Two Harvard Professors Reveal One Reason Our Brains Love to Procrastinate

Two Harvard Professors Reveal One Reason Our Brains Love to Procrastinate
Two Harvard Professors Reveal One Reason Our Brains Love to Procrastinate

Two Harvard Professors Reveal One Reason Our Brains Love to Procrastinate

Table Of Content(toc)

1. Intro

When we say our brains love to procrastinate, we mean that they do. They do it so much better than we can. Our brains are good at doing things that are inherently difficult or boring. But they’re not good at figuring out how to get something done when there is no obvious benefit to doing it, or when the chances of success are low. When you have a pain in the ass you should avoid, you don’t want to just say “avoid it!” You want to learn about it and figure out how to fix it.

Let me take an example: your brain loves to avoid math. It does this because there is nothing intrinsically rewarding about math. There is no path for us to follow, there is no measure of success, and there’s no apparent value in knowing the answer. Yet somehow our brains have figured out how to get through time on their own without trying very hard at all (the secret is using automation).

The same logic applies here: “Why? Why do I procrastinate on this? Why not just avoid it? You don’t know anything about why people procrastinate!” So now I want to explain what I mean by understanding what people think they want, and then translating that into the language of the product or service they are using (and then experimenting with different approaches).

2. The study

For the first time, researchers have found that procrastination has a biological basis—that is, it is linked to our brain’s reward centers. The findings are the result of a study by two Harvard psychologists, Matthew Feinberg and Daniel Gilbert.

A simple explanation for this is that we all procrastinate in different ways. Some people are just naturally bad at making plans and others can’t resist the urge to do so. But when we think about it, there is one type of procrastination that has been relatively understudied: that of “mind wandering”—the act of thinking about an issue without doing anything about it.

The researchers focused on two types of mind wandering: “wandering toward rather than away from” (where the person is thinking about possibilities ahead) and “wandering away from rather than toward” (where they are thinking about possibilities behind).

Feinberg and Gilbert recruited sixty-nine college students to participate in their study, putting them into one of three conditions: a control group, where they received e-mails with no subject line or message; an experimental group, which received an e-mail with a call to action; and a control group, where they received no e-mail at all. When given information on how to prevent their own mistakes in the future—which included suggestions such as “Turn off your mobile phone while driving?”—the students were more likely to be able to plan better for the future. This effect was not observed when students were given information on how to prevent their own mistakes in real life (such as how to avoid being late for appointments).

Feinberg and Gilbert observed this effect repeatedly over several months using two different experiments. In one experiment involving thirty-seven participants in each condition, participants were given instructions on how to make better decisions in three different areas: financial planning; online safety; and wellness. The instructions focused on making positive changes in each area by focusing on avoiding mistakes before they happened. They also emphasized the importance of looking ahead by reminding participants what they should consider before they made any choice or decision in those areas. In other words, these instructions asked participants to look forward rather than backward (to what was going to happen tomorrow). This was designed so that participants could think about possible options ahead of time but could still engage with this message after receiving it during testing sessions: if they had already made up their minds before

3. Why do we procrastinate?

After doing a lot of research, and some experiments, it looks like there are two main reasons why we procrastinate. The first is to avoid the prospect of failure. The second is to avoid the prospect of success.

Both of these are true, but they’re different sides of the same coin: we’re avoiding the prospect of failure. And it’s not a small thing: we can’t take a step forward without taking a step back (or vice versa).

In other words, if you want to do something that you know you need to do, then you need to do it now. If you want to procrastinate, then it doesn’t matter if you do anything for ten minutes at a time — your brain will just see that as more time for procrastination and stop you from doing anything else until tomorrow (without even asking).

4. What causes this behaviour?

In this post, we’re going to look at two papers on procrastination and write an article on procrastination. The first is a very simple paper, which is titled “The Psychology of Procrastination: An Interdisciplinary Analysis” by David J. Robertson and colleagues. The second one is a more technical paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), entitled “Are There Cognitive and Neurobiological Differences Between Procrastinators and Non-procrastinators?” by James M. Olson and colleagues.

