The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Pro­cras­ti­na­tion is a skill, an art, a slight-of-hand tech­nique. I’m pro­cras­ti­nat­ing right now, but you’d nev­er know it. How many tabs do I have open in my mul­ti­ple brows­er win­dows? Pick a num­ber, any num­ber. How many tasks have I put off today? How many dreams have I deferred? I’ll nev­er tell. The unskilled pro­cras­ti­na­tors stick out, they’re easy to spot. They talk a lot about what they’re not doing. They run around in cir­cles of bewil­der­ment like the trou­bled hero of Dr. Seuss’s Hunch­es in Bunch­es. The skilled prac­ti­tion­er makes it look easy.

But no mat­ter how much Face­book time you get in before lunch and still man­age to ace those per­for­mance reviews, you’re real­ly only cheat­ing your­self, am I right? You want­ed to fin­ish that novel/symphony/improv class/physics the­o­rem. But some­thing stopped you. Some­thing in your brain per­haps. That’s where these things usu­al­ly hap­pen. When Stu­art Lang­field asked a neu­ro­sci­en­tist about the neu­ro­science of pro­cras­ti­na­tion, he got the fol­low­ing answer: “Peo­ple think that you can turn on an MRI and see where something’s hap­pen­ing in the brain, but the truth is that’s not so. This stuff is vast­ly more com­pli­cat­ed, so we have the­o­ries.”

There are the­o­ries aplen­ty that tell us, says Lang­field, “what’s prob­a­bly hap­pen­ing” in the brain. Lang­field explains his own: the prim­i­tive, plea­sure-seek­ing, pain-avoid­ing lim­bic sys­tem acts too quick­ly for our more delib­er­a­tive, ratio­nal pre­frontal cor­tex to catch up, ren­der­ing us stu­pe­fied by dis­trac­tions. Piers Steel, Dis­tin­guished Research Chair at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­gary and a pro­cras­ti­na­tion expert, shares this view. You can see him explain it in the short video below. The evo­lu­tion­ary “design flaw,” says Lang­field, might make the sit­u­a­tion seem hope­less, were it not for “neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty,” a fan­cy buzz­word that means we have the abil­i­ty to change our brains.

Langfield’s pur­pose in his short video is not only to under­stand the biol­o­gy of pro­cras­ti­na­tion, but to over­come it. He asks psy­chol­o­gist Tim Pychyl, whose answers we see and hear as an incom­pre­hen­si­ble jum­ble of ideas. But then Pychyl reduces the com­pli­cat­ed the­o­ries to a sim­ple solu­tion. You guessed it, mind­ful­ness meditation—to “down­reg­u­late the lim­bic sys­tem.” Real­ly, that’s it? Just med­i­tate? It is a proven way to reduce anx­i­ety and improve con­cen­tra­tion.

But Pychyl and his research team at Car­leton Uni­ver­si­ty have a few more very prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions, based on exper­i­men­tal data gath­ered by Steel and oth­ers. The Wall Street Jour­nal offers this con­densed list of tips:

Break a long-term project down into spe­cif­ic sub-goals. State the exact start time and how long (not just “tomor­row”) you plan to work on the task.

Just get start­ed. It isn’t nec­es­sary to write a long list of tasks, or each inter­me­di­ate step.

Remind your­self that fin­ish­ing the task now helps you in the future. Putting off the task won’t make it more enjoy­able.

Imple­ment “micro­costs,” or mini-delays, that require you to make a small effort to pro­cras­ti­nate, such as hav­ing to log on to a sep­a­rate com­put­er account for games.

Reward your­self not only for com­plet­ing the entire project but also the sub-goals.

A Stock­holm Uni­ver­si­ty study test­ed these strate­gies, assign­ing a group of 150 self-report­ed “high pro­cras­ti­na­tors” sev­er­al of the self-help instruc­tions over 10 weeks, and employ­ing a reward sys­tem and vary­ing lev­els of guid­ance. “The results,” WSJ reports, “showed that after inter­ven­tion with both guid­ed and unguid­ed self-help, peo­ple improved their pro­cras­ti­na­tion, though the guid­ed ther­a­py seemed to show greater ben­e­fit.”

