Are We Naturally Wired to Procrastinate?

June 16, 2020
Woman being scolded at at work

You know you need to do the laundry, yet you decide to play video games all day long. You’re fully aware you have to clean and maybe replace your home’s old rain gutters before the next storm hits your town, but you feel too tired to deal with it. These things can wait, anyway.

But putting off tasks inevitably hurt you. You end up feeling too stressed as you catch up on work or chores that have piled up over the week. So why do you keep doing it? Maybe you’re wired to do it.

Human brains value rewards and relief.

Many studies show that our brains are naturally wired to prefer instant rewards over delayed gratification. We then stick to habits that offer instant happiness and take the least amount of effort.

Other researchers associate procrastination with the limbic system, particularly in the amygdala—the emotion center of the brain. They found that the amygdala is larger in people who often procrastinate. Since it’s bigger, it bounds to be overactive, increasing the anxiety about the negative consequences of an action. The procrastinator’s brain put the action on pause to get quick relief from that intense anxiety.

When you choose not to tick off a task from your to-do list, it’s not simply because you’re lazy. It’s just that your brain goes on a quick mood repair, keeping you protected from feeling too uncomfortable or anxious.

Is there a way to go against the natural workings of your brain and beat procrastination? Psychologists say it’s possible, but it takes a lot of re-training your brain and being mindful of its inner workings. You can start by identifying whether the delay is necessary.

Man meditating at his desk

Six degrees of delay

One study from Carleton University’s Procrastination Research Group identified six degrees of delay to help us understand procrastination better.

  1. Inevitable delay – An example of this degree of delay is when you get so sick that you can’t physically carry out a task.
  2. Arousal delay – Do you like that you perform better when you cram for an exam or a project? Arousal delay happens when you intentionally postpone doing a task because a part of you desires the feeling of rush that comes with waiting until the very last minute to complete it.
  3. Hedonistic delay – If something good comes up, and you’re more than willing to lose yourself in it even if it means not getting things done, then you’re experiencing a hedonistic delay.
  4. Psychological distress-related delay – An example of this is when you aren’t motivated to move and perform chores because you’re coping with the loss of a loved one.
  5. Purposeful delay – This happens when you postpone tasks for rational reasons, such as not taking on phone calls from a client because you’re driving or on your lunch break.
  6. Irrational delay – This degree of delay occurs when your brain deals with an anxiety disorder.

Four of these delays are due to factors beyond your control. But the other two—arousal and hedonistic—are examples of human brains valuing rewards, pleasure, and quick relief from negative emotions. Be mindful of these two delays, and you can start nurturing your brain into getting things done timely.

There are tons of tips for learning to live with the discomfort of starting a task or value delayed gratification. But the more important thing is that you learn to recognize true forms of procrastination.

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