You are most likely reading this post because you should be doing something far more important, you naughty dopamine-junkie of a human. I just know those spreadsheets you have open on your screen are suffering from a severe lack of numbers and I can smell the ancient relics lurking in your fridge from here. Oh yeah, and when were you meant to return that call from your demonic mother-in-law? A year ago?
And then there’s your science blog. Ummm…heh, right.
But don’t worry, I won’t punish you for putting all that responsible adult crap off until….who knows when. Instead I will comfort you with peer-reviewed information about why a not-even-that-funny cat meme gets your undivided loving attention over your taxes. It’s not you, it’s science. Or more specifically, the science of putting things off to feel good right now – procrastination.
So, the next time you find yourself in a pit of self-loathing, M&Ms and a looming deadline, you can instantly repair your shitty mood and just be all like….
I can’t get shit done right now because my prefrontal cortex and limbic system are fighting….again.
So basically, we’re wired to put stuff off until tomorr…next wee..month..whenever? Well, that’s what Timothy A. Pychyl, author and professor of psychology at Carleton University, Ottawa explores in his book, The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.
The procrastination guru reckons that our slackness towards paying our bills or cleaning the fridge is due to a pretty vicious game of tug-of-war happening in our brains. This epic battle occurs between the prefrontal cortex, let’s call it the Responsible Adult, and the limbic system, also known as the Pleasure Seeker.
The Responsible Adult, a newer, weaker segment of the brain located just behind the forehead helps us make good grownup decisions based on the information it receives. According to Pychyl, it’s one of the key features that separates us from animals.
The Pleasure Seeker is an older and much more unconscious part of the brain, and regulates immediate mood repair. The problem is, despite its good intentions, the Responsible Adult won’t do your taxes or make the black hole of mess in your room magically disappear when it’s on autopilot. If your attention on the task is half-assed, the Pleasure Seeker will take over and have you checking out the latest cat-meme over a shot glass of sweet dopamine in no time. Before you know it, there’s a growing pile of dishes in the sink, unpaid bills and a (now) overdue assignment. Meanwhile, you’re too drunk on feel-good chemicals to do much about it.
So, how are you supposed to get anything done when there’s a dopamine-junkie in your brain controlling your decisions? You basically have to kick the Responsible Adult’s grey, spongey ass into gear by making a conscious effort to focus on the boring task in front of you, taming the Pleasure Seeker’s cravings for the next hit of dopamine.
I can’t wash my filthy jeans today because of my genes.
When it comes to filing all our boring tasks into the never ending ‘tomorrow’ drawer (whenever that will be), some of us may be more predisposed than others. According to a study published in Psychological Science, your inability to get things done on time could be due to your genetic makeup and even share a link with impulsive behaviour. The tendency to get distracted by that new shiny thing over there likely had an evolutionary advantage for our ancestors’ day-to-day survival at a time when ‘tomorrow’ was uncertain. But procrastination appears to be a more recent phenomenon driven by our newfound emphasis on long-term goals, which we can easily get distracted from when we see that compelling new online quiz. In other words, we tend to get all impulsive when we procrastinate. It seems pretty logical that chronic procrastinators would also be impulsive, but it has remained unclear as to what has influenced this correlation in an evolutionary sense.
One of the most effective ways of seeing how these behavioural traits are linked is by studying twins. Identical twins tend to show strong similarities because they share 100% of their genes. Fraternal twins and siblings only share 50% of their genes and therefore don’t tend to display similarity as strongly.
Using this method, Daniel Gustavson, a psychology graduate from the University of Colorado, Boulder, explored how procrastination and impulsive tendencies are genetically linked by surveying 181 identical twin pairs and 166 fraternal twin pairs. Gustavson and his team assessed the twins on traits such as goal-setting and management, procrastination tendencies and impulsivity. The behavioural similarities displayed by each twin pair indicated that the tendency to swap doing the dishes for (yet another) session of Facebook stalking is likely genetically based.
The researchers also discovered that procrastination and impulsivity are correlated, but impulsiveness does not necessarily lead to putting things off. While being impulsive doesn’t automatically make you a procrastinator, procrastinators tend to also be impulsive.
So why are these two tendencies genetically linked from an evolutionary perspective? Gustavson and his team put it down to goal-management ability – procrastinators are generally impulsive because they do not manage their goals effectively.
It could be worse, at least I actually looked at my bills today. That never happens….
