The Strange Science of Procrastination

Friday September 13, 2019 Written by James

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It turns out there’s a very good reason you leave assignments until the last possible moment, until your house is spotless, your sock draw has been properly alphabetised, and you’ve done everything else in the world except the thing you really, really need to do. Namely: the human brain is hard-wired to procrastinate.

We won’t dive too deep into the neuroscience (the folk over at The Science of Psychotherapy have that covered), but procrastination is basically what happens when two parts of your brain are met with an unpleasant activity (insert tomorrow’s crucial essay/exam/work presentation/dinner-with-the-in-laws here).

Your prefrontal cortex – the bit that helps you plan and make decisions – wants to do the unpleasant thing and make it go away. And your limbic system, the happy-go-lucky pleasure centre, doesn’t want to. Unfortunately, the limbic system is a much older and more powerful part of the brain, so it tends to beat your prefrontal cortex every time. And that’s why you usually find yourself surrounded by a small pile of origami swans instead of working on tomorrow’s looming deadline. 

The good news is that the limbic system can be overcome, but it requires attention and constant vigilance. Mindfulness has also been shown to be effective: if you just observe your procrastinating thoughts without judgement you can view them objectively and break the negative loop.

But hey, there’s no need to start right now. It’ll keep until tomorrow.

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Image: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty