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Impulsiveness: Procrastination’s Nickel-Iron Core

We all experience motivational breakdowns, but what's the core reason?

When your car breaks down, it's mysterious. Is it the battery? Perhaps the fuel line? Let's pray it's not the transmission. There are just so many culprits to consider. To determine whatever is causing that smoke to rise from the hood or is making your dashboard engine light glow a fiery red, you need to rely on an expert: a mechanic. Few of us possess the skills to delve into that tangle of tubes, belts, and wires that form your vehicle's innards and repair what's out of kilter.

Now contrast that with your mind. When that concentration of ten billion nerve fibers fail to work as advertised, there isn't just one explanation either. We all experience motivational breakdowns, like eating ice cream in front of the television, while exercise and writing were originally on the menu. Want to know what's going on under the hood? Let me be your mental mechanic, and I'll show you. There are a couple of misfiring neural regions that are reliably responsible for your procrastination.

Two big contributing factors to procrastination are straightforward: low self-confidence and the aversiveness toward tasks. If we doubt our ability to complete a chore and find it as exciting as watching concrete set, we are more likely to put it off. It is no wonder that taxes, which are both difficult and boring, are famous for making procrastinators out of almost all of us.

These two forces are important triggers of procrastination. Past posts have featured them as they are elements of the Procrastination Equation, the motivational formula that determines delay. They are described by the terms "expectancy" and "value"; when we don't expect to succeed or don't value the task, they make procrastination worse. By themselves, these two factors don't create our self-destructive delays, but they do intensify them (like gasoline waiting patiently for a lit match).

The nickel-iron core of procrastination isn't expectancy and value, which perch at the top of the Procrastination Equation, but what resides beneath them. Sitting at the bottom of the formula and increasing the effects of delay is the real perpetrator: our impulsiveness.

We don't want to wait for rewards. If you had a choice between a thousand dollars now and a thousand dollars next year, you would want it now. This makes perfect sense. (Note: if this doesn't describe you, please contact me. I would be more than happy to keep your money in my bank account and then return it to you, without interest, in a year from now).

What doesn't make much sense is the degree we value or overvalue present rewards. If I gave you that thousand dollars now and told you that you had to spend it today on a frivolous purchase, what would it be? What indulgence would you enjoy? Have some fun. But before you had the chance to spend it, I ask if you are willing to give that money immediately back. You say, "Nope. Mine now." Fair enough; so I sweeten the deal. In exchange, I'll offer you a certified check or bank draft post-dated one year later. So you swap some money now for some larger-but-later money. How much larger does that later money need to be for you to forgo getting the cash today?

If your figure is around $3,000 dollars, you are in good company. That's about the average. I've run this little thought experiment dozens of times, and I've received figures as high as ten grand, meaning that next year's rewards needs to be ten times larger than what you can receive today to be worth waiting for (i.e., about a thousand times the interest rate that the cash in your saving account generates). Usually, the higher the figure you give, the more impulsive you are. Impulsiveness multiples the effects of delay.

In this way, impulsiveness creates procrastination, because it makes small but immediate temptations, like playing Minesweeper or updating your social network status, especially attractive. The reward might be small, but the delay is virtually nonexistent. On the flip side, large but distant rewards, like graduating or saving for retirement, aren't valued much at all. Despite their importance, these long-term goals don't motivate us until the march of time itself eventually transforms them into short-term consequences. Only in those final hours do we frantically try to catch up on what we really should have addressed long before. The more impulsive you are, the closer to deadlines you need to be before you'll feel fully motivated.

How did we get this way? It all starts with our brain's neurobiology, and the fact that within our noggins there isn't one decision-making system, but two. This means that every time you decide to work, the payoff gets evaluated twice: once by the limbic system, and a second time by the prefrontal cortex. This division in your brain has been rediscovered innumerable times over the course of history, in disciplines ranging from economics to philosophy. Modern science, revealing its capacity for bureaucratic blandness, has labelled the two parts of the brain as "System 1" and "System 2." It's too bad we ended up with such lame labels, as many more evocative and poetic descriptions have been used, including a taxonomy based on ancient Greek gods (i.e., Dionysian versus Apollonian).

Procrastination occurs because our more recently evolved prefrontal cortex, aka System 2, is responsible for our long-range thinking. When we make New Year's resolutions or decide what we are going to do next week, the prefrontal cortex is activated. Sometimes called the executive function, you might think of it as the seat of our willpower and all our well-thought-through intentions.

On the other hand, the limbic system, aka System 1, is more ancient — and more primitive. It is mostly concerned with immediate and concrete rewards and repercussions: what you can instantly smell, touch, taste, or hear. It responds to stimulus cues in the environment, and it is motivationally very powerful, having a direct line to the brain's amygdala, where our basic emotions arise.

Here's what happens when we procrastinate. Long-range plans are made in the abstract, that is, in the absence of the reality you will face when you try to enact them. This means that the limbic system, which is activated by environmental cues, often operates separately from the prefrontal cortex. It is all very good to make plans to diet or exercise, but when the reality of the moment comes, there is a very tangible chocolate mousse in front of you, or the bed is so warm and cozy, and you are craving another hour of sleep. So the limbic system overrides the prefrontal cortex, and you binge or stay in bed.

Think of the brain as a two-story bungalow. The bottom floor got built first and contains a young and rowdy couple. They play loud music, throw wild parties, and are up at all hours. Later a second-story extension got built on top and an older and more practical couple moved in. They like to tend the garden and pay off their mortgage. At times, the two couples agree about how the household should be run, but with such differences in values, there are plenty of disagreements. The more impulsive you are, the more time you spend siding with the occupants on the bungalow's first floor.

For the most part, we put off tasks, despite expecting to be worse off when the temptations of the moment — the only things the limbic system cares about — override what the prefrontal cortex cares about (that is, tomorrow's larger but later concerns). We know that our teeth have to last a lifetime, but then there is the immediacy of that drill. Sure, we want to pay off our credit card bill, but with one more swipe, you could be wearing that jacket now. The world is never short of these tradeoffs, from a moment on the lips to a lifetime on the hips; the indulgence is temporary, but the regret lasts forever.

There is an impressive amount of research confirming the importance of impulsiveness in determining procrastination. I review much of it in my book The Procrastination Equation, but one article from 2010 was too new to make it in. In a piece entitled "Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function," published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, Laura Rabin, Joshua Fogel, and Katherine Nutter-Upham concluded that, as expected, "the findings showed the importance of various aspects of self-reported executive functions in predicting a tendency toward academic procrastination." How about the competing theory that we procrastinate because we are anxious? Rabin and her colleagues found tendencies towards anxiety to be unrelated to procrastination.

This understanding of Systems 1 and 2, of the limbic and prefrontal cortex, is essentially an extended section of the self-help source code. If you have read through any series of self-help books, you probably have found that the advice gets constantly repeated. It's inevitable, as everyone is drawing from the same source. There are shared fundamental reasons why we don't stick with our diets, why our exercise sneakers gather dust in the corner, or why we surf for sport scores while vital projects need attention. So you get stores with shelves of self-help books that differ in application (e.g., eating, exercise, productivity), but the underlying mechanisms are often identical.

The beautiful outcome of all this is that if you can master some basic self-control techniques, you can be your own mental mechanic. You can confidently identify where motivational problems lie and make effective recommendations. In the next post, you get another piece for your toolbox. We'll cover a heavy duty technique: pre-commitment.

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