By Keen Huei Liew
Art by Caitlin O’Neil
It’s 9:57 p.m. Your fingers drum agitatedly against the keyboard as you pick your brain for something, anything that would help make this topic sentence flow. Thoughts and ideas fleet transiently through your mind while words ricochet off the sides of your brain, but nothing really sticks. I should have started this sooner, I should have done my readings, I should have made an outline earlier, you think, but it’s a waste of time to ruminate on your string of bad decisions leading up to this point. 10:00 p.m. strikes. You have an hour and 59 minutes left. It’s crunch time. For some reason, time seems to pass so slowly yet so quickly as you type (10:34 p.m.) and type (11:03 p.m.) and type (11:52 p.m.) until there’s nothing left to write. The last paragraph reads like a sorry excuse for a conclusion, but you slap the final few words on the page anyway and give the entire thing a quick once-over. It’s not the best, but it’ll have to do. Your fingers move on autopilot, going through the familiar motions until “Submitted! Feb 20 at 11:56 p.m.” appears on the screen. I’m never doing this again, you decide as you shut your laptop, but deep down inside you know that that’s a lie. In two weeks when the next midterm essay is due, you’ll find yourself looking at the top right corner of your laptop screen and you’ll realize—it’s 9:57 p.m. Your fingers will drum agitatedly against the keyboard . . .
The Basics of Procrastination
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of why we procrastinate, we should first be on the same page about what procrastination is. Procrastination is defined as behavior that involves the voluntary postponement of an intended activity, despite knowing that doing so might be detrimental . Issues such as poor academic performance, anxiety, and stress have been shown to correlate with incidences of procrastination [2-4]. Although procrastination is commonly accepted as one of the most significant hindrances to academic productivity, a survey of over 16,000 English-speaking participants estimated that approximately 80 percent of college students procrastinate while only 33 percent of the general population considers procrastination a problem in their past or current academic endeavors . Furthermore, it has been reported that people spend around 90 to 180 minutes in daily working hours procrastinating through engaging in private activities such as online shopping, playing computer games, and watching movies . When we procrastinate, the limited time we are left with forces us to rush to complete tasks, resulting in high levels of stress . This poses the question: even with the conscious awareness of the consequences of putting off a planned task, why do we still choose to postpone it? How do our minds weigh the tradeoff between the short-term impulse to procrastinate (to put the essay off until 7:38 p.m. the day it’s due) and the completion of a more productive long-term goal?
Luckily for us, the answer to this question actually lies within the brain. Despite extensive research on procrastinatory behavior, the neurobiological basis of this phenomenon has only recently begun to garner attention within the scientific community. In order to develop a comprehensive model of the neuroscience behind procrastination, it is important to understand why and how procrastinatory behavior manifests in our daily lives. Contrary to popular belief, procrastination does not necessarily indicate one’s problems with time management . At its core, it is an impaired form of short-term mood regulation . By categorizing contributing factors at the task-characteristic level such as ambiguity, conflict, and complexity and at the individual-differences level which depends on ability, personality, and interests, neuroscientific research has offered compelling evidence as to why and how we procrastinate, as well as how we can address it [8,9].
Task Aversiveness and Temporal Discounting
It’s the week before your midterm paper is due. Your Google Calendar indicates that past-you had carved out 7:45 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. from your packed day to come up with an outline for the paper. It’s a ten-page paper about the political development in Europe since 1789, and it’s worth a hefty 30 percent of your grade. A pit in your stomach forms at the thought of having to sift through 300 pages of readings, but that feeling quickly dissolves at the thought of starting on the new Netflix show that everyone has been raving about. You know you should probably stick to the schedule, but to be honest, you would rather watch paint dry than deal with this paper right now. Plus, what’s the rush—the paper isn’t due for another week, is it?
So, what explains this impulse to push off your paper? Research suggests that procrastination is essentially a failure of self-regulation when faced with an aversive task that causes unpleasant feelings or negative moods such as anxiety and worry . Self-regulation refers to intentional, self-directed thoughts and actions that are meant to help the individual achieve their personal goals . While task aversiveness can vary from person to person, it tends to stem from common negative feelings about the task, such as “lower autonomy, frustration, resentment, and boredom” . The postponement of such aversive tasks is therefore a strategy to avoid eliciting these negative moods . Over time, as tasks are continuously put off, procrastination becomes a form of negative reinforcement. This means that if an aversive stimulus (the negative emotion) is removed after a certain behavior (procrastination) is exhibited, it increases the chance that the behavior would be performed again. In this way, instead of learning how to tolerate negative moods and engage in the task regardless, the individual learns that avoiding the task is an effective workaround to avoid undesired emotions. As a result, individuals become more reliant on procrastination to regulate their moods .
