Procrastination – could a frog a day help?

For many of my fellow students, procrastination is, and has always been, a huge issue. You have about 500 pages to read for that one class you absolutely hate, you have 3 months to do it, “It’s fine! If I start tomorrow and do about 5-6 pages a day it’s easy!”, “Of course I can go to that party, exams start in 3 months, that’s plenty!”. But pretty soon, days turn into weeks and months, and you end up with 5 days and a mountain of work the size of the Dufourspitze (4634m – highest peak in Switzerland!). It is so relatable and universal because as it turns out, we’re wired for it!

Procrastination can often be confused with laziness, but they are two different things. Procrastination is the act of doing a lesser, more pleasant task instead of the more important but less interesting one. I, for example, will get a sudden urge to clean every time I should be studying, my windows have never been cleaner than during exam periods! Laziness however is not an active process, it suggests inactivity, unwillingness to act, apathy.

Research suggest that procrastination is caused by a battle between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The latter is the primitive and most dominant portion of the brain. It deals with key functions such as emotions, motivation, memories and reward. Timothy A. Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University explains that the limbic system will opt for the “immediate mood repair”, in other words, it will direct you to whatever task will make you instantly satisfied. The prefrontal cortex however is a newer and smaller part of the brain that is responsible for decision making, planning and problem solving. It is what separates us from animals. The limbic system is automated, meaning that it’s always leading us to do whatever will bring us instant satisfaction, whereas the prefrontal cortex needs to be “turned on”, you need to consciously engage in a task otherwise the limbic system takes over and you procrastinate[1]. Whenever you’re accomplishing a task you consider to be boring, your limbic system automatically reacts to that task as being undesirable. At the same time your prefrontal cortex realizes that that task needs to be done in order to avoid complications and accumulation of tasks later on. When these areas battle, we most likely face that internal struggle “Should I do it now and be done with it…” but also “Could I just go for that one drink with Lupita and deal with it tomorrow when I’m well rested… I work better under pressure anyway!”. Procrastination occurs when your limbic system wins. Research shows that people who scored lower on an organizational and planning scale also scored higher on the procrastination scale.

But what can we do then to combat this primal, instinctive need to procrastinate? “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”. Although the origin of this quote seems quite uncertain (for more information on that click here), the idea behind it is very interesting. A longer version states that if “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first”. The thought behind this quite graphic expression is that if you have a task that you are most likely to procrastinate on, a task that you dread from the start, it’s best to get it over with first thing in the morning. If there are several of them, start with the worst one. Launching into your major tasks and working steadily until it’s complete is the secret of most successful people. The frog may be different from day to day but eating the frog should be a lifelong habit[2].

Joseph Ferrari, an American psychologist, believes that “we all procrastinate but we aren’t all procrastinators”. His research unveiled that 20% of American men and women are chronic procrastinators. Non-procrastinators focus on the task at hand and are less concerned about “social esteem” which is how others like us[3].

Another study[4] tracked students for a semester and the results showed that even though those who procrastinated initially reported lower levels of stress by the end of the semester, those same people reported lower grades, higher levels of stress and high incidents of illness. Who do you want to be in December 2018? A nervous, flu-riddled, wreck trying to scale the Mount Kilimanjaro of reports and readings? Or will you be enjoying your 20s in a productive and fulfilling way?


Marija Todorovic