What Are the Neural Roots of Procrastination?
New research explores the role of the brain in the tendency to put things off.
Posted November 19, 2019 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
You’d like to be on time, but no matter how hard you try, you’re never less than five minutes late. You’ve promised to meet a friend for coffee, but to your dismay, you realize there’s no way you’ll get there within anywhere near that five-minute average. How are you going to explain your lateness this time?
Well, you can come up with all sorts of reasons, from traffic to an unexpected phone call or the need to answer an emergency email. However, this particular episode of lateness relates to a larger problem you have with procrastination. Deadlines come up at work or in your home life, but they don’t seem real until the actual date or time is upon you.
Psychology tries to explain procrastination through a variety of theories. From the psychodynamic point of view, your constant stalling is due to a neurotic and self-defeating need to fail. Being late and missing most deadlines ensures that you will be regarded as unreliable, almost guaranteeing failure at work and in relationships.
Being overly narcissistic can be another source of procrastination. You love waiting until the last minute so you can make a grand entrance as everyone else is left waiting and wondering where you are.
It’s also possible, though, that your brain is wired to make lateness an inherent part of your psychological makeup. According to a new study by Shunmin Zhang and colleagues (2019) of Southwest University, Chongqing, China, “It is generally accepted that procrastination is a voluntary but irrational delay of intended courses of action." The authors summarize contemporary personality theories, which place the blame not on neurotic needs but on the personality traits of low self-control and high impulsivity. However, the Chinese research team believes that there are cognitive explanations of procrastination that are just as, if not more, valuable in understanding the causes of procrastination.
To understand the brain's role in procrastination, Zhang et al. begin by describing the contrasting explanation of two cognitive approaches. The emotion-regulation perspective, as the term implies, proposes that people procrastinate when they let their short-term goal of putting off something they don’t want to do outweigh the long-term benefits of getting the task accomplished. In other words, “the benefits of avoiding task-induced aversiveness trump the benefits of the delayed rewards the task can yield."
Conversely, motivation-based theory regards procrastination as due to an increase in motivation to act as the deadline looms. This theory, referred to as “temporal discounting,” proposes that “the further away an event is temporally, the less impact it has." You don’t see that deadline of three weeks away as something to worry about, and only act when the weeks dwindle to days or even hours. As compelling as these cognitive approaches may seem on their own, though, the authors believe both motivation and emotion form part of the procrastination picture.
The Chinese authors believe, instead, that these psychological theories together can provide the answers in one “temporal decision model.” Whether you act now or in the future depends on whether the motivation to act outweighs the motivation to avoid. Here’s where your brain steps in to explain your constant lateness. The emotional aversiveness piece of procrastination comes from the activity of the parahippocampus (involved in memory), which remembers how aversive the task was in the past (i.e., you really don’t like that friend you were supposed to meet for coffee). Indeed, Zhang et al. maintain that this tiny piece of brain tissue provides “one of the most solid neural underpinnings underlying trait procrastination."
This is because the parahippocampus additionally communicates with other neighboring brain regions in the limbic system. In procrastinators, this whole region works together to amplify an event’s aversiveness. In people who don’t procrastinate the brain sends out fewer emotional alarms about the upcoming and potentially unpleasant task.
Next, the temporal discounting piece in procrastination kicks in, leading procrastinators to feel less motivated to get started on an event that seems far away. Zhang et al. cite research showing that procrastinators may have less neural tissue in the prefrontal area of the brain (involved in planning and impulse control), making it more difficult for them to self-regulate their use of time. Without the ability to self-regulate, you’ll find it more difficult to pace yourself as you try to achieve a goal within the allotted time limits. Chronic procrastinators can only think of is how boring, frustrating, or unfulfilling the task will be until the inevitable comes along and they have no choice but to tackle it. Again, returning to the meeting with your friend, you may have started with plenty of time to get there at the appointed hour, but as the clock ticked down, you became more reluctant to get yourself organized enough to actually get out the door.
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Although you might be tempted to use the temporal decision theory as an excuse for your lateness, or even to attribute your chronic lateness to insufficient gray matter, there are other ways to interpret this neuroscience-based explanation. If you know you’re a procrastinator, you don’t have to give in to the faulty brain waves you’re receiving. Recognize the need to learn from your experiences and put into your memory bank the problems procrastination has caused you. Conversely, realizing that you tend to emphasize the negative aspects of tasks that you know must be completed, try to frame them in a more positive light. The basic premises of cognitive behavioral therapy can also be of use. Give yourself some basic rewards for getting things done on time, replacing your negative with positive associations.
To sum up, chronic procrastination may have its roots in many sources. By knowing the brain structures potentially underlying the inability to look a deadline in the eye, you don’t have to suffer a lifetime of lateness.
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Zhang, S., Liu, P., & Feng, T. (2019). To do it now or later: The cognitive mechanisms and neural substrates underlying procrastination. WIREs Cognitive Science, 10(4), 1–20. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1492