We’re all familiar with the feeling of dread (or sheer terror) when we think of studying for that gnarly chemistry exam. But we know that bad things can only happen when we say, spend more time watching porn than studying, because, well, remember that time when we got that glaring ‘F’ on that exam, a computer clogged with viruses and a sore wrist? Based on past experiences, we generally figure out that it’s a helluva lot more stressful in the end when we put things off for too long. So we pull our (still haven’t been washed) socks up and solemnly repeat the mantra “short-term gain, long-term pain”.
But if you’re a chronic procrastinator, you don’t see the stress you’re currently experiencing as a tool to improve yourself in the long run. Instead, you focus on relieving those unpleasant feelings as soon as possible by casting them aside for a Game Of Thrones marathon. You will find yourself saying things like, “ah well, things could have been worse” and quickly go back to focussing on Khaleesi’s boobs. This self-preserving line of thinking is known as a downward counterfactual, and focusses on mood-repair at the expense of learning from the situation. Non-procrastinators are more likely to use positive counterfactuals when considering what could have been, and are more likely to say, “if I hadn’t have been so focussed on a fictional character’s boobs, I would have done much better in that exam. Note to self for next time”. While positive counterfactual thinking may dampen the mood initially, it motivates us to change our behaviour so we do better down the track.
Fuschia Sirois, psychology professor at Bishop’s University, Canada, looked at how counterfactual thinking influenced procrastination. The study, published in British Journal of Social Psychology, assessed 80 participants on procrastination by testing their responses to written accounts describing two stressful scenarios, one of which involved anxiety caused by delay. The delay driven scenario described how a person put off going to the doctor when noticing an unusual mole after a vacation of sunbathing, resulting in a situation that was only going get worse as time passed. The second scenario talked about the uncertainty experienced when returning home after a neighbour’s house had been on fire. Both situations were stress-inducing and involved uncertainty, but the first case was obviously caused by procrastination. The participants then had to write down as many positive and negative counterfactual responses they could think of to each scenario within five minutes.
Unsurprisingly, procrastinators listed more negative counterfactuals, or “at least” type responses than non-procrastinators, who tended to respond with positive counterfactuals such as “if only”. The study revealed that procrastinators are motivated by feeling better about a situation and avoid the uncomfortable feelings that come with considering how things could have gone better. As a result, they don’t learn from their mistakes and remain trapped in a vicious cycle of stress and delay.
I can’t do my thesis now (even though it’s due tomorrow) because my executive functioning is screwed. Some have even called it dysfunctional.
So, you’ve done the above excuses to death when it comes to justifying why reading 14 different versions of your daily horoscope is a far more pressing matter than fixing your broken toilet. The impulsiveness in you is craving a glittery new piece of science to back up your reasons for the lack of ticks on your to-do list. Well, now is the time (not later) to fall back on your executive functioning not really, well, functioning.
Executive functions are a group of cognitive processes regulated by the frontal parts of the brain. They play a role in self-regulation and are characterised by behaviours like problem solving, self-control, reasoning and planning. Interestingly, few studies have explored the relationship between executive functions and procrastination.
Enter Laura Rabin, neuropsychologist at Brooklyn College, New York. Rabin’s research came about after getting frustrated with her students’ tendency to put off their studies for another few rounds at the campus bar. Up to her eyeballs in extension applications, Rabin decided to explore how executive functioning may be linked with procrastination so she could figure out how the problem could be solved.
Rabin’s team assessed 212 college students for procrastination and nine characteristics of executive functioning: self-monitoring, emotional control, impulsivity, planning and organisation, working memory, general orderliness, task initiation, task monitoring and activity shifting. The study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology found that the executive function domains of initiation, planning and organisation, memory, self-monitoring, inhibiting, task monitoring and organisation of materials were significant predictors of procrastination in students. While it isn’t clear whether these aspects of executive functioning are a direct cause for procrastination, it may suggest that the tendency to leave things unfinished could be the result of a “subtle executive dysfunction”.
Either way, writing down
hungover ‘subtle executive dysfunction’ on your extension application instead of the usual excuses like ‘food poisoning’ and ‘my grandmother passed away…again’ may at least win you points for academic originality.
Now that you’re armed with these perfectly legit blame shifting power statements, you can go knock yourself out with a cat meme and a hit of dopamine until…..tomorrow?
Gustavson, D., Miyake, A., Hewitt, J., & Friedman, N. (2014). Genetic relations among procrastination, impulsivity, and goal-management ability: Implications for the evolutionary origin of procrastination. Psychological Science.
Pychyl A. T. 2010. The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the
Procrastination Puzzle. Xlibris. USA.
Rabin, L.A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K.E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344-357.
Sirois, F.M. (2004). Procrastination and counterfactual thinking: Avoiding what might have been. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 269-286.