Meh, I’ll find a title later…
It’s Friday night and I’m working on my assignments due this Sunday. The same ones that I’ve been working on since last Sunday. Clearly, something went seriously wrong.
We are all well aware of the woes of Procrastination. It’s universal. We’ve all done it. We still do it. Some of you, reading this blog, are doing it, right this second. So, what makes procrastination so relatable? Turns out, our brains are wired for it.
Procrastination results due to a fight that breaks in between two parts of the brain when we encounter a not-so-pleasurable activity i.e. writing essays. The two parts of the brain are, the limbic system (has charge of our behavioural and emotional responses) and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for executive functions like planning, communicating etc.)
The former directs automated responses that are aimed at fleeing unpleasant tasks and situations thereby resulting in an “instant mood repair”. The latter is newer and less dominant. It allows us to make informed decisions after integrating information. Unlike the limbic system, it is not automatic and therefore requires conscious efforts, for example, sitting yourself down and getting the essay done. The moment you let go and stop making active efforts into completing your tasks, the limbic system kicks in, making you seek out a more pleasurable task – thus putting off the essay until tomorrow – and so you procrastinate.
A moody trap
It’s not like I’m unaware of how much I’m going to regret my decision of watching another episode of Atypical on Netflix, as I’m sure you aren’t either. Why do we engage in it then? Why do we set ourselves up for failure?
Procrastination is the “gap between intention and action.” – Timothy Pychyl.
A study conducted by Dr Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University, reported how procrastination is more than just poor time management as there is subsequent guilt and anxiety associated with it. Following which, Dianne Tice, a psychologist, conducted a study to understand the role that moods play in procrastination. She concluded that we only give into the temptation of procrastination by surrendering all self-control when our current emotions can be improved as a result of it. 3
Pychyl considers emotional regulation to be a major contributor associated with procrastination, “because to the extent I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task”, he says.
Happy hormone addiction
When we are met with a number of tasks that need to be done, or one, particularly difficult task, we begin feeling overwhelmed and exhibit the fight (resistance) or flight (ignorance) response, both of which ultimately translate into procrastination. This is complimented with a subsequent release of norepinephrine causing fear and anxiety. In order to be protected from these negative feelings adrenaline (epinephrine) is delivered to combat the effect of norepinephrine. Both of these are stress neurotransmitters, which are released by a part of our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala, however, is not as smart as we would like to believe, as it is unable to distinguish between the urgency of submitting an essay and being attacked by a wild bear and so activates a similar response, the flight and fight response – thereby triggering the release of the stress hormones. Although, this is done with good intention, all our brain really wants is dopamine – the feel-good hormone. To achieve this, we put away the stressful tasks, i.e. the essay and take up more rewarding ones, like finishing the final half of a movie.
Et tu, genes?
A number of studies have been monumental in establishing associations between procrastination and executive functioning such as impulsivity, planning, emotional control etc. This association suggested that expression of procrastination may have genetic basis as each of the aforementioned traits have been observed to be moderately heritable.
Similar results were derived by a study conducted at the University of Colorado aimed at examining the genetic basis of procrastination, impulsiveness and goal-setting.They reported that some people are predisposed to giving in to temptations more easily. Similarly, some people are more prone to exhibiting impulsivity, such people are said to be more easily distracted by things that are believed to be more rewarding in short term and subsequently putting off long term goals. Moreover, they took into account the environmental factors, such as growing up in the same house etc., and informed procrastination to be equally influenced by nature and nurture.
When things get out of hand…
Joseph Ferrari,a psychology professor found that “while everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator” He reported 20% of the population to be chronic procrastinators. They don’t just have a one-off procrastination incident here and there, to them, it has become a core habit, a part of their personality. It can turn into something so severe, that it is debilitating to their personal and professional lives. An example would be failing to go to health check-ups while suffering from a medical condition.
Recently, it is being associated with various mental health disorders such as ADHD, depression, anxiety etc, which may manifest physically as sleep disorders, weakened immune system etc. Additionally, it also has the ability to lead to addictive behaviours such as alcoholism, gambling etc, taking a severe toll on one’s personal relationships.
Telling a chronic procrastinator to “just do it” is as usefulas it is to tell a clinically depressed person to “cheer up” says professor Ferrari.
If like me, you too, are tired of falling prey to procrastination check out the following resources on how to trick yourself into making productive decisions.