Blame Your Lazy Brain for always Putting Things off!

“I should start writing my last blog post now…But, wait! I just get my first-year progress presentation done…I need to reward myself for working so hard…I have to rest well because it will upset my thinking when I am tired which is not good at all… I will fully recharge my energy tonight and will get a fresh mind tomorrow…That would be a good day to start writing…It is due by Sunday, so I still have time…I cannot start it when I am not really into it because I will end up with bad writing result.”

This is a common phenomenon that we all have likely experienced which is referred to as procrastination.

Procrastination and the history behind it

Procrastination is the action of delaying something. It does not only stand for putting off something until tomorrow but also undertaking less essential tasks and putting off the more important ones. It is different from working on something for years.

In 700 B.C., an ancient Greek poet, Hesiod proclaimed his tendency against procrastination in a poem, “Work and Days”. He said, “Do not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after”. Aristotle and Socrates, on the other hand, described procrastination using the word akrasia, meaning the acts against our better judgment through the weakness of will.

So, why do we procrastinate?

The psychology of procrastination

From psychologists’ point of view, procrastination is related to self-control issues. It pushes the procrastinator into the direction of immediate relief by avoiding a stressful or tedious task, which is referred to as “time inconsistency”.

To understand this, let’s imagine yourself in two different ways of thinking, the way you think of the present (system 1) and the way you think of the future (system 2). They are odds to each other. System 1 is working on taking action, while system 2 values future rewards, such as saving money to buy a new car or planning to have a strict diet.

So, although you have a list of things to do, your system 1 is the one that makes the decision, whether it should be done or not. That is why you might go to bed by having a plan to finish one of your assignments tomorrow, but you ended up spending more time on Facebook, Instagram, etc.

The neuroscience of procrastination

Two parts of the brain that associate to procrastination are the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system regulates cravings and desires. But, the main weakness of the system is that it does not care about the future. It is only concerned about immediate pleasure.

The limbic system of our brain. Photo by Decade3d via Shutterstock

Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex operates through your plan. Compared to the limbic system which evolves earlier, the prefrontal cortex is more lately grown. The major weakness of the system is that it is exhaustible and requires training to work more effectively.

The prefrontal cortex of our brain. Photo by: Decade3D via Canstockphoto

When you procrastinate, your limbic system overrides your prefrontal cortex. You prefer what feels enjoyable rather than doing something for your future.

At the time, your brain is trying to avoid a perceived threat. The amygdala, a part of the limbic system which associates with the fear cannot distinguish between an aggressive drunker and an uncompleted assignment. Eventually, it activates pretty much the same reaction in both cases. Since your brain prefers to be flooded with the pleasurable hormone, dopamine, instead of having to deal with stress neurotransmitters, it pushes you towards abandoning the stressful task in favour of a more rewarding one.

Is there any way to stop the habit?

Breaking a long-term project down into sub-goals, setting the exact start time to work on the task and rewarding yourself after completing a task are things that you can do to motivate yourself.

Further readings:

Identifying the Neural Substrates of Procrastination

The Nature of Procrastination


8 Responses to “Blame Your Lazy Brain for always Putting Things off!”

  1. Marissa Nalenan says:

    Thank you, Jianchao.

  2. jianchaol says:

    Nice post, Marissa. Sometimes we prefer an enjoyable thing rather than a due.

  3. Marissa Nalenan says:

    Many thanks, Veronica. Glad you learnt something from it.

  4. Marissa Nalenan says:

    Hahaha, don’t feel bad about it, Zoe. We all procrastinated. Thank you for reading.

  5. Marissa Nalenan says:

    Thanks, Ashlen. Yeah, you are right. As mentioned, If our brain could rationalise an assignment at least as dangerous as an aggressive drunker than the assignment would be finished on time.

  6. Veronica Voo says:

    Interesting read! I have always wonder why we procrastinate so much

  7. Zoe Canestra says:

    Man this hits close to home, SWOTVAC vibes right here! Awesome work

  8. Ashlen Campbell says:

    This was so interesting! I love how our brains register an assignment as “dangerous”, it definitely feels that way sometimes! I feel like knowing that could definitely help in rationalising the feeling as illogical as a way to combat procrastination.