Student, professor, travel agent, librarian, tourist guide, housewife/man, no matter who you are, you certainly have fallen into the trap of procrastination at least once. Remember that time when you had to fix the towel hanger in your bathroom but you ended up calling your grandparents and updating yourself on their current health status instead? Or that time when you had to write a school assignment but found yourself reading a step by step guide on mummification techniques?
This voluntary and irrational postponement of an intended task, despite the knowledge that it might come with a cost or have negative consequences, is procrastination. But why do we do this? Can neuroscience explain what is happening in our procrastinating brains?
A cognitive theory: temporal self-regulation failure
Procrastinators have a lower tendency to consider the future as a reference for making their current decisions. This might be underlined by two different but interconnected mechanisms: the capability to
- construct a representation of a future event
- imagine the future consequences of their actions
Imagine the future…
To envision a future event in details one needs to activate their prospective episodic memory which helps us remember contextual details about situations imagined in the future. This demands the association of many sensory, emotional and cognitive memories which can produce a more or less vivid mental representation. The stronger the mental representation, the stronger the feelings associated to it. These feelings are of major importance when it comes to guiding current decision-making. They create a link between the future goal and the current actions by increasing the subjective value of the goal and therefore the motivation to execute the actions to accomplish it.
Procrastinators have difficulties in constructing future events and have poorer mental representation of them. This pattern has been linked to a specific type of procrastinating behavior: the observed delay, defined as “noticing that one is running out of time, not getting things done on time, or not being very good at meeting deadlines”.
Carpe diem, or how not to think about the consequences
Procrastinators have lower propensity to consider the future consequences of their current actions. This orients the subjects towards the immediate reward, even if it is smaller. Low levels of future consequence consideration best predict a second type of procrastinating behavior: voluntary delay. This is the conscious postponement of tasks, expressed by the well-known and widely used formulation “This task is too boring/stressful, I’ll do something else now and come back to it later”. Some suggest that this type of procrastination is linked to sensation seeking: if one has difficulties imagining the positive outcomes of a task they might resort to other, more immediate ways of satisfying their need for stimulation. This, in turn, biases decision-making processes towards the more immediate and less abstract reward.
The brain of a procrastinator
How can this temporal self-regulation failure be explained by the activity in our brains? Does procrastination have a functional signature? A team carried out a resting-state (the procrastinator’s preferred state 😉 ) functional magnetic resonance imaging study to explore this question. This is what they discovered:
If you want to take a break from reading, check out this cool TED Talk: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator.
Master procrastinators show elevated activation in their parahippocampal cortex (PHC). This region is an associative hub for contextualized emotional and perceptual episodic memories (places, people, events, etc.). It is a key region for episodic prospection, enabling the combination of these elements to create a mental image based on previous knowledge.
How is higher activation in the PHC linked to higher procrastination scores? Imagining negative future events biases our choices towards immediate rewards. As we (procrastinators) know (very well), the tasks that we postpone are often associated with somewhat negative characteristics: they are tedious, challenging or unpleasant and therefore elicit negative emotions. This pushes us towards choosing a smaller but immediate reward while activating our prospective episodic region, the PHC.
Anterior prefrontal cortex
Master procrastinators have decreased activation in the anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC). On the one hand, this region is involved in cognitive control: long term planning and reasoning, prospective memory, encoding of future intentions. On the other hand, it is also involved in emotional control. Therefore, we can understand why decreased activation in this region can result in higher procrastination behaviors: we simultaneously experience difficulties keeping track of our future intentions and are biased towards emotionally-based decisions which, in most cases, are oriented towards bringing immediate satisfaction.
Default Mode Network
A key element in procrastination is the default mode network (DMN) which underlies intrinsic brain activity in the absence of any goal-directed behavior. Functional connectivity analysis shows that the aPFC can inhibit the activity of the DMN, thus lifting the default “chilling” mode and facilitating the execution of planned behaviors.
So, procrastinators, you are not lazy, you simply have an over active DMN (no, it’s not the same argument as “I’m not fat, I’m just big boned”).
There is a way to limit procrastination, do not lose hope! Meditation has been shown to modulate the activity of the DMN, giving procrastinators the freedom to train their brains to be less “chilled”. Over time, neuroplasticity can take place, adapting the functional dynamics of activation to the new DMN baseline, making it easier for people to take control of their goal-directed behaviors. Furthermore, meditation can be supplemented by behavioral strategies and cognitive training: dividing a task into sub-steps and setting deadlines at evenly spaced intervals for each step has been shown to be a very efficient method!
Food for thought
Procrastination might seem a superficial topic worthy of jokes for some, but it is a real issue for those who are trapped in it. In the mild cases, it can lead to simple delay in doing household chores or last-minute handing in of assignments, without any major consequences. For others, however, it causes real psychological suffering and has quantifiable negative consequences on personal, professional and social life. It can go as far as becoming a reason to drop out of school/university, develop a constant feeling of unworthiness, trigger a depression, or even let a serious disease go untreated, thus endangering one’s life.
Is it possible that all those people are just lazy or lack organization skills? If this is the case, procrastination should have been described a long time ago! But why were the first studies on procrastination only published in the 1980’s? Is it a product of our distorted capitalistic social values based on overconsumption/production/achievement? Or is it a reflection of an emergent psychological pathology? Are there biological markers of procrastination? Is it influenced by environmental factors? How? Is it underlined by intrinsic brain connectivity?
There are more questions than answers and it seems like the topic is considered as insignificant by the research community. However, more and more people start recognizing themselves as players in this giant delay-game. How long are we going to let them postpone their life?