The biggest problem that I have is procrastination. I procrastinate with almost every required action that carries the burden of any extent of difficulty. I procrastinate with the assignments I have for work, the daily exercise that I know I need to complete, and while I was still in Highschool, I procrastinated with my homework and studying to a point of near serious detriment to my grades. I know with absolute certainty that this seemingly-affliction is by no means unique to me, plenty of students struggle constantly with the prospect of completing whatever due-date latched task is required of them. The vast majority of my friends in Highschool were racked with the very same struggle to finished important work that I was. However, standing opposed to these people, and myself, on the spectrum of conscientiousness were a select few standout students that seemingly had no issue studying for hours at a time and tackling that tasks that they had to with seeming ease. I’m sure that everyone is familiar with this type. I once was told by a girl with whom I shared and AP Calculus class that upon the conclusion of the school day, she would initiate her regular, post-school, daily routine of walking directly home and studying until she felt she should sleep.
For most of my academic life, I simply viewed these types of individuals as some breed of machines who naturally possessed the ability to ignore distraction and overcome any urge to procrastinate. That was until I realized that their ability to do so was simply a by-product of the habitual repetition of the action or routine that they had set for themselves until their brain had learned to perform it with a fraction of the energy that it should take for the untrained brain, turning them into what is essentially a machine notably fuel-efficient with the expenditure of their own will power.
The impetus for this conclusion came with my own realization that If I was to succeed in any capacity in the university program I will begin starting in September, that being the Sauder School of Business, I had to learn how those seemingly inhuman students I encountered in high school came to be how they were. This lead me to an impression with the work of Joseph Everett of the Youtube channel, “What I’ve Learned” as well as the studies of Neurologist, Ann Grabiel.
In the 1990’s Dr. Grabiel discovered a way to have sensors capable of measuring brain activity implanted into the head of rats all for the purpose of seeing what was occurring under the hood so-to-speak while they performed certain actions. One of the most fruitful experiments conducted with this technology was the “T-Maze experiment” in which rats with the sensors implanted in their skulls were placed in a T-shaped maze at the end of the long extension locked in their placement by a partition that would create an audible click upon with release. At one of the ends of the shorted path was a piece of chocolate. As the partition was removed, the rat would eventually make its way to the end of the maze with the chocolate and eat it, all while the sensors picked up scans of its brain activity. The first few times the rat moved slowly and unsurely scratching at the wall and sniffing its surroundings. However, after many times running through the experiment, the rat would move quickly to the chocolate with little of the same regard for its surroundings.
Here are some images of the brain activity the rodents displayed throughout the duration of the experiment as a whole. On the left is an image of the brain activity on the first run through the experiment, on the right is an image from the 150th time.
The spikes in the first one occurred whenever the rat would scratch or sniff something. However, as is seen in the second image, after having repeated the “get chocolate” cycle many times, the mouse's brain seeming would fall asleep while it preformed the task and then would awaken upon the completion of its ritual. What Dr. Grabiel managed to demonstrate with this is that “A task-bracket of ‘chunking’ pattern of neuronal activity emerges when a habit is formed, wherein neurons activate when a habitual task is initiated, show little activity during the task, and reactivate when the task is completed.” Essentially what this means is that the brain takes a series of actions and groups them down into a single task so that it can execute it with significantly less conscious effort. The area of the brain responsible for this is called the Basal Ganglia.
When a baby is first learning to walk, each micro-action such as lifting a leg, placing it down, and transferring weight onto it is preform with careful yet cumbersome deliberation. The reason this is so is because the baby’s Basal Ganglia is still in the process of “chunking” that action to the point where the entirety of it can be performed almost subconsciously. This process is equally applicable to more complex actions such as a morning routine or sitting down and studying and unknown topic.
The other crucial piece of information to know is that for the brain to be put into autopilot mode so to speak, It needs a queue to kick the brain into that state for that specific task. For the rats in Dr. Grabiel’s experiment, the queue was the click sound of the partition moving away. For the extremely conscientious girl I mentioned earlier, the queue for her post-school routine could have very well been the sound of the school bell ringing or perhaps even her sitting down in her home desk.
During the school year, I noticed that whenever I thought of the work that I needed to complete for a big assignment or test and felt a tinge of anxiety form doing so, I would immediately open my phone and press the Instagram Icon. It eventually reached the point where I would be a few scrolls deep before I realized that I was even further from what I needed to be doing. In the case of my Instagram habit, it seems the queue was feeling anxious about the work that I had to complete.
Recently I decided to use what I learned to help me study some coding languages that I will most likely need next year as I’m taking a Combined Major in Business and Computer Science. I was meaning to do this all year but I always procrastinated and was never able to get it done. However, when I linked the action of an hour's worth of studying to the end of my morning exercise and another hour’s worth to the end of my lunch I noticed that the amount of will power necessary to complete it fell steeply and it even became habitual.
The main takeaway I wish those who read this to receive is that all the actions that seem to evade getting down are possible to complete, even with a fair amount of ease, if those seeking to tackle their procrastination are mindful of how actions can be transformed into automatic habits.