• Race to a Cure Authors

The Neuroscience Behind Procrastination

Image is Courtesy of April Seven

What is Procrastination?

According to Ness Labs, In Latin, procrastination comes from “pro”, which means “forward”, and “crastinatus”, which means “till the next day”. Some researchers define procrastination as a form of self-regulation failure characterized by the illogical postponing of tasks despite possible negative consequences.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of us to learn or work from home, and some of our typical routines became muddled. Procrastination can be further environmentally driven by home distractions, such as other family members and having the TV on. We may sometimes define procrastination as laziness; however, that is not the case at all. According to Procrastination.com, those who are lazy simply do not do anything and are fine with it. Procrastinators have a strong desire to start doing something yet are unable to force themselves to do so. Procrastination shouldn’t be confused with relaxing either. Relaxing gives you a boost of energy, while procrastination depletes it. The less energy you have, and the more stressed you are, can make you more likely to put off your tasks.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

Many people believe procrastination is similar to poor time management, an inability to organize and prioritize tasks, and causes us to complete them at the last minute or even after the deadline has passed; however, procrastination is increasingly being recognized as a complicated, often maladaptive response to numerous perceived stressors, according to research.

One study found that there is a correlation between procrastination and psychological vulnerability. Those who procrastinate a lot may experience higher stress, which is linked to a lack of self-control and lower self-esteem.

Procrastination.com says that people also procrastinate due to several other reasons. Decision paralysis is the inability to choose. We can become easily confused about what is a priority and what is important and what is not as we have more freedom to make our own decisions and do our tasks, losing the motivation to perform our actions. Even if a decision is made, decision paralysis often exhausts the decision-maker to the point that they lack the energy to act itself. Ignoring the value of time can also lead to procrastination. Our time on this planet is both limited and finite. Lack of self-discipline is another less common cause of procrastination, but it can make it difficult to follow orders that you give yourself.

There are 15 main reasons why people procrastinate, according to these researchers:

  • Not knowing what needs to be done

  • Not knowing how to do something

  • Not wanting to do something

  • Not caring if it gets done or not

  • Not caring when something gets done

  • Not feeling in the mood to do it

  • Believing that you work better under pressure

  • Being in the habit of waiting until the last minute

  • Thinking that you can finish it at the last minute

  • Lacking the initiative to get started

  • Forgetting

  • Blaming sickness or poor health

  • Waiting for the right moment

  • Needing time to think about the task

  • Delaying one task in favour of working on another at a particular time

The Science Behind Procrastination

According to Ness Labs, procrastination is the outcome of a continuous battle between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex in our brain.

The limbic system, also known as the paleomammalian brain, is one of the brain’s oldest and most active components. Its processes are mostly automatic. When you feel like your entire body is urging you to get out of a bad situation, your limbic system is talking. The University of Queensland says It plays a role in our behavioural and emotional reactions, particularly when it comes to behaviours we need for survival, such as fight or flight responses. The limbic system’s structures are found deep inside the brain, underneath the cerebral cortex and above the brainstem. The activities of the limbic system are influenced by the thalamus, hypothalamus (hormone production, regulation of thirst, hunger, and mood), and basal ganglia (reward processing, habit development, movement, and learning). The hippocampus and amygdala are the two major structures in the brain.

Image is Courtesy of Wikipedia

On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is younger and less developed, and hence is a somewhat less powerful part of the brain. This region is responsible for complex behaviour planning, personality expression, and decision-making. Dr. Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor, explains that the prefrontal cortex is “the part of the brain that really separates humans from animals, who are just controlled by stimulus”. According to My MS, the prefrontal cortex also plays an important function in intelligence, memory, temper, and personality.

Image is Courtesy of Medium

The prefrontal cortex is much weaker than the limbic system since it has no autopilot and is younger, and therefore the limbic almost always wins the battle, which results in procrastination. We often give our brains what feels good now. As a matter of fact, you can see procrastination as the result of a battle between your present and future self. Dr. Pyschyl describes how the brain is wired to desire quick satisfaction. He says, “Procrastination is the present self saying I would rather feel good now, so we delay engagement even though it’s going to bite us on the butt”.

Effects of Procrastination on Health

PsychCentral states that procrastination can lead to poor academic performance, increased levels of stress, and poor self-compassion. Some people claim to work better under pressure, but that may just be an illusion. Dr. Dianne Tice and Dr. Roy Baumeister studied the performance, stress, and overall health of a group of college students over a semester. Although the procrastinators may have started off enjoying lower stress levels compared to non-procrastinators, they were not only more stressed, but also had to face the consequences (lower grades) for not completing their tasks on time at the end of the semester. They also cite past research that suggests that procrastinating is linked to poor mental health and task performance. In addition, another study found that procrastination was consistently related to more stress, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and reduced satisfaction.

Tips for Procrastinators

Here are a few tips from Verywell Mind if you are finding it difficult to overcome procrastination!

  • Make a to-do list: Consider putting a due date next to each item to help you stay on track.

  • Take baby steps: Break down your to-do list into tiny steps to make your tasks appear less overwhelming.

  • Recognize the warning signs: Pay attention to any procrastination thought, and try your best to reject them. If you find yourself thinking about procrastinating, push yourself to focus on your activity for a few minutes.

  • Eliminate distraction: Consider what distracts you the most, whether it’s Instagram or texting, and get rid of those distractions.

  • Pat yourself on the back: Remember to congratulate and reward yourself by doing something you enjoy after you complete an item on your to-do list on time!

Article Author: Tanya Kor

Article Editors: Edie Whittington, Maria Giroux