This is called the cognitive escape hypothesis: procrastinators engage in avoidant cognitive tendencies that prioritize short-term emotional regulation over other forms of self-regulatory behavior required to achieve a long-term goal . That is, people choose to put off tasks that cross a certain threshold of aversiveness at the expense of achieving a future goal by engaging in the task . This threshold of aversiveness differs between individuals—while a pre-medical student might be more inclined to complete the biology assignment early (because of their interests in the biological sciences or a desire to do their best in the class), a computer science major who took the class only to fulfill General Education requirements may find themselves putting it off until the last minute. That’s also why we sometimes find ourselves folding the laundry or cleaning the bathroom when we’re supposed to be studying: we avoid doing the aversive task by working on other tasks on our to-do lists instead . Termed “structured procrastination,” this phenomenon results in us sometimes prioritizing action on tasks by completing the tasks we find least adverse first, leaving the most arduous tasks for later . The emotional regulation component of structured procrastination is that getting simpler, easier tasks done leads to a sense of accomplishment and progress, rather than potential feelings of discouragement, frustration, or anxiety associated with being idle while procrastinating .
The temporal discounting effect, where small but immediate rewards (getting two dollars today) are usually chosen over large but delayed ones (getting five dollars at the end of the week), supplements this cognitive escape hypothesis by explaining how we evaluate rewards and how our motivation to act changes depending on how close the deadline is . When the reward for completing a task—for example, the ability to finally cross it off your long to-do list—is only attainable in the distant future, the motivation to act immediately decreases. Similarly, a greater willingness to act is generated as time progresses towards the deadline, either to yield the previously expected positive reward or avoid a negative outcome, like receiving a zero on an assignment. This phenomenon suggests that procrastination occurs when we decide that the benefits of task avoidance outweigh the benefits that task completion can produce. With a deadline looming over our heads, procrastinating starts to get less enticing as we begin to realize that we are running out of time to complete the assignment. We start to think: is giving up a good grade worth an extra hour on YouTube? The role that time plays in procrastinatory tendencies is understudied in research but is vital in explaining why the motivation to act overtakes the motivation to avoid as time passes .
Both the cognitive escape hypothesis and temporal discounting effect offer a theoretical basis for why we procrastinate. After examining these two behaviors, we can now begin to delve into the neurological underpinnings of why we procrastinate.
Prefrontal Cortex vs. Limbic System
You’ve finally forced yourself to sit down in front of your computer, but you've been staring at your blank Google Doc for about fifteen minutes now trying to come up with viable points so you know which readings to focus on. You tab back to last week’s reading for some inspiration, but the words on the page just seem like alphabet soup to your frazzled brain. You could (and should) stick to the schedule and do the outline, but you could also use the time to take a break. You deserve it, right? That new Netflix show is looking very enticing at the moment. No! You promised yourself that you wouldn’t touch that show until you’ve completed the paper. But, do you really want to work on the paper right now? In moments like these, there are two “mini-yous” sitting on your shoulders—the responsible you versus the impulsive you—fighting for dominance.
This feeling of two warring entities is somewhat reflected at the neuroanatomical level. Specifically, there are two interacting brain systems responsible for the two possible courses of action: the cognitive control system and the affective processing system [16,17]. The cognitive control system is primarily found in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is responsible for complex and higher-level cognitive functions, including organization and control of goal-directed thought and behavior . On the other hand, the affective processing system, found in the limbic system, is heavily involved in emotion, reward valuation, and reward-related decision-making . The limbic system comprises a collection of brain structures, including the amygdala, which processes fear stimuli, and the hippocampus, which consolidates memories and spatial relationships . In other words, you can think of the cognitive control system as the voice of reason in your head telling you to study for your test so you can graduate, while your affective processing system is the other voice telling you that you’re going to have so much more fun on Netflix right now.