Oth­er times, adding self-help tasks to get us to the tasks we’re putting off doesn’t work so well. We can all take com­fort in the fact that pro­cras­ti­na­tion has a long his­to­ry, dat­ing back to ancient Egypt, Rome, and 18th cen­tu­ry Eng­land. The wis­dom of the ages could not defeat it, or as Samuel John­son wrote, “even they who most steadi­ly with­stand it find it, if not the most vio­lent, the most per­ti­na­cious of their pas­sions, always renew­ing its attacks, and, though often van­quished, nev­er destroyed.”

But there are peo­ple who pro­cras­ti­nate, beset by its per­ti­nac­i­ty, and then there are chron­ic pro­cras­ti­na­tors. “If you’re an occa­sion­al pro­cras­ti­na­tor, says Pychyl, “quit think­ing about your feel­ings and get to the next task.” Suck it up, in oth­er words, and walk it off—maybe after a short course of self-help. For all the con­flict­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry, “there is a qui­et sci­ence behind pro­cras­ti­na­tion,” writes Big Think, and “accord­ing to recent stud­ies, pro­cras­ti­na­tion is a learned habit.” Most research agrees it’s one we can unlearn through med­i­ta­tion and/or patient retrain­ing of our­selves.

How­ev­er if you’re of the chron­ic sub­set, say Pychyl, “you might need ther­a­py to bet­ter under­stand your emo­tions and how you’re cop­ing with them through avoid­ance.” Psy­chol­o­gist Joseph Fer­rari at DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty agrees. Cit­ing a fig­ure of “20 per­cent of U.S. men and women” who “make pro­cras­ti­na­tion their way of life,” he adds, “it is the per­son who does that habit­u­al­ly, always with plau­si­ble ‘excus­es’ that has issues to address.” Only you can deter­mine whether your trou­ble relates to bad habits or deep­er psy­cho­log­i­cal issues.

What­ev­er the caus­es, what might moti­vate us to med­i­tate or seek ther­a­py are the effects. Chron­ic pro­cras­ti­na­tion is “not a time man­age­ment issue,” says Fer­rari, “it is a mal­adap­tive lifestyle.” Habit­u­al pro­cras­ti­na­tors, the WSJ writes, “have high­er rates of depres­sion and anx­i­ety and poor­er well-being.” We may think, writes Eric Jaffe at the Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Science’s jour­nal, of pro­cras­ti­na­tion as “an innocu­ous habit at worst, and maybe even a help­ful one at best,” a strat­e­gy Stan­ford phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor John Per­ry argued for in The Art of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion. Instead, Jaffe says, in a sober­ing sum­ma­ry of Pychyl’s research, “pro­cras­ti­na­tion is real­ly a self-inflict­ed wound that grad­u­al­ly chips away at the most valu­able resource in the world: time.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

Dai­ly Med­i­ta­tion Boosts & Revi­tal­izes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Har­vard Study Finds

Miran­da July Teach­es You How to Avoid Pro­cras­ti­na­tion

The Art of Struc­tured Pro­cras­ti­na­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Bill says:

    I am going to give some of the­ses strate­gies a try tomor­row.

  • Bill W. says:

    I’ll watch it lat­er…

  • Victoria says:

    I just book­marked this arti­cle along with infite arti­cles in a past called ‘MUST READ’ (but not imme­di­ate­ly)

  • Ibibo says:

    Great post. Quite revealing.…

  • Dylan says:

    so we are gen­er­al­ly plea­sure seek­ing, but we need to learn how to be more resilient in order to work in dead end and bull­shit jobs. Pro­cras­ti­na­tion is your soul rebelling said some­one once. and i think the anal­o­gy is right. We dont want to work all the time we want to live in a world that is cul­tur­al­ly, struc­tural­ly and social­ly dif­fer­ent to this one. Dont under esti­mate the rea­sons why we pro­cras­ti­nate

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