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A Neuropsychological Perspective on Procrastination

The links between executive functioning and procrastination.

A recent study in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology is the first to investigate subcomponents of self-reported executive function related to academic procrastination. In my opinion, this is one of the best recent papers in terms of reviewing the literature and moving forward our understanding of procrastination as a form of self-regulation failure.

Laura Rabin, Joshua Fogel and Katherine Nutter-Upham (Brooklyn College of the City University of New York) conducted ground-breaking research with their study relating executive function to procrastination. Their focus is well placed - procrastination as self-regulation failure. They write, "Procrastination is increasingly recognized as involving a failure in self-regulation such that procrastinators, relative to non-procrastinators, may have a reduced ability to resist social temptations, pleasurable activities, and immediate rewards when the benefits of academic preparation are distant. . .These individuals also fail to make efficient use of internal and external cues to determine when to initiate, maintain, and terminate goal-directed actions" (p. 345).

The characteristics the authors summarize that are associated with procrastination are numerous:

  • Reduced agency
  • Disorganization
  • Poor impulse and emotional control
  • Poor planning and goal setting
  • Reduced use of meta-cognitive skills
  • Distractibility
  • Poor task persistence
  • Time and task management deficiencies

This reveals a common underlying self-regulatory system commonly referred to as "executive function" and associated primarily with the pre-frontal cortex.

Executive function consists of numerous self-regulatory processes such as: novel problem solving, modification of behavior in response to new information, as well as the planning and generating of strategies for complex actions. Although there is some previous research that implicates the frontal system network in the self-regulatory failure of procrastination, no previous research had examined which aspects of executive function were most strongly related to procrastination.

In their study, Laura Rabin and her colleagues examined the nine clinical subscales of the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functioning Adult Version (BRIEF-A) in a sample of 212 undergraduate students (average age just under 22 years, 77% female). In addition, they measured procrastination, as well as depression, intelligence, personality and mood. They hypothesized that "BRIEF-A subscales tapping inhibitory control/impulsivity, self-monitoring, planning and organization skills, and task initiation would be significant predictors of academic procrastination. Conscientiousness, neuroticism, and mood symptoms were also hypothesized to be significant predictors of academic procrastination" (p. 345).

Although I don't like to summarize all of the measures used, it is important to provide a little more background about the measure of executive functioning, the BRIEF-A. In short, it consists of 9 clinical subscales that I have summarized below providing sample items as described by the authors.

Behavioral Regulation scale (or the ability to not act on an impulse)
"I have problems waiting my turn"

The Self-Monitor scale (the extent to which a person keeps track of his/her behavior and its impact on others)
"When people seem upset with me, I don't understand why"; "I say things without thinking"

The Plan/Organize scale (the ability to manage current and future oriented task demands within their situational contexts)
"I don't plan ahead for tasks"; "I have trouble organizing work"

The Shift scale (the ability to shift behaviorally or cognitively from one situation, activity, or aspect of a problem to another, as the circumstances demand)
"I have trouble thinking of a different way to solve a problem when stuck"

The Initiate scale (the ability to begin a task and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies)
"I start things at the last minute such as assignments, chores, tasks"

The Task Monitor scale (the extent to which an individual keeps track of his/her problem-solving success or failure)
"I misjudge how difficult or easy tasks will be"

The Emotional Control scale (the person's ability to modulate emotional responses)
"I overreact to small problems"; "I get emotionally upset easily"

The Working Memory scale (the capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of generating a response or completing a task)
"I have trouble with jobs or tasks that have more than one step"

The Organization of Materials scale (orderliness in one's everyday environment and the ability to keep track of everyday objects, including homework)
"I have trouble finding things in my room, closet, or desk"

Their Results
Not surprisingly given the numerous self-regulatory problems that are associated with procrastination (e.g., disorganization, poor impulse and emotional control), the authors found that all of the nine clinical subscales of executive functioning were significantly related with higher academic procrastination. Interestingly, in most of their analyses, age was associated with procrastination; increasing age was associated with higher levels of procrastination. With respect to age, the authors note

"Perhaps the longer a student remains in school, the less enthusiastic and motivated he/she becomes or the more entrenched bad habits become. It is also possible that familial and work responsibilities increasingly limit the time one can devote to academic tasks, or students may acquire additional bad academic habits over time. These possibilities, however, need to be further explored empirically" (p. 353).

Finally, and as has been demonstrated in numerous previous studies, low conscientiousness was associated with higher procrastination.

One of the reasons I like this paper so much is that in addition to a very thorough introduction (as space permits), the authors wrote a very good discussion section where they consider a number of implications of their findings. Specifically, they discuss the implications for remediation of problematic delay. Here's a list of the key ideas. Each is of interest for those individuals who are seeking to procrastinate less.

I use many if not all of these strategies with my own students who struggle with needless, voluntary delay on their work.

In relation to the Initiate, Plan/Organize, Organization of Materials subscales, possible strategies to increase executive function and decrease procrastination include:

  • set proximal sub-goals along with reasonable expectations about the amount of effort required to complete a given task
  • use contracts for periodic work completion
  • require weekly or repeated quizzes until topic mastery is achieve
  • use short assignments that build on one another with regular deadlines and feedback (these more frequent and shorter deadlines reduce the "distance" of goals and temporal discounting associated with procrastination)

In relation to the Inhibit, Self-Monitor, Working Memory, and Task Monitor subscales, strategies include:

Concluding thoughts
At the risk of repeating myself, I think this is an excellent paper, particularly for new researchers in the area who want to get a good overview of the existing research in relation to an understanding of procrastination as self-regulation failure. I think further research on executive function in relation to procrastination holds much promise. Certainly, the authors identify a number of limitations in their study. Despite these limitations, they have made an important contribution to the literature.

I'll give the authors the final words:

"Our findings are consistent with the conceptualization of executive functioning as central to the ability to engage in independent, goal-oriented behavior, especially in the context of unstructured, novel, or complex tasks, and suggest that procrastination could be an expression of subtle executive dysfunction-even in this group of neuropsychologically healthy young adults. Executive functions rely on a number of cortical and subcortical brain regions including prefrontal cortices, anterior cingulated gyrus, basal ganglia and diencephalic structures, cerebellum, deep white matter tracks, and parietal lobes areas. These brain areas are richly interconnected and are also linked with many additional regions that together subserve virtually all cognitive processes . . . While executive dysfunction is observed in various psychiatric, neurological, and systemic disorders, our research suggests that there may be problems within cognitively healthy individuals that contribute to a vulnerability to procrastination" (p. 354).

Rabin, L.A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K.E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344-357.

Listen to Dr. Laura Rabin discuss this research and the role of executive function in procrastination.

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