Past research provides evidence that procrastination is linked to the failure of cognitive control, especially in the domain of self-control . Self-control allows one to resist short-term temptations or impulses (scrolling through your phone when the midterm paper is due in a day), and self-regulation enables this self-control by adjusting behaviors away from the impulses, instead directing them towards the end goal (placing your phone in your bag, away from you so you can focus) . When examining the neural mechanisms of inhibition, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used. This neuroimaging technique measures changes in blood flow as a proxy for changes in brain activity . A study using fMRI found that there was higher activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) of low procrastinators compared to high procrastinators . The dlPFC is a region of the PFC that plays a vital role in the control of one’s behavior, which means the inhibition of behaviors that we are tempted to engage in. At times when making the wrong choices results in punishment or loss of reward, the dlPFC also exercises exertion of control to prevent or minimize further loss, potentially explaining the frenzy of activity right before the deadline as you try to avoid failing by turning in an adequate, albeit rushed, paper. This fMRI study points to the presence of higher self-control in people less likely to procrastinate. It also suggests that procrastination is related to difficulties in impulse control—that is, the failure to resist temptation and delay gratification even in the presence of punishment .
Behavioral studies have shown that negative emotional states are associated with more procrastination, and high procrastinators tend to indulge in immediate self-gratification to make themselves feel better [22,23]. A behavioral study found that people were more likely to procrastinate when they were in a bad mood and believed that procrastination—in the form of engaging in enjoyable, yet impulsive activities—would improve their moods . This study induced two moods (happy or sad) by telling short stories to participants who were then given some three-digit multiplication problems to prepare for a math test after a 15-minute break. Participants were also allowed to engage in other activities in the room during those 15 minutes: those in the “fun tasks” condition received a video game and current popular magazines, while those in the “boring tasks” condition received a preschool-level electronic puzzle game and out-of-date technical journals. After recording the range of responses displayed by the participants, the researchers found that participants who were in the sad mood group with fun tasks procrastinated significantly more than any other group. In comparison, the group with boring tasks, both in the good and bad mood groups, procrastinated approximately the same amount. The study offered an explanation to why this happened: people act impulsively under distress because they believe they can escape these moods, however temporarily, in the form of self-gratification .
There is a possible neuroscientific explanation for why we protect ourselves from our own negative feelings. Regions of the affective processing system, such as the amygdala, are activated when negative emotions are elicited . Under anxiety-inducing situations, the amygdala, the region of the brain that detects external stimuli and plays a role in fear arousal, triggers the fight-or-flight response . Humans developed this response to deal with threats to survival, preparing the body by releasing stress hormones to either face the threat or run away from it. Usually, when the amygdala senses a salient stimulus, this sensory information is relayed to the PFC through the thalamus, which is the brain’s relay station. The PFC then processes this information and decides on the most logical response before sending this information back through the thalamus to the amygdala, which produces the appropriate emotional and physical reaction. However, under some threatening circumstances, like being chased by a 600-pound bear, the thalamus understands that involving the logical thinking process would be a waste of time, as the bear would likely be uninterested in hearing a pros and cons list on eating you. Therefore, when a threat is detected by the amygdala, the thalamus may bypass the PFC and signal the amygdala to respond immediately, releasing a flood of hormones that trigger the fight-or-flight response before the PFC has time to react. This mechanism is useful in many dangerous situations, such as moving out of the way of a speeding bus before we can even register that the bus was there. However, because the amygdala responds the same way to physical and emotional threats, a sudden onset of stress may cause one to respond to a situation irrationally since the cognitive control system is bypassed. This is called the amygdala hijack, in which the amygdala overrides the logical decision-making function of the PFC even when the fight-or-flight response is not warranted . The amygdala hijack offers a plausible explanation for why emotional regulation, or safety, takes precedence over logical thinking during times of procrastination [7,25]. The amygdala senses the stress associated with the aversive task to be a threat and triggers the fight-or-flight response . Procrastination, a form of active avoidance or “flight,” seems to be the preferred coping mechanism, as it leads to lower stress activation by minimizing exposure to stress-inducing stimuli .
A 2016 study hypothesized that incidences of procrastination could arise from a clash between the cognitive control system and affective processing system . This fMRI study demonstrated that hyperactivity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a part of the PFC with extensive ties to the affective processing system, makes an individual more likely to seek short-term satisfaction (like mood repair). This overrides activity in other regions of the PFC that inhibit engagement with surrounding distractors that provide such satisfaction . A possible explanation involves the vmPFC's role in making decisions based on environmental stimuli, context, and internal cues about a situation . The vmPFC considers these various sources of information and decides on a course of action that maximizes one’s well-being . During procrastination, the vmPFC’s decision-making process is swayed towards immediate satisfaction because imagining future outcomes, especially negative ones, makes people more likely to choose short-term gratification . That being said, why does this happen?
