Procrastination, and the Tetris effect

OR How I learned to stop worrying and finish my gosh darn homework.


You all are very lucky to be here today as I am about to reveal to you guys a secret about me that I have been keeping to myself for as long as I can remember. I have a condition. Now I’m not exactly sure what the scientific name is or if it even technically exists but every once in a while I take an involuntary break from running things on the SS. Derek and the other shift worker takes over. I call him Lazy Carl. Now, Lazy Carl is a great guy but a terrible employee. I’ll say something like “I really ought to work on that very important TED talk.”  To which Lazy Carl counters “Yeah, but Princess Zelda is not going to save herself.”  Or; “I really need to go to FHE this week. It’s been way too long.” To which he replies, “Yeah, but The Bachelor is on tonight and Ben says he feels conflicted about his date with Caila and!” I’ll avoid any spoilers if anyone out there is behind and trying to catch up.

Now if any of you have spent any time around me at all you would know that these are very real and valid concerns for me and Lazy Carl, and more often than I care to admit, he has won out on these hard fought battles. Now, I’m not saying that Lazy Carl is a bad guy, but he is a crutch. He’s like junk food for the soul. Emotional Cheetos. Might be tasty at the moment but ultimately ends up being empty calories. Fine every once in a while, but can prove to be deadly in the long run. I’m afraid that if you’re anything like me you tend to fall in to a pattern of this kind of behavior. Spending time and energy on less important, if not meaningless tasks, sometimes in order to avoid doing what you really need to. It seems like no matter how many times you clear some space, things just keep piling on. “But Derek!” you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What does any of this have to do with me or with your meticulously researched and expertly delivered speech?” To which I would reply, “Stick with me gang, this will all come together in the end.”

In a paper titled “Procrastination: Negative self-evaluation, stress, depression and anxiety,” Dr. Gordon L. Flett, a mental health research professor at York University states that “procrastination can be the catalyst to many negative feelings and emotions including, but not limited to increased stress, depression, anxiety and the inability to get even the smallest tasks finished.”

“But Derek,” you are probably thinking, I don’t really have a problem with procrastination or prioritizing my time.” And to that I would have to say, CONGRATULATIONS! According to Psychology Today you are one of the lucky few. Between 85 to 95 percent of surveyed college students say that they have struggled with procrastination and mismanaged time and up to 25 percent have dealt with debilitating procrastination, often becoming deeply depressed and even sometimes failing out of school. For the rest of us that struggle with procrastination it can seem like a battle that you just can’t win.  It almost seems to be wired in to our very way of thinking. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be.

Famed Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has spent his life researching something called brain plasticity and he has come across some very good news. In a TED talk detailing his research he said “The brain is built to change. It needs to change. It thrives on the ability to do things tomorrow that it couldn’t do today.” That is some great news right there. It shows that we are able to adapt and change as needed. It means that if we struggle with procrastination now, we aren’t doomed to be that way forever.

How many of you are familiar with the game Tetris? For the one or two of you that haven’t heard of it, it is a simple puzzle game in which shapes fall from the ceiling, as they often do in real life, and you are tasked with making them all fit as neatly as possible on the floor below. If you can successfully create an unbroken chain the whole line will disappear. One little task done. You don’t want the blocks to build up high enough to touch the top or it is game over. Now, there is a phenomenon in the psychological world known as the Tetris Effect. In a study conducted at the Harvard technology and computer sciences department, researchers found that after extended sessions of playing Tetris, the subjects would retain something called a cognitive after-image.

The easiest way to describe this is to compare it to when someone takes a picture of you and the flash is so bright that you can see it still seconds after it’s come and gone. The image is temporarily burned on to your retinas. Now, this cognitive after-image would last longer than just a few seconds and subjects would find themselves subconsciously trying to arrange shapes in real life in order to clear a line. Things like bricks in a wall or cans on a supermarket shelf. People’s brains were looking anywhere and everywhere to try and find patterns. To try and make order out of the general daily chaos around them. Their brains were looking to put in to action the skills they had been practicing for hours earlier. I believe that the Tetris effect might actually be the key to kicking that nasty procrastination habit.

In order to make the Tetris Effect work for helping to curb procrastination we need to first put in some ground work. Before it can be a habit we first need to make a concentrated effort. Let’s say you struggle with getting your homework done before you do other, more enjoyable things. You know that you have to get the homework done or your grade will suffer.

The secret to not procrastinating is to change the way you think about things that you have to do. That is when the Tetris effect really comes in to play. According to Dr. Shawn Achor, the man that first came up with the concept, the Tetris effect is to be used emotionally rather than just clinically. He said “When our brains get stuck in a pattern that focuses on stress, negativity, and failure, we set ourselves up to fail. This principle teaches us how to retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility, so we can see—and seize—opportunity wherever we look.”

It really is that simple. By simply learning to change how we associate things like chores and work in our brains we can curb our tendencies to indulge in procrastination.

However, we need to be constantly on the lookout for the many ways that procrastination can try and sneak in our lives and justify itself. Here are just a few examples of how procrastination can try and slip in under the radar. Some example of which are:


1) All or nothing thinking:

The problem: People fall in to the trap of thinking that if they can’t accomplish everything right now then it is impossible or isn’t worth doing.

The solution: Pace yourself.

2) Perfectionism:

The problem: Stress over whether or not the task at hand will come out perfect leads to inaction.

The solution: Focus on finishing being the end goal rather than perfection.

3) The Pleasure Principle:

The problem: Simply put, we like to have fun and do things that make us feel good. We put off things that we don’t want to do because they aren’t fun.

The Solution: Put incentive in finishing your tasks early. The faster you finish what you need to, the more quickly you will be able to

4) It is just my personality

The problem: Because individuals have a history of procrastinating they often believe that that is simply how they are.

The solution: Willpower is like a muscle. It takes time and effort to beat procrastination.


By training ourselves to look for patterns and change how we react to things we need to do we will be able to reduce the amount of stress in our lives while increasing the amount of time we have to do the things that we actually want to do. Sounds like a win-win, right? Now, if you will excuse me, Lazy Carl and I have some Bachelor to catch up on.


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