The science behind procrastination

Oct 08, 2019

7 mins

The science behind procrastination
Marianne Shehadeh

Créatrice de contenus @ Point Virgule

Are you one of those people who leaves unpaid bills in a pile on the kitchen table as the due date approaches? Do you adamantly refuse to acknowledge the to-do list that’s been staring at you from the corner of your desk for months? Maybe you’ve also been putting off that annual visit to the dentist—for five years? If this sounds familiar, the diagnosis is clear: you are a procrastinator. In fact, you might be procrastinating this very minute by reading this article.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Most of us suffer from serious procrastination at some point in our lives. It’s the tireless force encouraging us to put off completing a task, and is characterized by the common refrain: “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Is it caused by simple laziness? Or, moreover, by a crippling lack of organization?

Actually, it’s neither—at least, not always. Whether the reasons are psychological, neurological, or environmental, there is some pretty hard science behind the art of procrastination. And we’re here to tell you all about it.

Humans are programmed to procrastinate

According to Julien Vion, a French neuropsychologist, “Even when you are a rigorous person, and you think it’s not in your nature to procrastinate, you might find yourself procrastinating unconsciously.”
Why? Because the human species was more or less “programmed” to procrastinate the moment we started walking upright.Since the dawn of Homo sapiens, the human brain has been hooked to the pleasure circuit,” Vion explains. “It’s a super-powerful system that pushes us to choose instant gratification over laborious tasks, even though the latter may bring us greater pleasure when completed.”

“The pleasure circuit…pushes us to choose instant gratification over laborious tasks.” Julien Vion

However, some of us are better equipped to withstand this temptation than others. We should also distinguish between intermittent and chronic procrastination because the latter describes a regular pattern of behavior that is often damaging to ourselves and those around us. Chronic procrastination affects about one in five of the adult population and an estimated 80% to 95% of university students.

Procrastination: an inability to manage emotions

To understand the mechanisms that drive us to such behavior, let’s take a look at the scientific definition of procrastination. Timothy Pychyl is a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada who specializes in this subject. He defines procrastination as “the voluntary delay of an intended action, despite the knowledge that this delay may harm the individual in terms of task performance or even just how the individual feels about the task or him/herself”. The paradox here is that procrastinators deliberately choose to postpone a task they have decided to carry out, even though they know they will end up facing unfortunate consequences by doing so.

It’s not a disease

Procrastination is not a disease, but rather a behavior that stems from an inability to cope with our emotions. Experts talk about the “failure of self-regulation”. In fact, procrastination stems from an inability to manage the emotions of having to choose between a demanding task with potentially small rewards and a less demanding task with a greater immediate reward. “Procrastinators know what they need to do but are unable to move forward,” explains Professor Pychyl. “They are caught in the intention-action gap.”

Vion adds, “The intention and desire to act are there, but there is not enough self-control to trigger the action.” Also, contrary to popular belief, procrastination is not about being lazy, nor being poorly organized. Some procrastinators are highly active, as long as the immediate occupation is more enjoyable than the aversive task to be accomplished.

“Procrastinators are caught in the intention-action gap.” Timothy Pychyl

The psychological reasons behind our lack of action

The ability to control our emotions—or lack thereof— directly influences how likely we are to procrastinate. Some people are more affected by procrastination because their psychological make-up quite simply promotes such behavior. For example, those who are affected by depression or bipolar disorder are more likely to procrastinate. Looking more closely at these mental health issues, and the traits associated with them, might well be a good place to start looking for the causes of procrastination.

Psychological causes frequently include fear of failure, low self-esteem, perfectionism, and an adverse reaction to frustration or boredom. All of these emotions can stand in the way of action. As the French philosopher Charles Pépin says, “Taking action makes you confident.” When it comes to perfectionists, he explains, “The relationship between procrastination and perfectionism is an uneasy one. We lie to ourselves, convincing ourselves we’ll get to it when we’re good and ready. But, basically, we’re never perfectly ready. Self-confidence, courage, and freedom is the ability to go for something even when we don’t feel ready.” According to the philosopher, we must “move away from a logic of perfectionism towards a logic of continual improvement”.

