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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.

In the brain, it all comes down to a face-off between two regions: the limbic system, which is a set of brain structures containing the pleasure center, and the prefrontal cortex which controls planning and decision making. When you are faced with a challenging or complex task and starting to feel stressed, the limbic system automatically turns to procrastination to provide temporary but immediate relief from that unpleasant feeling of needing but not wanting to do something. In contrast, it is harder and takes conscious effort to engage the prefrontal cortex to resist, stay focused and do the task at hand. Over time repeated procrastination can become a habit of avoidance behavior in the face of certain triggers in order to get momentary rewards. Breaking that cycle then takes time and work to learn a new response and form a new habit.

So, if you procrastinate, you are not lazy, nor a failure, but only human. Experts suggest you learn to recognize when you are procrastinating, try to understand why, and forgive yourself for that and previous procrastination. Build self-compassion including empathy for your future self so that you are less likely to burden it with work you can do now. And, seriously, just get started even if you don’t feel like it. A little action triggers motivation, and will often lead to getting the job done. That obviously has its own rewards and may make it easier to start the next time.

Post by: Nadia Fike, MD/PhD


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