top of page

Procrastination in the Brain

While postponing writing this blog entry, I recalled a quote from Mr. Dickens: “My advice is,

never do to-morrow what you can do today.” Wise words, but they did not carry the impact of

this from Picasso: “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”

OK, whatever it says about me that one has to mention death to get me started on a task, I

welcomed the sense of release from the clutches of that tenacious monster - Procrastination.

Experts define procrastination as a voluntary delay of some important task that we need to do, despite knowing that we will suffer as a result of the delay. Let’s face it, we all procrastinate once in a while, and according to studies, about 20% of us are chronic procrastinators. Why do we do this? There are a lot of theories, but recent consensus is that procrastinating is about an inability to manage emotions. Anxiety, fear of judgment or failure, self-doubt, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, feeling overwhelmed, confusion, boredom and other negative emotions lead to procrastination. Most of us also have a bias for feeling good right now e.g. by watching cat videos, vs. thinking of long term gains e.g. by toiling to finish that report. And, interestingly, there is a phenomenon called “temporal self-discontinuity” whereby many of us tend to view our future self as a stranger disconnected from the present self. So, at some level, we approach issues as if whatever is not done now will be someone else’s (our future self’s) problem.

Unfortunately, while procrastination may relieve stress in the moment, it can have emotional, physical, and practical costs that far outweigh the transient benefits. Students who routinely procrastinate tend to get lower grades, workers who procrastinate produce lower-quality work, and chronic procrastinators experience more stress and depression as well as sleep, immune and gastrointestinal disturbances.