Dr. Piers Steel

Piers Steel Ph.D.

The Procrastination Equation

Better Living Through Chemistry–The Success Pill

Is success just one pill away?

Posted Jul 29, 2011

Would you take a pill for success?

Until we prematurely parted ways, my teenage years were spent at a private boarding school, with hefty tuition fees that were mostly wasted on me. Sure, I was a solid "B" student, but that was largely due to a reasonably good set of genes passed down from my parents. It certainly wasn't because of diligence or effort on my part. I hadn't yet learned how to concentrate, and if a project required this element absent from my psyche, I wasn't going to get it done well or on time. I composed essays hours before they were due and my test studying could have been featured in a documentary on cramming. At times I tried to start earlier but my mind always just slipped off elsewhere. Well, almost always.

The one exception came about because of a schoolmate. He had been formally diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and consequently received a steady supply of the drug Ritalin. Knowing I was having trouble with an upcoming creative writing project, he gave me a few tablets as a study aid. In the privacy of my dorm room, I swallowed these little round pills and started to write. The drug was remarkable and soon showed itself as words started to spill out onto the page faster and faster. They formed sentences and then paragraphs, which soon grew into complete sections. At about three in the morning, after far exceeding the recommended word length, I simply decided that I had more than enough and tied up the piece. It wasn't because I was tired or didn't have more to say. I had concentration to spare and the will to continue but the task was simply already done and then some. Ritalin had made what was difficult easy, and I loved it. If I could have gotten my own prescription, I would have. Instead, I had to learn how to concentrate drug-free.

My story may be three decades old, but it certainly isn't our first foray into pharmaceutical solutions to motivational problems. Sigmund Freud, for example, was temporarily a proponent of cocaine as a work stimulant, among a myriad of other uses. Today, the desire for the perfect pill continues. Just as athletes have their steroids, intellectuals can have their performance enhanced too.

One of the stars of the recent movie thriller Limitless was a pill: the much-coveted (and fictional) nootropic drug NZT-48. In the film, NZT-48 not only has the power to cure all procrastinating tendencies, but also bumps up your IQ three-fold, allowing little tricks like instant and total recall. Everything you ever read, saw or learned stays with you permanently if you take the drug. Under NZT-48's influence, the film's protoganist, Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper), is transformed from an unsuccessful writer into one of the masters of the world. Limitless isn't entirely a Hollywood invention, however; it is simply an exaggeration of reality. Nootropic pharmaceuticals, also called smart drugs, memory enhancers or cognitive enhancers, do indeed exist, though their effectiveness is controversial.

Though product lines aimed at chemically improving memory are still in the development phase, some other neuroenhancers are already on the market for increasing concentration. I mentioned Ritalin already but drugs such as Modafinil (e.g., Provigil) and Adderall are also becoming known as anti-procrastination pills. A growing secondary (albeit at times illegal) market for these drugs is as study aids for students in various levels of education, from high school to medical school and then to the professors that teach them. Estimates of their use by college students often exceed one in ten, so you likely at least know someone personally who has used them. The real question, though, is whether they "cure" procrastination and if so, how.

The best-known motivation medication is my old friend Ritalin (available under brand names such as Concerta and Methylphenidate); commonly prescribed to ADHD sufferers, it is referred to as "Vitamin R" by the drug's secondary market of student users. It does a wide variety of effects desirable for decreasing procrastination. It is known for its ability to increase spatial memory, helping the user to better remember graphs and diagrams, and has also been linked to increasing concentration and alertness. Also, since the number one reasons people report for procrastination is being too tired, any amphetamine will certainly provide a boost of energy - they are "uppers." Asking around our own university, it wasn't hard to find a few users. One student reported that he only used Concerta during finals and midterms, when he needed to study for extended periods of time and retain a great deal of information. Effects he listed included severely decreased appetite, an inability to fall asleep easily, and the all-important significant increase in attention to detail. For these reasons he claimed he wouldn't ever take the pills unless he was in dire need of a concentration boost, as they are expensive to obtain and the side effects are generally harder to deal with than the actual work was worth.

Adderall performs much like Ritalin, both being an amphetamine derivative, so we'll skip it and go right to Modafinil, created to treat narcolepsy and often used in cognitive-based therapies (Ghahremani, 2011). Some claim it is more effective than Ritalin as a cognitive enhancer. Studies show that it causes a focusing in brain activity towards the frontal cortex and thus increases cognitive performance in young and healthy individuals. In a study performed in 2003, Dr. Barbara Sahakian reported that subjects who had taken Modafinil moved from one task to the next more smoothly and adjusted swiftly without getting stressed or anxious when confronted with conflicting stimuli. Sahakian suggested that Modafinil "may be the first real smart drug" and that "a lot of people will probably take it. I suspect they do already." A study performed last year found that both Modafinil and Ritalin improved memory, but that only Modafinil increased wakefulness and executive order brain functions, although its effects did fade in patients who were sleep-deprived (Repantis, 2010).

