The Science Behind Procrastination

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

Not long ago, we wrote about the difficulties of staying on-task while cooped up in the home. For those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home, the process can throw a monkey-wrench into our usual work routines. Crucially, it can also lower our motivation in unexpected ways.


Among the key findings of research into procrastination is that there's an important balance going on between our motivation, our inertia and our impulse control. Tasks where we expect to succeed, or where we expect the rewards soon and value them are the ones we gravitate toward.


The equation Motivation= (Expectancy * Value) / (Impulsiveness * Delay) was suggested by Piers Steel, and you can learn more about how to use it to your advantage in the video below.




Framing Reward


For many of us, the reward part depends on our though-process. For example, many people do altruistic work for no monetary compensation much more willingly than an equally-menial task that doesn't help the community for low compensation. The reward is in the value we provide to others. We're happy to take on projects that interest us or that have an added sense of urgency, or simply that give us a higher profile at work.


In our everyday work, the value part of the equation varies. The satisfaction of improving a process, of implementing a program you've designed, of having an event you've managed go off smoothly, these things are a crucial part of our reward circuitry. That makes it more difficult, now that much of that satisfaction is on indefinite hold. We have to re-frame our work to get the feeling back.


The real question is how wisely we use this time. Yes, if we let them, our colleagues will likely fill up our additional free time with make-work and video conference calls. But do yourself a favour and take a moment, if you haven't already, to think about that long-term goal you've put off or slow-rolled for years. This is the perfect time to think about what you want to have produced when this is all over. Having one really meaningful goal will unclog the synapses and get everything else moving. You'll finish other tasks more quickly to make room for that one important thing.


Avoid the Willpower Fallacy


Now, the video below is a good example of cause-symptom confusion in science. Yes, there are far too many studies out there demonstrating the blindingly-obvious: procrastination is bad for us. So, like, stop it.



If it were that simple, we'd already have mastered the skill of not procrastinating in grade school. The chronic procrastinators this video is talking about, with few exceptions, have something driving that habit, and it's not just the desire to party and watch television. Most if not all of them blame themselves for having low willpower.


Procrastination is a symptom, not a cause. Those of you who have experienced depression; lived with an anxiety disorder; experienced a major traumatic event; or who simply chose a career track you didn't care about because someone pushed you into it; or worked somewhere where you had no prospect of ever bettering yourself... you know what I'm talking about. When the meaning of your work breaks down, or you simply don't have the mental and emotional energy left for it, the system rebels.


The other side of procrastination, as Mel Robbins explains below, is coping with stress and overwhelm. We simply weren't designed for the nonstop stress of the society we've created. We gathered berries, we ran away from the tiger, and then we went home and sang songs around the campfire.




The Brain of A Procrastinator


The neuroscience behind this is fascinating. Procrastinators have larger amygdalas, the part of the brain that processes and restrains our emotional responses. Why? My uneducated guess is that they've experienced events in their lives that have made their brains hyper-conscious of negative results and thus more cautious about taking action in general.


https://www.bbc.com/news/health-45295392


Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch some more videos on procrastination instead of working.



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