Updated: Aug 7, 2021
As children, we are often told to organise our room. The main reason behind it (besides making the house look nice) is so that it takes less time to locate where things are. If your homework is under a pile of clothes, in a box that’s also under an unused desk, it’s going to take a while to find it. Your brain — although it looks nothing like a bedroom — has a similar system of keeping things organised: the schema.
The Schema Theory, developed by famous psychologists like F.C. Bartlett and J. Piaget (1932), states that concepts (like our knowledge) are categorised into clusters as well as being connected to each other. This grouping makes retrieval of this information more efficient. Let’s try bringing this abstract notion to real life. If I asked you to think of the word ‘car’, other images or words may also come to your mind such as wheels, road, engine, etc. If I were to say ‘racecar’ instead, you might get a rather different set of images or words.
Activating your schema in learning can be a powerful tool. But how do I do that, I hear you ask? When you’re learning with schema in mind, you are using top-down processing (Anderson et al., 1976). This means that pre-existing knowledge (schema) will be activated, giving you the benefit of context. Another factor that can help you relate new information to an existing schema is to find similarities or distinctions between the new and old pieces of information so that they can be linked together. Just like your synapses, the more connections you make, the stronger your organisation of knowledge becomes.
Oh, what you would give to get that one-day extension from your teacher to finish off a piece of work that you’ve put off doing for the past week! Did I hit too close to home? If this is a situation you find yourself in for the majority of your school life, well, it’s not surprising. We procrastinate like it’s our second nature. But why does it seem impossible to avoid it?
Your brain has a region called the ‘limbic system’. Many researchers believe that it is evolutionarily older than other parts of the brain. It refers to the collection of structures involved in processing emotion and memory, such as the hippocampus, amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic system plays a significant role in controlling the body’s response to stress, which is the main reason for bringing this up (Sapolsky, 2003)
What you may consider is that procrastination is not a problem of will power or time management. It’s actually a matter of how well you can regulate your emotions. Keeping that in mind, the definition of procrastination can be written as “the primacy of short-term mood repair…over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions” (Sirois & Pychyl, 2013). There may be something inherently displeasing about the task, like cleaning a grimy kitchen sink. Yet, it can also be feelings that come from deep inside you, such as low self-esteem, insecurity, or self-doubt.
It also doesn’t help that when you procrastinate, you feel rewarded. That momentary relief from the task gives you instant gratification, which is what makes this cycle so hard to break. As Bandura explains in his study of Social Learning Theory, positive reinforcements will most likely lead to repetition of the behaviour (Bandura, 1971).
A method that can be very useful in finding the roots of your negative emotions is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (no, you don’t have to lie down and talk to a therapist). It helps you to identify, challenge, and replace negative emotions that may arise due to cognitive distortions. It’s just like a metacognitive strategy in the sense that you’re becoming more self-aware.
It’s crucial to catch yourself in your first moments of procrastination — when you first get that sense of ‘I don’t want to do that’, just keep that thought in your head. Then you take a moment to ask yourself why you might want to avoid doing the task. You can be honest with yourself. Don’t be ashamed to dig deep. The CBT method is a very general psychotherapeutic method, so let’s see if we can make it more specific to overcoming the urge to procrastinate.
For the sake of this example, let’s say that you’re feeling like you won’t be able to produce something of good quality. This can be a result of ‘Fortune Telling’, a distortion that makes you come to conclusions based on little to no evidence. There is no reason for you to think that this particular piece will turn out to be a bad one unless you try. I personally have fallen into this trap numerous times. It’s okay to have these cognitive distortions. You just have to challenge them to overcome it. A way to solve this is to think back to times when you’ve submitted a work and you were praised for the quality of it. You have evidence that your work has been good. There is no reason to believe that it won’t be good this time. This realisation will have resolved the negative emotion and you may feel like doing the work.
So there you have it: ways to organise knowledge and information so that it becomes easier for retrieval in the future, and the real reason behind procrastination and how to overcome it. I hope this lesson gives you a better idea on how to approach these aspects of learning.
Anderson, R. C., Reynolds, R. E., Schallert, D. L., & Goetz, E. T. (1977). Frameworks for Comprehending Discourse. American Educational Research Journal, 14(4), 367–381. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312014004367
Bandura, A. (1971). Social Learning Theory. General Learning Corporation. http://www.asecib.ase.ro/mps/Bandura_SocialLearningTheory.pdf
Sapolsky, R. (2003). Stress and Plasticity in the Limbic System*. Neurochemical Research, 28(11), 1735–1742. https://dept.wofford.edu/Neuroscience/NeuroSeminar/pdfSpring2008/Sapolsky-2003.pdf
Sirois, F., & Pychyl, T. (2013). Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(2), 115–127. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12011
*To learn more about cognitive distortions, visit this page: https://positivepsychology.com/cognitive-distortions/