The common thread between the two studies is that both of them use a randomized experiment to study the relationship between cognitive ability, wanting, and performance on tasks that are either easy or hard. They also use an experimental design that allows them to control for as many other factors as possible, including how you learn what you need to learn in order to become good at a task (a task where you know what you need to learn) — which would not be possible if they had simply tested their subjects based on how good they think they are at learning new things.

In reviewing this meta-analysis for us, we were struck by some interesting findings:

There was no correlation between those who scored highly on verbal ability tests and those who scored highly on performance tests

Those who scored highly on verbal ability tests did better overall than those who did not score highly

Individuals with high scores on cognitive ability tests tended to perform better than individuals with low scores

Individuals with high scores on cognitive ability tests also performed better than individuals with low scores

The authors note that these results don’t rule out the possibility that intelligence itself varies across people; but instead suggest that it may be a combination of things: individual differences in cognitive abilities as well as other demographic factors such as amount of education or income (which may also impact performing well).

5. How to avoid procrastination

In 2006, two Harvard professors, Steven Pinker and Daniel Gilbert, published a book on procrastination, called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

It is not the easiest book to read. In fact, this is what one of the authors said about that:

“Nor is it a ‘light’ book. It has not been lightly written; it has been written with care and judgment. Despite its length – 460 pages – it is a dense, challenging text that demands that you take your time to digest… This book will encourage you to take fuller responsibility for your own life – to make choices that are right for you and your family… I think this book will hit home with some people; almost everyone will benefit from reading it… If you are at all interested in procrastinating less or avoiding procrastination altogether – if you want to be happier and more fulfilled in life – I strongly recommend reading this book… “

The Antidote was released in 2006 (which was then considered pretty early by many people in publishing), but didn’t really catch on until years later. The reason it took so long to catch on is because of what Pinker and Gilbert write about here: it’s not just people who procrastinate because they have bad ideas — they tend to procrastinate because their minds just don’t work efficiently enough to produce good work well before they know they should do so (hence people don’t really feel like doing the things they should do). Thus, it turns out that we have a natural proclivity towards procrastination — which is why we get into so much trouble (and why many books try to avoid writing about such things at all).

The reason Pinker and Gilbert tackled this problem first was because over the years we learn how best to improve our creativity (which also has an influence on our productivity) through lots of different kinds of learning experiences — from lectures from experts, books from experts, real-life experiences with experts. However, procrastination continues despite all those regular reminders about how great life can be if we just tried harder (i.e., advice from authors like DBT or various self-help books) or a general sense of urgency (i.e., advice from executives). And yet nothing changes… until now!

Pinker and Gilbert propose three hypotheses as explanations for why we proc

6. Conclusion

In the last post, we looked at why some people procrastinate. One of those reasons is that we are hard-wired to be lazy. New research suggests that this is not a bad thing: If you’re in the “lazy” category, it may not be because you’re lazy; rather, your laziness may be a strength.

The two professors who conducted the research (Daniel Kahneman and Alan Baddeley) were interested in answering some fundamental questions about how our brains work; how we solve problems, and how to use them to our advantage.

Consistent with previous research (such as Paul Rozin’s), they found that one of the things that makes us feel good about ourselves is our ability to perform complex tasks quickly and efficiently. When it comes to performing those tasks, though, we tend to procrastinate — even when doing it would actually be good for us in the long run:

We don’t have to do everything right away (and thus don’t feel like we have done enough)

We don’t have time pressure (it may take too long to finish what we started)

The results aren’t very satisfying (and thus less likely to motivate us)

This means that for many of us (the “lazy” category), procrastination may not be a crime against our own self-interest — it may actually represent a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: Our laziness serves as an excuse for inaction and a reason not to do anything productive at all. So when you look at procrastination as a form of laziness, understand that you are living well by procrastinating — but also understand that there is nothing wrong with being lazy!

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