Quirks of the Brain: Procrastination's Perfect Storm

How our brain tricks us into procrastinating.

Posted Sep 01, 2009

I enjoyed reading David Rock's blog posting about why all self-help books are the same.  I think he clearly identified some of the "quirks" of our brains. His short list paints a picture of the perfect storm for procrastination.

Below are David's "top five" (or at least, 5 "bigger quirks" as he put it). With each, I comment on the relation to procrastination and provide links to some of my previous posts where I discuss these in more depth. If you're new to this "Don't Delay" blog, you'll find this post a good introduction to major themes and previous posts.

1. The brain is built to firstly minimize danger, before maximizing rewards.

Any threat to self is minimized, any handy reward is tempting. This alone accounts for a great deal of our procrastination as we avoid tasks that threaten the self, and we discount future rewards in favor of immediate gratification. A little more focus on emotional intelligence can help here. Too often, feelings trump reasons, and we give in to feel good.

2. Too much uncertainty feels dangerous. It feels like possible pain so we avoid it.

Task uncertainty is a major correlate of procrastination. As David put it, "it feels dangerous." We want to avoid this feeling, and we do. We procrastinate. The things is, we can strategically reduce uncertainty rather than just run away. The uncertainty in our modern world isn't a predator lurking, but our stone-age brain doesn't know this, we simply feel the potential for disaster.

3. Our conscious processing capacity is small, which makes us terrible at a lot of things, including predicting what might make us happy.

The planning fallacy and our poor ability at affective forecasting creates a very difficult situation for accurately setting realistic goals and sticking to them. We can enhance skills like "time traveling" to improve our predictions, but this takes practice and conscious work.

4. Our capacity to regulate emotions is limited, depletes fast and needs to be used quickly to be effective.

Willpower, that sadly limited resource, is a key issue in our self-regulation. Fortunately, it can also be bolstered, restored and used strategically to serve our intentions and goals. Speaking of intentions and goals . . .

5. Our intentions and goals alter the information that the brain pays attention to.

Yes, but there is often a big gap between our intentions and our actions, and this is a defining aspect of procrastination. Understanding the first four of these "quirks of our brain" helps us explain just how our intentions and goals alter our attentional processes, for better or worse. Supplementing goal intentions with implementation intentions can help too

Individual differences matter
Although our brains may be biased in these ways, one of the other key points that David made was that "All our brains, on one level, are very different." So, even with these major biases in the way we think, there are important individual differences. This means we each have to evaluate which subset of these factors are contributing to our own breakdown in self-regulation. We each also have to create an individualized strategic plan based on this "psychological fingerprint" within the context of our own lives.

In the end, David has it right. So many self-help books have common themes, as each is working on a common set of human frailties that create a variety of self-regulation failures that trouble us. These defining characteristics of our humanity are set into a wide variety of contexts, and I think this context is something that must be taken into account as each of our lives is defined by the dance of nature via nurture.

Wisdom is defined by how we translate basic principles into executable strategies in the context of our own life. Wisdom is in realizing how these principles play out in our own thinking. Realizing - making "real" in our lives. This is what the self needs help with, making things we know, things we understand conceptually, real in our day-to-day lives. The costs of delay are mounting for our health and relationships. Just get started.