The Science of Procrastination

It’s 3 a.m. on Friday morning before your term paper is due. You have Doritos crumbs crusted around your mouth while your whole body convulses from too much Red Bull. A Youtube video of cats playing paddy-cake loops in the background. Minus your title page and bibliography, your essay’s word count barely hovers above zero. You told yourself a few days ago that you work better under pressure, but here you are with only a few hours before deadline and you’re still not doing the task required. What’s going on here? To put it simply: you’re procrastinating.

It’s a situation we’ve all been in. Whether it’s a university essay, a business presentation, or simply cleaning up your room. Everybody procrastinates. A task gets pushed off, typically with the desire to do something that offers instant gratification (such as online videos of squirrels dancing to the Macarena). It mainly comes down to the fact that our brains are wired to procrastinate—though I wouldn’t use that as an excuse the next time you’re late to hand in a business report. So what exactly is going on in our brain that makes us procrastinate?

Whether it’s a university essay, a business presentation, or simply cleaning up your room. Everybody procrastinates.

Procrastination comes about due to a tension between two parts of your brain: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is one of the most dominant sections of the human brain and it works on automatic. It tells you to move your hand away from something hot or to keep gobbling up donuts because of the immediate feel-goodness on your tongue. In general, it urges you to seek pleasurable things and retreat from unpleasant things. The pre-frontal cortex, however, is the brain’s internal planner; this is the part of your brain where decisions and information gets assessed. It’s precisely this section of our brain that separates us from animals. Unlike the limbic system though, the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t work on automatic. You need to put the effort in to make it function (like telling yourself: ‘I’m going to analyse this spreadsheet!’) But as soon as you lose focus – (‘Man, I really hate spreadsheets’) – your limbic system kicks in and you seek something more instantly gratifying. In short; you procrastinate.

While this habit of postponing stuff happens to the best of us, severe procrastination can be quite debilitating to your wellbeing. The act of procrastinating generally causes more stress and anxiety for the dawdling person. This can lead to a cycle of mental paralysis where you feel anxious and stressed for not focusing on your work, but then can’t focus because you’re anxious and stressed. This type of severe procrastination can lead to a huge loss in self-esteem and be quite crippling to those who suffer from it.

Unlike the limbic system though, the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t work on automatic. You need to put the effort in to make it function

So how does one break this habit then? Well for serious conditions and only from a doctor, there’s always prescription drugs: Ritalin and other ADHD medication. But what did chronic procrastinators do earlier in history before all of our problems could be swallowed away in tiny tablets? Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, would have his servant strip him naked of all his clothes, forcing him to work in discomfort as a punishment for procrastinating. He wrote over a dozen novels. Herman Melville was another author fond of eclectic solutions and when struggling with his epic novel Moby-Dick, he had his wife chain him to his desk for each writing day. A more modern figure, such as the Dalai Lama, even admits to procrastinating in his youth: ‘Only in the face of a difficult challenge or an urgent deadline would I study and work without laziness.’ He now proclaims that, ‘You must not procrastinate […] Rather you should make preparations so that even if you die tonight, you would have no regrets.’

Now those are pretty intense words from the Dalai Lama. In contrast, some have argued that you should embrace procrastination. That postponing one’s responsibilities is actually good and healthy for you. University of San Diego Professor Frank Partnoy advocates for procrastination in his recent book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. In an interview for the Smithsonian, Partnoy said:

‘Procrastination is just a universal state of being for humans. We will always have more things to do than we can possibly do, so we will always be imposing some sort of unwarranted delay on some tasks. The question is not whether we are procrastinating, it is whether we are procrastinating well.’

Sometimes your urge to procrastinate is your mind’s way of saying: take a break, relax. As long as you’re meeting your deadlines and getting stuff done on time, procrastinate as much as you want. Remember it happens to the best of us. As the great Leonard da Vinci wrote: ‘It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.’

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