The Effects of Time
It’s 3:00 a.m. You’ve just finished an hour-long episode of that new Netflix show. You know you weren’t supposed to watch it, but alas, things don’t always go the way you want them to. The streaming platform pops the big question: “Next episode?” Can you envision the consequences? Do you see yourself the next day, in your 8:40 a.m. statistics class—can you feel your eyelids drooping? The familiar sensation of your head bobbing up and down abruptly as you try your best to fight off the sleepiness? Does that affect your decision to stay up any later?
Our choices can be influenced by imagining future outcomes based on memories we have of previous, similar experiences . This is called “episodic prospection,” where details like objects, places, sounds, and more are encoded into a single memory known as an episode . These episodic memories enable us to “project” ourselves into the future to envision the consequences of making a decision at the current moment . Research has identified the parahippocampal cortex (PHC) as the region of the hippocampus that can simulate future situations in visuospatial and contextual detail . The PHC creates these simulations based on past exposure to particular environments and the associated expected behaviors within those environments . These contextual associations and mental simulations allow the brain to construct a “pre-experience” of the delayed outcome, from which we assign a value to each outcome by evaluating the possible rewards . Procrastination is, therefore, more likely to occur when the task is associated with fewer incentives . In addition, because the PHC is part of the affective processing system, these projections can also be influenced by emotions . When an individual has been exposed to a past situation where procrastination has directly led to an undesirable outcome (like failing a physics midterm), the PHC might inadvertently promote procrastination on a similar task by retrieving negative memories associated with that task, thus promoting task aversiveness . This means that instead of associating the negative emotions with the aversive task, these negative emotions are now elicited by the memory of getting poor results after procrastinating. Ironically, instead of studying harder for the final to make up for the bad grade, the thought of studying might become so aversive that people find themselves procrastinating even more.
This association between failure and demotivation can also form through the act of procrastination itself. Recognizing the consequences of procrastination can elicit negative moods that lead to self-judgment for procrastinating . Some people report having thoughts such as “I’m a total loser,” “If I don’t do a perfect job, I’m inadequate,” or “I should have been able to do more” . These self-criticizing thoughts, known as “procrastinatory cognitions,” can be linked to their past failures to stop procrastinating. The resulting inability to complete tasks or receipt of unfavorable feedback resulting from procrastination—such as getting a C-minus on a lab report—would bring about negative emotional reactions. These thoughts exacerbate distress and anxiety and lead to the further need for mood regulation, perpetuating a cycle of procrastinatory behavior .
Behavioral research has shown that when procrastination leads to a missed opportunity people are less likely to act on a less enticing second opportunity that resembles the lost opportunity [31,35]. When first encountering an appealing opportunity, people are often enthusiastic to take advantage of it. However, if the more attractive opportunity had been missed earlier, people tended to decline the second opportunity—sort of like declining a job offer from a tech startup after being rejected by Google. Why exactly does this happen? Why do people not take the second opportunity if the missed prior opportunity was perceived as a loss? After all, the second opportunity is still an opportunity, is it not? Termed “inaction inertia,” people tend to decline the subsequent opportunity because they feel that acting on the second opportunity would constantly remind them of the more attractive, missed opportunity and give rise to feelings of regret . Avoiding these anticipated feelings of regret inspires further inaction and procrastination. In this case, despite the awareness of the consequences of procrastination, protecting the current self from negative affective states (even if generated by a mental simulation of what could happen) takes priority .
Interestingly, perceptions of the self change over time, influencing the decisions that we make for our “future selves” . Sort of like an extension of temporal discounting related to the self rather than the task, people intrinsically care less about future outcomes than present ones, tending to prioritize short-term needs over long-term needs . We would be less motivated to act in a way that would benefit our future selves in comparison to our current selves. As time progresses, people grow less certain of how psychologically similar they will be in the future to their current selves, to the point where an extremely distant future self may seem like an entirely different person altogether . Sometimes, even a few days or weeks is sufficient to create this perception of a separate self . Therefore, the more disconnected people feel from their future selves, the more they treat them like a stranger . Think about a random person you sat beside at the cafe this morning. Would you hand them a $20 bill and ask for nothing in return? If we treat our future self like a stranger, we are just as motivated to save money for a future self as to give money to the stranger. Furthermore, we believe that the aversive task we had just put off and the negative feelings that come along with the task become a problem for another person . An fMRI study corroborates this finding, showing a decrease in neural activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and rostral anterior cingulate when viewing information related to participants' future selves compared to their current selves . These regions are usually involved in self-referential thinking (relating information from the outside world to the self). The same decrease in activation occurred when considering information related to others compared to the self, indicating that there is some overlap between how one perceives the future self and an entirely different person [34,37].
