As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today”. Yes, but I can get on to work after this one episode…or two…okay one more…there’s always the next morning?…and so it goes. Everyone has been through this flurry of the cycle of getting stuck between important work and the irresistible urge to put it off for later. Well, recent research suggests procrastination has less to do with being lazy and more with how the human brain works.
If you think I have been procrastinating while struggling to punch in a few coherent words, you’re right. It’s “Monday” here; where Sunday starts feeling less like a Sunday and the worries of Monday start sinking in. Even when stress is at an all-time high, my to-do list remains untouched. In essence, that’s what procrastination is. A better definition might be the one found in UPMC HealthBeat that describes procrastination as “the avoidance of work or necessary tasks by focusing on more satisfying activities that are due to a chemical in the brain.” Even though we often recognize the negative consequences, we end up postponing the activity.
The first thing to note is that the internet is not the cause of procrastination. People have been struggling with this problem since ancient times. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing around 800 B.C warned to not “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” This phenomenon has spiked decades of empirical curiosity. There are a few roots that have surfaced; Procrastination finds many of its roots in our biology. Humans usually seek out activities that give out an endorphin rush or also called the feel-good hormones that come from doing something enjoyable or rewarding. Procrastination is our brain telling us that we would rather feel good now, through shorter bursts of endorphin rushes that we get while using our phones rather than wait for that final graded paper to feel rewarded
Many people wrongly assume that procrastination is because of a lazy disposition or simply undeniable incompetence. That’s thoroughly false. Procrastination is the outcome of a persistent battle in our brain between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system, also known as the paleomammalian brain, is one of the brain’s oldest and most dominant portions. It’s the unconscious zone that contains the pleasure centre and its processes are mostly automatic. When you feel that urge in your whole body is telling you to escape from an ugly situation, it’s your limbic system speaking. It’s also tightly linked to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is newer, less developed, and a somewhat weaker portion of the brain. This is the part of our brain responsible for planning complex behaviours that allow us to make wiser decisions. The prefrontal cortex is “the part of the brain that really separates humans from animals, who are just controlled by the stimulus,” explains Dr Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor and the author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.
The limbic system decides (was makes the decision before) to stay away from things that cause anxiety and stress. That system has existed from times of early civilization; so we can stay clear of wild animals or situations that would put our mortal well being in danger. Fortunately, those situations have changed and the only danger that’s coming to hunt us now are the pesky deadlines. But, our brains can’t tell the difference so, in turn, we shy away from presumably important tasks. We give in to our brain’s urge to do what feels good now. That being, another episode of Umbrella Academy. As the limbic system is much stronger, it very often wins the battle, leading to procrastination.
Similarly, many procrastinators believe that they flourish under stress but again, research says otherwise. “A lot of people believe they work better under a deadline, but think about it from the perspective of limbic biology,” Says Dr Tim Pychyl, PhD, head of the Procrastination Research Group. “Initially, writing that report was the animal that wanted to eat you, but when the deadline is tomorrow, the deadline becomes the animal. The fear gets shifted around.” It’s still your limbic system that’s controlling your actions rather than the prefrontal cortex.
Procrastination has an extensive list of harmful effects. Students who procrastinate experience higher levels of stress, frustration, and guilt. A recent study shows that this additional stress contributes to negative psychophysiological impacts on the body, increasing our vulnerability for illness. It helps to drift away from this dangerous loop to relate more positive feelings to the work at hand and to work at a different schedule; even if it might be slightly different from traditional working hours. Better get to work, then!
Cover Photo: https://www.additudemag.com/how-to-stop-procrastinating-right-now-when-you-have-adhd/