Is It Procrastination, Distraction, or Addiction?

Dr Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of The Lighthouse Arabia

Over the years, I have noticed that an increasing number of people are reporting that they are struggling with procrastination. Delaying tasks and not doing what we planned to do  not only impacts our unbudging to-do list, but also our self-esteem, and self-worth. We stop trusting ourselves and lose faith in our ability to show up for ourselves.  

I believe what most people are calling procrastination is actually a problem with distraction or, even worse, an addiction to dopamine. We live in a new age, with weapons of mass distraction all around us in the form of dopamine-releasing apps literally at our fingertips. 

What does dopamine have to do with it?

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure—you know the feel good relaxed feeling you feel when you buy something new, or eat chocolate cake, or check your Instagram—that’s dopamine and it has been found to be a major component in addictions, but also in procrastination, motivation, and impulsivity. And because we live in a world that is infused with dopamine-inducing activities, media messages of ‘do what makes you happy,’ and with hedonistic messages about buying the latest gadget or newest car, we are becoming worse at tolerating frustration, staying the course when we feel disengaged or bored. 

When we work at our desks or try to study for that exam and the slightest amount of boredom creeps in, our brain starts to crave the dopamine release. Think back to the last conversation you had with your child or with a colleague – in the middle of their conversation, did you look over at your phone? Did you wonder who posted something on Instagram? That was your brain craving dopamine. 

Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook revealed his guilt publicly about doing his part in creating platforms that have us all hooked on dopamine, “I feel a tremendous amount of guilt… The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”  The reality is that platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by other addictive activities to increase “engagement” aka addiction. And real life, reading novels, doing your work projects, engaging in long conversations- none of these give you that constant stream of dopamine; they all require you to withstand bouts of boredom and tolerate frustration. 

Is it procrastination, distraction, or dopamine?

Take a look at your coming week’s schedule and make a commitment to yourself to complete some challenging tasks, and do consider your time and energy when you time-box them into your schedule. For example: I will work on this project at 2pm-4pm  on Monday. I will call my client on Tuesday at 3pm. Make the tasks consistent with your personal and professional goals. 

Then evaluate at the end of each day whether you completed those assigned tasks—and if not, ask yourself the following questions: 

What did I feel when I was supposed to start on the assigned task? (i.e. anxious? Tired? Bored? Unmotivated?)

What did I do instead of starting (i.e. sleep, watch Netflix, call a friend, scroll through social media, work on a different project?)

How long did I go off track for? 

Knowing the answer to these questions will help you understand what could be keeping you from achieving your goals. If it is indeed dopamine that you were seeking, then consider limiting your time on social media apps and streaming YouTube or Netflix. You can use it as a reward for finishing your tasks, but make sure you put a time limit to when you will get off your device. If you are procrastinating, then it might be worth your while to understand why you keep postponing starting or completing the task. Chances are not knowing how to manage your time and/or your emotions has a lot to do with it. 

We are all too quick to call ourselves procrastinators because we have not really considered the whole realm of possibilities of what could be keeping us from achieving our goals. However, until we figure out the real problem underlying our lack of discipline we will never be able to truly tackle the issue in a significant way. Take the time to understand your social media habits, as well as your triggers when you get distracted or procrastinate.