“Move away from a logic of perfectionism towards a logic of continual improvement.” Charles Pépin

The amygdala: the heart of our emotional responses

Once again, it comes down to the human brain. In each of our two temporal lobes there is a small, almond-shaped cluster of nuclei called the amygdala, which plays a major role in how we process emotions and make decisions. A study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2018 revealed that there might be a link between procrastination and amygdala size. From the 264 subjects examined, it appeared that procrastinators had larger amygdalas than non-procrastinators because they might be more anxious about the negative emotions caused by the adverse consequences of an action and thus, tend to put things off. Moreover, this same study, carried out by researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany, suggested that in procrastinators, there is a lower functional connection between the amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dorsal ACC). The dorsal ACC uses the information gathered by the amygdala to regulate action control and to choose which actions are to be carried out.

Procrastination is also age-related

Vion notes the following particularity: “There are more procrastinators among young people because, before the age of 25, the brain is not fully formed, especially the prefrontal lobe, which evaluates and sets objectives. The brain does not have all its power to face off against the circuits of pleasure and emotions.”

While one might imagine that this bad habit of putting everything off until tomorrow would go away with age, this is not true for regular procrastinators. “On the contrary”, says Vion. The more we get used to procrastinating, the more difficult it is to give it up. He explains this through the cognitive biases that accompany procrastination—that is, distortions of reality—which allow us to protect ourselves by hiding behind fake excuses. This is what drives us, for example, to think: “I’ll finish this file at the last minute, I work better under pressure;” “I have plenty of time to tidy up later;” or, “It isn’t the right time for me to get started on this task.”

Genetics: a factor, not a cause

According to Vion, genetics can play a role in procrastination, but they are not the main cause. “When the brain is developing, there are certain weaknesses that might encourage procrastinating behavior, but they do not trigger it,” he says.

It’s more to do with forming habits than hereditary factors. He explains: “Just because you have procrastinating parents doesn’t mean you’re going to be so genetically predisposed, but if your parents pass on such habits through the way they raise you, then the potential is there.”

Primary reasons: environmental

If genetics influence our tendency to procrastinate, for Vion it is above all our environment that makes us procrastinators. What we heard growing up: “you’ll never succeed,” “we have lots of time, the essay is due next week,” or ”come on, let’s go out first” can remain embedded in our brains. Such thoughts and cognitive biases are gradually transformed into beliefs which over time make it harder to turn over a new leaf.

Procrastination: a modern malaise

Whether it’s the internet, social media, video games, or the realities of consumer society, our era offers as many distractions as good reasons to procrastinate. Dr Piers Steel is a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary and the author of The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. He says, “In the past 40 years there’s been a 300% to 400% growth in chronic procrastination.”

His observations are in line with experts Vion and psychotherapist Bruno Koeltz, who also believe that modern society increases our inclination to procrastinate. “After the Second World War, it was difficult to access distractions, so our fun circuit had to face numerous obstacles to satisfaction,” says Vion. “Today, our access to a variety of pleasures is much simpler. So, we don’t need to work as hard to get them.” In other words, it’s easier to procrastinate nowadays because there is an increased number of instantaneous gratifications we can access at any time.

Procrastination is not inevitable

While we are programmed towards procrastination, we are also able to resist the temptation, more or less. The conflict is played out partly in our brains, with a significant amount coming from personal experience as well. On both fronts, action can be taken to overcome chronic procrastination.

Here are some tips to get you started (pun intended):

  • Prioritize your tasks, listing them one by one on a piece of paper, and organizing them in order of importance (or urgency). Then set yourself one or two objectives each day.
  • Break down the most challenging task—one which seems like a huge mountain to be climbed—into smaller tasks that you can get done faster and more easily. If you’re being deterred by a particular project, for example, try splitting it up and approaching it in several stages. The aim here is to multiply the feeling of satisfaction you will get in return.
  • Set up a ritual to get in the right frame of mind before taking action, such as doing a minute of breathing exercises, making yourself a warm, soothing drink, or tidying your desk.
  • Write a list of positive emotions you’ll feel as a result of taking action: “I’ll feel liberated;” “I will have a clear conscience;” or “I’ll save time for something fun.”

Don’t forget that you can also ask for support, whether it’s from a therapist, who can help you deal with your emotions, or a career or life coach. In the meantime, our final tip is to stop feeling guilty and watch this humorous TED talk by Tim Urban, inveterate procrastinator and author of the blog Wait But Why.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo by WTTJ

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