Are these drugs a short cut to eliminate procrastination? Can we forget all those motivational techniques scientists have been cultivating over the last century, put aside the debate over whether procrastination is caused by perfectionism or impulsiveness and just pop a pill? I would find this most disappointing given I've dedicated a large portion of my life to studying procrastination, but let's explore the option anyway.

For starters, these neuroenhancers drugs aren't for everyone. You may not find their effectiveness worth the side effects. Everyone's brain chemistry is slightly different, and the drugs aren't universally effective - and even if they were, the cost might be excessive. For example, the fictional Limitless drug NZT-48 wasn't without its price either; stop using it once and you started to die. Let's consider Adderall. Though part of the amphetamine family and related to the street drug "speed," due to its composition Adderall is far less abrasive. Still, it betrays its origins with this litany of side effects reported for Adderall from http://adderallsideeffects.org/:

Common side effects of Adderall use or abuse include anorexia, dry mouth, chronic thirst, the development of sleeping disorders or generalized difficulty sleeping, chronic headaches or migraines, pain in the stomach, high blood pressure, sudden and unexplained weight loss, mood swings or other emotional changes, nausea with vomiting, sudden dizziness or fainting, a generalized feeling of weakness or tiredness, a sudden spike in heart rate, a higher risk of infections, unexplained fevers, heartburn, chest pains, and a slowing of growth in children. Those who use the drug for an extended period of time may also experience severe withdrawals, periods of depression, and, with extreme abuse, amphetamine psychosis.

That's a hefty price. I can see why my aforementioned university student wisely saved his drug use for special academic occasions (especially as the side effects intensify with repeated use).

Modifinol, however, is a slightly different story. The side effects are typically not as severe, allowing people to insert an occasional 20 hour day of concentrated work into their schedule. Consequently, in highly competitive environments such as entrepreneurship or medical school, using this to get a leg-up isn't uncommon. Others use it just to get stuff done, such as one user reports "As the hours progressed, I found myself doing things I usually hate, dishes, laundry, cleaning my room, and completing homework with absolutely no feeling of sleepiness."You will need to get your sleep eventually though, as Modifinol's effectiveness diminishes the more hours you spend away from your bed.

Reflexively, I don't like Modifinol implications. It smacks of the soma addicts from Huxley's Brave New World. Do we give up some of our humanity by becoming pharmaceutically assisted? Let's put it this way, do you really want your own kids on these drugs? If so, how young can we start them? For example, my oldest is almost six and I find him a little scatterbrained at times. How about him? Also, I am suspicious of getting something for nothing. My own ability to concentrate comes from careful cultivation of work routines and control of my work environment, essentially what I outline in my book. It took effort but I can regularly get up to ten hours of really solid concentration a day, although I acknowledge that's half of what Modifinol users report.

Others argue that cognitive enhancers are the way of the future. In science's flagship journal Nature one influential article was titled, "Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy." Another, "Professor's Little Helper," concluded that "We believe it would be difficult to stop the spread in use of cognitive enhancers." Reluctantly, I agree. Regardless of whether I believe these drugs are wrong or right, the future will see far greater use of them partly because popping a pill is easy and we all like easy. In addition, if these drugs fulfill their promise, those who take them will likely be the ones that get ahead. Except for a minority of naturally exceptional people, we won't be able to compete without them. Perhaps taken along with our morning cup of coffee, tomorrow's slogan appears to be "drink up or be left out."

And as a final note to all those eager for Modifinol to go generic in 2012, I will argue that if neuroenhancers are the cognitive equivalent of steroids, good motivational techniques are the equivalent of exercise. The latter won't go entirely out of favor even if it just enables better results from the former. But really, I hope that exercise is all you really need.

Want to learn more about yourself? Take one of our online surveys on different aspects of your pesronality and get immediate feedback about yourself.

Mellers, B. A. (2000). Choice and the relative pleasure of consequences. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 910-924.
Ghahremani, D. G., Tabibnia, G., Monterosso, J., Hellemann, G., Poldrack, R., & London, E. D. (2011). Effect of modafinil on learning and task-related brain activity in methamphetamine-dependent and healthy individuals. Neuropsychopharmacology, 36(5), 950-959.
Repantis D., Schlattmann P., Laisney O., & Heuser I. (2010). Modafinil and methylphenidate for neuroenhancement in healthy individuals: A systematic review. Pharmacol Res, 62(3), 187-206.

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