The concept of time

Time can impact the ability to get things done in varied and often curious ways. First of all, people are relatively poor at estimating how long a particular task is going to take them to complete. According to one study, recalling how long similar past tasks took can help (Buehler, Griffin & Ross, 1994), so a student might assume that a two thousand-word essay might take x amount of hours because that's how long the last two thousand-word essay took. Yet anyone who has allocated a morning for their latest DIY project or has allotted a couple of hours to prepare food for guests, will probably be aware that these tasks more often than not take more time than expected. What we do is think about our future progress and overlook any future obstacles, and this is the same where academic tasks are concerned.

This temporal misjudgement also relates to perceptions of self-continuity, the feeling that the person we were in the past is the person we are in the present and the person we will still be in the future. If we struggled to complete a task in the past, we then need to accept that we need to allocate more time in the present because the person we are hasn't changed enough to assume that we can complete the task any faster. At times (and with certain psychological illnesses) the past us and the present us become detached, a phenomenon known as derailment.

A further complication can arise due to the nature in which we chunk time into days and weeks. Psychologically, next week is further away than tomorrow yet, curiously, even if tomorrow is the start of the week, we still perceive it as next week and, hence, further away than if tomorrow was, say, Wednesday. This has obvious implications for the setting of deadlines.

Procrastination and decision making

Procrastination is also about the ability to make decisions at the appropriate time. However, we often find ourselves doing something that will benefit our wellbeing in the short term at the expense of those activities that may reap bigger rewards later - we choose immediate over delayed gratification. People also make decisions based on the utility of the perceived outcome - what they expect to get out of it. However, due to the tendency for short-term thinking, what we choose to do is more often than not based on immediate rewards; it's snacking because we just can't wait 20 minutes for dinner (we, therefore, can't separate gratification from self-control). Not surprisingly, most procrastinators are highly impulsive, valuing what can be obtained today more highly than what they can have tomorrow, even if tomorrow's rewards are higher.

This means that instant gratification will override any rational decisionmaking because our long-term goals don't have the motivational force of our short-term ones. This is one of the reasons why we break our long-term goals down into manageable short-term chunks. People are therefore considering two important factors when they decide to complete or delay a task:

  • • How high are the costs of doing the activity now (e.g. missing out on going shopping with friends)?
  • • What are the immediate benefits of doing the task (e.g. freeing up time to go shopping with friends)?

Chances are there are few immediate benefits to completing the essay that needs to be in at the end of the week and many immediate benefits of doing something else. However, there may well be a benefit in doing it immediately if doing so allows us to engage in a more pleasurable activity later. This future-thinking can help us overcome procrastination because it encourages us to mentally consider future scenarios.

Why, then, do some students persist when others don't even begin or give up having barely made an effort? In order to answer this question we also need to ask the same question of ourselves. Think about why you might put off a task or give up quickly once you've decided to begin. Keep a mental note of them (or write them down). My own list looks something like this:

  • • Fear of failure
  • • Importance of the task
  • • Distractions and lack of self-control
  • • Perceived difficulty (too challenging, not challenging enough)
  • • Something 'better' to do and immediate gratification
  • • Lack of time.

Some of these relate to factors already discussed, such as planning and time management, but with all of them there is an element of putting off by finding something else to do - it's amazing how enticing cleaning the bathroom can seem when you've got that deadline looming. But finding something else to do might also be a way of obtaining instant gratification by doing something that can increase wellbeing in the short-term. If the task we should be doing is boring, doing it will most likely instantly reduce our feelings of wellbeing (even though this will rise when we complete the task).

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