The Neurobiology of Procrastination
It's about managing emotions, not time!
My advice is to never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.
- Charles Dickens
Procrastination is often defined as “the voluntary, unnecessary delay of an important task, despite knowing you’ll be worse off for doing so.” It is, in essence, a loss of self-control when performing actions that have motional significance (such as completing a task, running a 5K, or writing this blog) – basically, any goal that matters to us. This doesn’t sound like something any of us want to encourage.
So how do we override this undesired behavior?
To begin with, we need to understand something fundamental, if not a bit mind blowing! Procrastination is a natural biological phenomenon, not a mental rationalization. In other words, it is an emotional reaction. We don’t think and then decide to do something else; we have an emotional reaction and then respond biologically to the emotion. When our brain rationalizes our behavior, we are unaware of the emotion and thus justifying to ourselves why we didn’t do what we set out to do.
The Neurobiology of Procrastination...so what's going on?
At the level of the brain, procrastination falls in the gap between areas involved in intention, emotion, and action – namely, our amygdala (involved in our emotions and motivation), our dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (involved in deciding which actions the body needs to take), and our prefrontal cortex (involved in executive action and control).
How did we discover this? In 2018 a team out of Ruhr-University Bochum, in Germany used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify how two brain areas whose volume and functional connectivity are linked to an individual’s ability to control their actions. In other words, this study is important because it shows that the emotional parts of your brain over-ride our ability for self-regulation – especially when our amygdala is enlarged, most often a result of stress and burnout in our daily lives. The more stressed we are, the larger our amygdala. The larger our amygdala, the less we can regulate our emotions or control our actions.
WHAT??? This is huge! This means that procrastination is about managing emotions, not time.
Do not act as if you had a thousand years to live.
- Marcus Aurelius
Here's what you can do!
Find time for mindfulness activities such as contemplation, meditation, and gratitude practices. These, with the aid of neural plasticity, can help enormously here, as meditative activities directly affects the size of the amygdala and its connectivity to the prefrontal cortex. For example, it was recently discovered (by accident) by a pair of Harvard scientists how dramatic this can be. While we know that the frontal cortex shrinks as we age, in this particular study they took a group of 50 year old people woo didn’t meditate and had them meditate for just 15 minutes/day for 8 weeks. What they discovered shocked them! After the 8 weeks these people had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age!!! It is that effective! So if you want to be smarter now and into your old age, meditate for 15 minutes. It will help with procrastination and focus on your goals too!
The other skill we can consciously build is breathwork. Breathwork is the fastest hack to override your nervous system within a few seconds. Just putting a breath between your emotional reaction and your response to an action in the moment gives your prefrontal cortex a moment to rationalize an otherwise bad choice. You see, our amygdala (emotional brain) responds hundreds of times faster than our prefrontal cortex (rational brain) and a breath between thought and response gives us time to realize that sending that “flame mail” to your co-worker isn’t actually a good idea. Even better yet, like meditation gratitude, and other mindfulness practices, breathwork helps us increase our cognitive reserve and stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s for years, if not decades.
Very interesting research out of NYU found that improving our emotions actually improves our time management skills – not the other way around, as mot of us assume. They used a metacognitive strategy called mental contrasting. What the Mental Contrasting exercise does is strengthen the association of our present blockage with our ideal future to help us embody with a felt emotion how our ability to attain our ideal future depends upon our actions right now, in our current reality.
An ample amount of studies show the different effects of mental contrasting vs. indulging and dwelling on behavior change. One study, for example, had college students name their most important interpersonal concern and indicate their expectations of resolving the concern. They were then randomly assigned to one of three conditions: mental contrasting, indulging, or dwelling. When measuring their feelings of energization right after the experiment, and then 2 weeks later, participants with high expectations increased in energization and acted immediately, those with low expectations decreased in energization and delayed their actions. Students in the indulging and dwelling conditions did not change, neither in their energization nor in the immediacy of action, regardless of whether their expectations were high or low.
In other words, indulging and dwelling led individuals to invest too little when chances of success were high and to invest too much when chances were low. This pattern of results has been replicated in different life domains (e.g. interpersonal, health, academic) for short term as well as for long term goals (e.g. giving a speech, female doctoral students combining career and childrearing), for people of different ages and cultures, and for different measures of goal pursuit (e.g. cognitive, emotional, and behavioral).
Mental Contrasting exercise
Step 1 - Pick a Goal
To begin, pick something you really want to accomplish this week, be as specific as possible. Could be a habit change, running 3 miles, finishing this blog, etc.
Step 2 - Visualize your Ideal Future
With your goal in mind, I want you to positively visualize this ideal future (e.g. I post this blog and hundreds of people love it). See it in your mind’s eye, feel it in your body. How does accomplishing your goal feel to you? This can’t be a mental activity, you have to embody the feeling of the accomplishment of your goal.
Step 3 - Visualize Present Reality Blocking Ideal Future
Now, imagine your present reality and what is holding you back from realizing your ideal future (e.g. not making enough time to write, not having clear goals broken down into achievable tasks, lack focus, distractions, etc.) Again, not a mental activity, but see yourself procrastinating from your goal and feel the resonance in your body of you holding yourself back.
Step 4 - Strengthen Association with Present Block & Ideal Future
This activity is essentially a doubling-down on embodying the felt-sense of how, if you don’t implement changes in your current reality that are holding you back, you won’t achieve your ideal future state/goal. I want you to see how if you don’t implement these changes/unblock, you won’t achieve your ideal future state/goal. Now what you have done is mentally set your expectations of overcoming the obstacle in the present moment which will guide your behavior. This is because high expectations strengthen our efforts in the immediate moment (focus) whereas having low expectations weaken our effort, allowing people to let go of future possibilities (and worse yet, often be ignorant and blame circumstances they believe are out of their control, when they are not).
Step 5 - Dial Up the Desire of your Goal
Dial up the desire of your goal, strengthen your expectations of yourself, execute and go!
In mental contrasting, individuals first positively fantasize about a wished-for future (e.g. excel in the upcoming exam) and then imagine the present reality that hold them back from realizing the envisioned future (e.g. my messy desk). By imagining the future and subsequently mentally elaborating the reality, the future becomes closely associated with the reality, revealing that attaining the future demands acting on the current reality (e.g. organize my desk).
Now, expectations of overcoming the obstacle guide one’s behavior: high expectations strengthen effort (clean the desk), and low expectations weaken the effort, allowing people to let go of unfeasible wishes (go to class and clean up later).
Further reading on Mental Contrasting: Mind Wandering via Mental Contrasting as a Tool for Behavior Change.