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The Scientific/Neurological Roots of Procrastination

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Contributor: Sharon Chen

Procrastination is something you hear a lot about in university. You and your friends have probably been procrastinating on reading a chapter of a textbook, finishing an essay, and especially studying for your upcoming final exams. You feel guilty about it, but the next time you try to be somewhat productive, you get back to scrolling through Tiktok or watching YouTube. Before you know it, four hours have passed and you have gotten nothing checked off of your to-do list.

Procrastination is when you put off or avoid doing necessary tasks or work, and instead do activities that give you immediate pleasure. There are a few types of procrastinators:

  1. The perfectionist: You are too afraid to start a task, as you get stressed trying to get every little detail right. You may also stop in the middle of a task because you are too afraid to move on and potentially mess up.

  2. The dreamer: You enjoy making an “ideal plan” but never take action. You find it hard to finish tasks.

  3. The avoider/self-saboteur: You’re worried about whether or not you can manage the task at hand. You don’t want to be judged for any mistakes you may make, and thus avoid the task entirely.

  4. The crisis-maker/thrill-seeker: You purposely push back tasks and enjoy the “thrill” of racing to meet the deadline. You believe you work best under pressure and push everything back until the last minute.

  5. The busy bee/overdoer: You have trouble prioritizing your tasks because you have so many or don’t want to work on tasks that don’t seem worthy of your time. You don’t know which task to start with, and end up postponing making any decisions.

You might find yourself identifying with one particular type of procrastinator or multiple. In either case, the reason for your procrastination all boils down to neuroscience.

Procrastination is a result of a battle within your brain between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is made up of the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus. It is involved in our behavioural and emotional reactions, particularly behaviour needed for survival such as feeding and fight or flight responses. Thus, if you are in an unpleasant situation, your limbic system is what tells you to get out of that situation. It also houses the pleasure centre of the brain. It is one of the oldest and most dominant parts of our brain and its processes are automatic. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is in charge of planning complex behaviours, expressing your personality, and making decisions happen. It also plays an important role in intelligence, memory, temper, and personality. It is a lot younger and less developed than the limbic system and is thus much weaker. Because of this unbalanced power dynamic, the limbic system almost always wins these battles, which results in procrastination. We often prefer gaining immediate pleasure rather than waiting, and ignore the future consequences of obtaining this immediate pleasure. Many studies have shown that procrastination can lead to higher levels of stress, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and reduced satisfaction. Even for the crisis-makers and thrill-seekers—although they may enjoy less stress at first—when the deadline rolls around, not only do they become more stressed, affecting their mental health, but their performance levels decrease as well.

Despite the biological workings of procrastination, there are preventative measures that you could take to stop your mind from succumbing to the urge of procrastination:

  • Break up tasks into smaller chunks so that you can work through a more manageable series of tasks

  • Try your best to eliminate any potential distractions

  • Commit to doing a task for just 10 minutes and see how you feel after that

  • Work in an environment where there is positive pressure for you to complete your tasks

  • Find something positive or worthwhile about the task itself

  • Reward yourself for getting tasks done early or on time

So next time you procrastinate, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s not your fault, it’s biology. Now stop procrastinating and go finish that task you’ve been putting off all week.


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