Article by Carlos Po
Photo by Jiyoung Kim
“This isn’t a project you can finish the night before,” says your teacher. “You need to be working on this throughout the school year.” You get her message loud and clear. You can see it already. Every day, you’ll get home, finish the day’s work, then make a bit of progress on the project. Even working for just an hour daily should add up over time, and before you know it, the project will be completed. This should be a breeze.
So why then do you still end up doing specifically what the teacher advised against and leave it to the last minute? We’ve all been there. We’ve procrastinated – a phenomenon any high school student will be familiar with. But why is our delusion so persistent? Why do we still tell ourselves we’ll finish our homework during lunch tomorrow while falling asleep?
This process of lying to ourselves is known as dynamic inconsistency and means giving greater precedence to what one wants in the present over what one needs in the future. For example, many smokers who wish to quit will tell themselves they will quit the next day. When the next day arrives, the cycle of lies only repeats, and the smoker is stuck in an infinite loop of reassuring themselves. Another example, possibly closer to home, is when you put off homework for later. What you are really doing is passing the work to yourself in the future. Of course, while you might curse yourself in the future when you speed through months of work in hours, for the time being you can relax and reload Reddit again.
Even knowing the causes behind procrastination, it can be difficult to avoid. Dynamic inconsistency can be traced to a quirk in human psychology that places excess value on rewards in the present over rewards in the future. In the distant past of the human race, back when lifespans were much shorter, the human brain chose to take advantage of short term opportunities rather than risk waiting for a reward they might not have lived to see.
Unfortunately, this tendency has followed the human race into the 21st century, where the dangers of being mauled by a wild animal are greatly minimized. Instead, this vital brain function that kept us alive in the past now has us choosing the pizza slice over the salad every time.
So, knowing this, how can we combat procrastination in our lives? While it won’t get rid of it entirely, simply acknowledging that what you want right now may not be what you want in the future is a good start. When you find yourself about to put some work off, try to put yourself in the shoes of your future self. If you know you don’t enjoy being forced to finish writing an essay on the way to school or in the 15 minutes of break, try to remember that before you let yourself procrastinate. While you’ll never be completely free from procrastination, keeping this in mind can help overthrow procrastination as the ruler of your life.