the following formats:Learning How To Learn Week 1 Mind Map PDF (163 downloads)