Unfortunately, we can’t just stop procrastinating. Believe me, I’ve tried—otherwise, I wouldn’t be sitting here at 11:14 p.m., taunted by the rapid click-clack of my keyboard in mounting desperation as time ticks down. Rather than trying to power through the urge to procrastinate (which rarely actually works), there are some psychologically proven methods to cut down on procrastination.
Ways to Minimize Procrastination
With the understanding that procrastination is less about the task and more about how we feel about the task, we can finally delve into solutions. Thus, in order to manage procrastination, we should develop new ways to manage our emotions around aversive tasks or thoughts of procrastination.
One such method is, put simply, forgiveness . After a psychology midterm at Carleton University, researchers asked students questions about their self-worth in relation to procrastination. They found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating on the first midterm ended up procrastinating less on the following midterm. On the other hand, students who did not practice self-forgiveness continued to procrastinate, or even showed higher levels of procrastinatory behavior during preparation for the second midterm. This is because self-forgiveness allowed the students to circumvent the issues of procrastinatory cognitions (self-criticizing thoughts) and inaction inertia (turning down the second opportunity), both of which would have hindered studying. By letting go of past regrettable actions and their associated negative feelings, students felt less of a need to engage in short-term mood repair. They were instead more focused on exam preparation .
The next time you find yourself “stress-laxing,” or being stressed while trying to relax, because you’re not working on what’s making you stressed, remember that taking a break does not necessarily mean that you’re being unproductive or wasting your time. Taking a break can actually reduce negative performance effects caused by exhaustion, boredom, and burnout, while also increasing our attention on the task at hand [36,37,39,40]. So, relax and make yourself a nice cup of hot chocolate, and come up with a strategy for how to tackle your remaining tasks. Try not to mull over time that has already passed—tell yourself that time “wasted” is a sunk cost, and that you shouldn’t cry over spilled milk. It is completely fine, even encouraged, to take breaks once in a while. Set a timer for breaks if required, with the awareness that the break is essential for your mind to rest. Once that timer goes off, you are ready to tackle the task with a refreshed state of mind.
Another similar tactic is the practice of self-compassion, where one treats themselves with understanding and consideration in times of failure, rather than being self-punishing or self-critical . Self-compassion comprises three main components: self-kindness (treating the self with patience instead of criticism in difficult situations), common humanity (understanding that struggling with tasks is a shared experience rather than an indication of inadequacy), and mindfulness (having the awareness to avoid being consumed by negative thoughts). People who procrastinate tend to have low self-compassion and higher levels of stress associated with procrastinatory behavior, suggesting that self-compassion plays a role in alleviating stress . In fact, not only does self-compassion reduce the feelings of emotional distress that play a huge role in procrastination, it can also increase one’s motivation to act . People who practiced self-compassion reported higher levels of motivation to make amends and avoided repeating the same undesirable behavior . Therefore, somewhat counterintuitively, acceptance of one’s personal failure might just be the key to motivating oneself to improve. Be kind to yourself!
Speaking of motivation, studies have found that downsizing larger metrics of time, such as planning to start studying for a quiz in 48 hours instead of two days, can make events seem more immediate, thus prompting action on tasks sooner . Changing the way one thinks about time leads to a stronger connection between their current and future selves, reducing the extent that they would discount future rewards over current ones . It might be worth it to change your phone clock to military time or download a countdown app to keep track of due dates.
Procrastination is a pretty universal experience. By understanding the neuroscience behind why we do it, we can start forgiving ourselves for letting our emotions get the best of us. Instead, we can refocus our efforts on coping with our feelings in a more constructive manner, reducing incidences of procrastination by making changes to how we let emotions influence our actions.
I will definitely be trying these methods out . . . perhaps next semester . . .
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