You’re procrastinating right now, thinking about whether you should read this article or not. Aren’t you?
Don’t worry, it’s natural and you’re not alone. Everyone is guilty of delaying or postponing things in life. We humans have always struggled with procrastination. For long like most people I too suffer from the perception that procrastination is because of my lazy habits, poor time-management, avoiding discomfort, lack of self-motivation, or maybe incompetence, but thank God, it’s not the real truth.
Scientific studies in the last few years reveal interesting findings about procrastination. Let me help you understand the science of procrastination via scientific studies and research, so you can stop blaming yourself, your parents, your karma, or your astrological sign and start tying up procrastination to biology.
According to science, it is a constant fight between two parts of the brain: It’s a battle between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.
Now, let’s understand each part in little detail. Let’s start with the most primitive and oldest dominant portion of the brain: the limbic system. Also known as the paleomammalian brain, this system is not a specific organ, but rather a set of brain structures that work together to play an important role in emotional regulation and survival. It includes the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and last but not the least amygdala.
The hippocampus plays a key role in memory, learning, and information storage. One of the major functions of the hypothalamus is to maintain the body’s internal balance and stability, which is known as homeostasis. To do this it impacts many key body processes like heart rate and BP, body temperature, the release of hormones, sleep, and digestion.
Remember the “fight or flight” response- blame the amygdala for it. It plays an important role in regulating emotions and behaviour, it’s best known for its role in the processing of fear and panic.
Thus, the limbic system acts as a control center for the autonomic nervous system supporting automatic, and non-conscious functions of the body.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a newer and recently evolved part of the brain. There is one category of function carried out by the PFC which is executive function. Key functions like planning, decision making, problem-solving, focus, self-control, logic, reasoning, awareness, consciousness, impulse control, and most important emotional and social control. This is the part of the brain which really separates humans from animals.
It is thus rightly said the CEO of the brain.
In another interesting scientific research where 264 human brains were scanned, it was observed that those who are procrastinators have a larger amygdala. If this was not enough, these individuals even had poorer connections between the amygdala and a part of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC). This DACC takes information from the amygdala and then decides what action the body will take. It does this by blocking out competing emotions and distractions. Erhan Genc, one of the researchers at Ruhr University Bochum says “Individuals with a larger amygdala may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action- they tend to hesitate and put off things.” So, the study reveals that procrastination is less about time management and more about emotions that make you feel anxious to begin the task at hand.
When the limbic system has an upper hand, which is often the case, then the result is putting off until tomorrow what could and should be done today, thus offering a temporary relief from the unpleasant and stressful feeling of not wanting to do something. Your emotions may be whispering in your ear saying, “too much work, uncomfortable and painful”.
It is the PFC that forces us to complete a task, but since the PFC doesn’t work automatically and unconsciously it takes a lot of effort and energy on your part to get the job done. You have to kick it into action and this is not easy. That hesitation allows the limbic system to take over and hijack PFC and as a result, you become keener and more interested in doing things that are easy, feels good, and pleases you.
Since the limbic system is stronger, it often ends up winning the battle, leading to procrastination. Simply said, procrastination boils down to one simple thing- the wiring of the brain.
The problem: You procrastinate due to the brain being overwhelmed with competing and conflicting emotions.
According to Dr. Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor and author of, “The procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle” said to the BBC, “Research has already shown that mindfulness meditation is related to amygdala shrinkage, expansion of the pre-frontal cortex and a weakening of the connection between these two areas.”
On the other hand, procrastination is also the battle between your future self and your present self. Quite interesting, let’s understand.
An interesting study was conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles on temporal thinking. Using MRI scans, the researchers observed that when information about our present self and future self is processed, different sections of the brain get activated. In fact, when we imagine our future self, the same parts of the brain get activated as when we think of a stranger. Now whom would you harm if given a choice, of course, the stranger i.e., your future?
According to behavioural psychology, we imagine ourselves as having two selves: present self and future self. As the name suggests the future self is about how we see ourselves in the future. The future is a long-term path. Well, goal setting is about making plans for the future. So, when we set goals in life, the actions and behaviours to achieve those goals are thus set for long-term benefits.
On the other hand, the present self is the place where those actions and decisions will initiate. It is about the now, the short-term path. Various research has proven the fact that our present self seeks instant rewards and gratification. It is more concerned with short-term results in place of a long-term payoff.
“We have a brain that is selected for preferring immediate reward. Procrastination is the present self-saying I would rather feel good now. So, we delay engagement even though it’s going to bite us on the butt.” Dr. Tim Pychyl, author and psychologist.
So, now imagine the inner conflict: the battle between the present self and the future self. Your future self wants to eat healthily, but the present self wants junk food. Your future self wants to be fit, but your present self wants to skip doing exercise or going to the gym.
I hope you are getting the point! Blame it on the wiring of your brain: it values your future in the long term but values instant reward and immediate gratification in the present.
And when it comes to the battle between today and tomorrow, we all know who wins: today!
The problem: Procrastination is the conflict between the present and future self.
Solution: Religiously follow Nike’s tagline, “Just Do It,” and do it regularly.
Now don’t beat yourself up if you’re an occasional procrastinator, because as you now know it’s perfectly natural and deep-rooted in our biology. Understand this you’re not the first person to procrastinate, nor will you be the last. But now since you scientifically know as to why we procrastinate: you can definitely do something to stop and overcome it.
Let me know your procrastination story and how you overcame it in the comments section below!