The Science Behind Procrastination

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Issue 9, Volume 112

By Elma Khan 

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Procrastination is the well-known plague that pollutes the work ethic of many Stuyvesant students. When our eyes fall upon our ever-long homework list, our five-minute break stretches into half an hour and the homework remains unappealing. Procrastination is delaying any unpleasant but necessary task and completing it at the last minute, or in some cases, even after the deadline. Contrary to popular belief, procrastination is not a habit. In fact, our brains are practically hard-wired to procrastinate due to the constant battle between two central parts of our brains: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.

The limbic system, otherwise known as the paleomammalian brain, is one of the oldest parts of the human brain and is located in the center of the brain behind the prefrontal cortex and above the brainstem. The four main parts of the limbic system are the hypothalamus, amygdala, thalamus, and hippocampus, which maintain homeostatic balance, regulate emotions, relay motor and sensory signals, and process memories, respectively. The limbic system is responsible for our behavioral and emotional responses, especially those necessary for survival, including the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain, is one of the newer, less developed parts of the brain that controls decision-making, processing information, and many complex cognitive processes, like critical thinking and metacognition. It is said to be the part of the brain that separates humans from animals as it isn’t emotional, but rather logical.

When we acknowledge completing a less-than-entertaining task, like finishing homework, it activates the prefrontal cortex. Since it is responsible for decision-making and isn’t manipulated by emotions, it guides us to achieve our goal in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, the limbic brain also kicks in and has automatic reflexes which—while useful in life-or-death situations—are not useful in terms of productivity. These signals counteract the prefrontal cortex's signals with emotions like boredom or dread, preventing us from working and instead, taking on a more pleasing task.

Immediately after succumbing to these signals, the limbic system activates a function called “immediate mood repair,” where that pleasant task, whether it be scrolling through social media or finishing a good book, causes the brain to release a small amount of dopamine, a hormone that induces feelings of pleasure. As a result, we are likely to continue actions that release that dopamine. Researchers understand procrastination as preferring “short-term mood repair” over actually finishing the intended task to feel good. Our brains are designed to prefer an immediate reward; when rewarded with dopamine by our limbic brain for not doing the intended task, it makes it hard to go back to it.

Though most students use the words “procrastination” and “laziness” interchangeably, they are not the same. In fact, teenagers are more vulnerable to procrastination because prefrontal cortexes don’t fully develop until the age of 25. Therefore, our limbic system can overpower the prefrontal cortex more easily. Procrastination usually makes us feel bad about ourselves because we associate words like “laziness” and “carelessness” with it. Laziness is accepting not doing our work. Procrastination is not being able to do a specific task, despite knowing that it is necessary. It is a problem of regulating emotions and a concept of willpower.

Additionally, low self-esteem and perfectionism are key contributors to procrastination. In the case of low self-esteem, doubt increases anxiety, causing us to avoid the task even more. Moreover, perfectionism is a significant cause of procrastination as it negatively affects our ability to manage stress. Perfectionists create a theoretical ideal of themselves and aspire to achieve said ideal. Therefore, many perfectionists put off work to avoid dealing with that overflow of anxiety. Many also procrastinate due to fear of failure.

Procrastination is meant to be a coping skill to deal with undesirable tasks, yet it induces guilt, stress, and anger. This seemingly trivial issue can have long-term effects. Researchers link chronic procrastination to stress-related headaches, colds, digestive problems, and insomnia, a common sleep disorder that makes it difficult to fall or stay asleep. Procrastination has also been linked to a higher probability of hypertension, or high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

While our brains were designed to procrastinate, such instincts don’t mean that we have to be procrastinators. There are many ways to overcome it, including separating a massive undertaking into smaller, more doable tasks. Large lists initially appear too daunting for us to approach, but completing smaller tasks induces a feeling of accomplishment, acting as a strong motivator. Investing in a planner can also reduce procrastination by allowing us to organize our tasks and set personal deadlines. One can also make a boring task more fun through challenging ourselves, whether it be by setting a timer to try to “beat the clock,” or simply doing something fun alongside the boring task, like listening to music. Moreover, a simple yet effective strategy is counting back from three and immediately starting your work after hitting one without thinking about it. This builds a sense of habit.

Oftentimes, we cannot help procrastinating—it’s instinctive after all. But by constantly working on diminishing it, this instinct within us can soon fade.