Do you ever wonder why you keep putting things off? What is the usefulness of this procrastination tendency, if any? Rather than blaming yourself for succumbing to laziness, could there be underlying brain mechanisms that explain why some people are more prone to procrastination than others? And with this understanding, do we have actual ways to manage this tendency and make it our friend rather than foe?
A. Why do people procrastinate?
One explanation for why people procrastinate is that they want a temporary reprieve. This is a prime example of ‘present bias’ where you prioritise what makes you feel good in the present and delay the unpleasantness of the postponed task. It could be the task itself that is inherently off-putting, or it may arise from self-originated cause e.g. self-doubt, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, etc. These feelings are processed in the amygdala, the brain’s emotion-processing machinery which perceives the task as a real threat and drives the need to remove or avoid such thing even at the expense of productivity loss or ensuing stress . In accordance with this line of argument, Dr Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University and several experts in the field believe procrastination to be an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem .
B. Neuropsychology of procrastination
The action control theory by Kuhl in 1992 posits that different mental constructs can drive behaviours that are dissociable from and misalign with intended goals. More specifically, the constructs could fall under two disparate schemas, i.e., action orientation vs state orientation . In simple terms, action-oriented individuals focus more on the act of doing itself and are often an initiator of actions. On the contrary, state-oriented individuals tend to be more cautious in their approach. As a result of their hesitancy, they are more prone to switching between task, and inevitably procrastinate. There are two sides to both constructs, and correctly identifying where you sit along the spectrum can go a long way in adopting coping strategies that are effective for you.
In support of the theory, there have been a few studies that made use of the neuroscience techniques such as EEG and fMRI to investigate the underlying brain mechanisms associated with the act of procrastination . A recent fMRI study recruited 264 participants to assess if there is a neural correlate that explains interindividual differences in action control . The degree of action control was probed with a questionnaire and the participants’ brain was measured with resting-state imaging and functional amygdala connectivity. The researchers observed that females were less action oriented and more prone to getting stuck in the negatives, unable to move on swiftly. In addition, individuals who were less likely to initiate actions (i.e., low score on decision-related action orientation (AOD), in other words more state oriented) were shown to have higher amygdala volume and that the interindividual differences in AOD correlated with interindividual differences in resting-state connectivity between the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (i.e., the executive control centre). These findings fall in line with the difficulty individuals encounter in suppressing the distractors while they are supposed to be focusing on a task.
C. Distractibility and procrastination
Delaying the onset of a task or prolonging task completion could be a result of deliberate decision, yet it could also arise from individual’s inability to ward off distractions. From years of strenuous research, it has been established that the dorsal attention network which connects prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex is responsible for our ability to attend and focus on a task. Another network known as the default mode network on the contrary becomes activated when we are not focusing on anything in particular and just relax or mind-wander . This has been supported by the research work of Hedy Kober and colleagues which shows that the activity of the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), part of the default mode network, is turned down in long-term meditators compared to non-meditators which correlates with better focus in the former group . Elucidating the underlying brain regions may prove useful for developing targeted brain stimulation protocol to amp up or dial down the activity of the regions of interest and ultimately improve the ability to sustain attention and reduce distractibility-borne procrastination.
D. Befriending procrastination
With reference to B, one way to push yourself more towards action orientation is to break things down into tiny steps, so the task is not some imaginary giant mountain to conquer. Also, you get a small but constant dose of satisfaction, which will keep the momentum going. Plenty of advices point towards a consensus that you should not rely on motivation since it can be unreliable, particularly when the task is time limited. Additionally, if you are procrastinating but you feel that it is within reasons, you can opt to make good use of your time while you are at it. Alternatively, you could attempt to improve your emotional control, be forgiving and be kind to yourself, cut yourself some slack. Sometimes doing your best is enough, it is healthy to strive for excellence but do not let the perfectionism in you hinder you from achieving your potential (note a related topic ‘mindset’ will be discussed in the next article).
If your procrastination mostly appears to originate from distractibility (see C), one useful tip is to practice meditation. It has been demonstrated in numerous studies that meditation boosts focus by strengthening the dorsal attention network and at the same time functionally rewiring the brain circuitry [7, 8]. If anything, mastering the ability to focus and filter out distractions will certainly come in handy in the current world full of information deluge .
Remember habitual procrastination is not a reflection of your time management skills or lack thereof, but it is a maladaptive lifestyle that has been linked to mental health problems including depression and anxiety . Like everything else in life, getting it under control and in moderation are key to attaining optimal well-being. If things get so far out of hand, you can always seek professional help.
 Kuhl, J. (1992). “A theory of self‐regulation: Action versus state orientation, self‐discrimination, and some applications.” Applied Psychology 41(2): 97-129.
 Schlüter, C., et al. (2018). “The structural and functional signature of action control.” Psychological science 29(10): 1620-1630.
 Brewer, J.A., et al. (2011). “Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(50): 20254-20259.
 Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). “The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16(4): 213-225.
 Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). “Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling.” Psychological science 8(6), 454-458.
By Supanida Piyayotai, Researcher at Learning Institute