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Amaryllis Fox
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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The surprising psychological reasons you’re procrastinating — and how to fight it

Could procrastination actually be a form of self-protection?

There are many reasons why people procrastinate.


Among the most common excuses are poor time management, or being easily distracted, and while these explanations may be true in some circumstances, our tendency to put things off is often a more psychological matter. As Nic Voge, the senior associate director of Princeton University's McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, explains in his TEDxPrinceton talk, some people use procrastination as a form of self-protection. His logic (which is backed by research on self-worth theory) is this: If we perform poorly on a task, our procrastination is at fault, rather than our intellect or skill level.

Similarly, fear of success could also play a role in your procrastination. "You may be afraid that being successful will cause problems. You will have more and more expectations upon yourself. You may become the object of competition or envy," Jane Burka, Ph.D., a psychologist and co-author of Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now, tells Thrive.

Though procrastination often feels unavoidable — especially when we are contending with a fear of failure or success — it's completely manageable. And the tools to combat it are not as convoluted as you might expect. Understanding the root of your procrastination habit can help you set out on a more proactive path. If you find yourself postponing pressing tasks, ask yourself these three questions to better understand why you're procrastinating in the first place, and how to better manage the habit moving forward.

Question #1: What am I trying to avoid?

This is an important step to putting an end to your procrastination habit. Burka recommends asking yourself: "What difficulties would arise if I actually did my best and got this done on time? What would I have to face that I don't have to face now?" Your answers might show you that the challenges you'd face wouldn't be so difficult after all. Maybe you are avoiding feedback from your manager, or you're hesitant about beginning your next project. Knowing what is holding you back will allow you to devise a plan to cope in a healthier way, and finally get your work done.

Question #2: How do I waste my time?

What do you usually turn to when you're putting off a dreaded task? Maybe you log into Netflix, or take care of a much less-pressing item. Daryl Chen, the Ideas editor at TED, calls these your "'greatest hits' of wasting time," and we all have them. Becoming familiar with our own habits can help us overcome them. Try identifying your top three "greatest hits" and jot them down. If you catch yourself doing one of them, take a "mindful minute" to meditate and focus on your breath. Then, bring your focus back to the task that needs to get done.

Question #3: Why is this task meaningful?

Recognizing the larger meaning behind your work is another way to lower procrastination, and this skill is known as "motivational competence," Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, tells Thrive. While there is no "magic bullet" that will instantly spike your motivation to get something done, Pychyl says you will procrastinate less on tasks that are not only congruent with your goals, but also intrinsically motivating.

But what exactly can you do if that larger meaning isn't loud and clear? Upon completing a task, take a moment to recognize one distinct reason why your work is important. Did your report help your company reach a business objective? Did your email help a client solve a problem? Make a point of celebrating your own achievements. Rejoicing in the small wins can go a long way in boosting your morale, and beating procrastination.

Reprinted with permission of Thrive Global. Read the original article.


Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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