The Science Behind Procrastination
Learn the biological factors that cause procrastination—and how to defeat them.
There’s no more elegant example of the cyclical self-torture of procrastination than the lyrics to a song from the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Our hero has a book report due. He sings in a halting, panicky monotone: “If I start writing now…when I’m not really rested…it could upset my thinking which is not good at all…I’ll get a fresh start tomorrow…and it’s not due till Wednesday…so I’ll…have all of Tuesday unless…something should happen…Why does this always happen…I should be outside playing…getting fresh air and sunshine…I work best under pressure and there’ll be lots of pressure if I…wait till tomorrow…I should start writing now but if I…start writing now when I’m not really rested…it could upset my thinking…which is not good at all.”
Ring a bell? It’s a monologue we all experience in some form, an agonizing internal conversation that fells the best of us. And that’s where things start to get interesting: Procrastination is so relatable, so universal, because the human brain, it turns out, is wired for it. Science explains Charlie Brown’s seesaw sensibility as a fight that is sparked between two parts of the mind when it’s faced with a distasteful activity: a battle of the limbic system (the unconscious zone that includes the pleasure center) and the prefrontal cortex (the internal “planner”). When the limbic system wins, and that’s pretty often, the result is putting off for tomorrow what could (and should) be done today.
Here’s a bit more scientific backup, so you can stop blaming yourself (or your parents, your birth sign, the weather) and start chalking up procrastination to biology. The limbic system, one of the oldest and most dominant portions of the brain, is on automatic. It tells you to, say, pull your hand away from a flame—and also to flee from unpleasant tasks. In other words, it directs you to opt for “immediate mood repair,” explains Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, and the author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle ($16, amazon.com).
The prefrontal cortex is a newer and weaker portion of the brain. It’s what allows you to integrate information and make decisions. “This is the part of the brain that really separates humans from animals, who are just controlled by stimulus,” says Pychyl. The prefrontal cortex, located immediately behind the forehead (where we tap when we’re trying to think, dammit, think), gets the job done. But there’s nothing automatic about its function. You must kick it into gear (“I have to sit down and write this book report!”). And the moment you’re not consciously engaged in a task, your limbic system takes over. You give in to what feels good—you procrastinate.
While understanding these mind games demystifies our habit of perpetually postponing stuff, it doesn’t cure the habit. The solution for procrastination is outsmarting it: You can trick yourself into productivity. How? Here are seven strategies for overcoming the Big P, devised with help from specialists in the field (yes, there’s a procrastination field). This tool kit of techniques will fix the fight between the just-do-it angel and the pleasure-hungry devil in your head. No need to pick just one tactic. Have them all in your arsenal so you’re ready to handle whatever obstacle your battling brain might toss in your path.