“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow just as well.“
“But tomorrow I’m really getting started!“
Dealing with disagreeable duties, starting a new diet, finally going in for sports … Time and again we are postponing countless things without ever getting started. Postponing annoying or inconvenient duties has become an illness treated by psychotherapists using cognitive-behavioral interventions including modules to learn timely starting and planning.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the US-American author better known under his pseudonym Mark Twain, told us wonderful stories which became so very lively through his exact observation of social conduct. He however, bore another form of postponement in mind, since procrastination can also be beneficial.
Time Pressure and Loss of Control
Why are so many time management-workshops and seminars so very seldom of practical use? Even if we follow the advice of time management-experts by delegating less important tasks, by applying Occam ‘s razor, by reserving time periods in which we are not available for others – still, many of us feel as if they have less and less time. From an objective point of view we have more leisure time than ever before – however, we feel overworked. Where does this felt time pressure come from?
Neurobiologists examined the brains of test persons while they were set under stress. The scientists found that in stressful situations the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which is located directly behind the forehead and is (inter alia) responsible for action control, planning, and problem solving, loses its ability to discriminate between important and unimportant information. Therefore, we lose track and take wrong decisions. Quickly, there will be the feeling of losing control over situations and own actions.
Moreover, the same neuro-chemical processes responsible for paralyzing the prefrontal cortex stimulate the amygdala. This neuronal complex is located in the anterior part of the temporal lobe and plays an essential role in the emergence, recognition, and activation of physical reactions to anxiety. In other words, the amygdala is responsible, when we have our hearts in our mouths, if faced with a dangerous situation. In association with stress this means, we react more emotional; we develop a feeling of fear – and this will in turn lead to even more stress.
Suspending, Postponing, saying: “No“
Studies investigating workload show that employees on average are occupied with twelve tasks simultaneously. This leads to high pressure no one can stand permanently. The word “permanently” represents the problem and at the same time presents a possible solution: For short interruptions of work bring about a great difference. Scientific research conducted by information scientists and psychologists show, that people who break in on their work are able to carry out their tasks without any loss of quality and even faster than people who work continuously. Short postponements are therefore doing more good than harm.
Time cannot be multiplied. Thus, there is only a limited number of activities fitting in one single day. Sometimes the very simple solution for time problems is therefore the most challenging one for the most of us: We have to learn to say: “No”. For this as well our brains have to be able to distinguish between important and unimportant matters.
Unimportant things which we could do tomorrow or the day after anyway, we could then cancel completely and instead start with the important things which we have postponed for so long.
Links, helping to postpone:
Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422.
Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008, April). The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 107-110). ACM.