If I were to ask any student here at Penn — or anyone in the entire world for that matter — if they procrastinated, I am certain that I would get an overwhelming “yes.” But why do we procrastinate?
From an evolutionary standpoint, impulsivity makes sense: humans thousands of years ago were programmed to seek immediate rewards and satisfaction and to avoid tasks that were not rewarding or pleasant. Perhaps then, procrastination is merely a modern manifestation of this primordial impulsivity, an adaptation to developed societies with more tasks and planned activities. We can trace procrastination back to around 8 BC when the Greek poet Hesiod cautioned not to “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” The Roman consul Cicero also had his own opinions about procrastination, calling it “hateful” in the conduct of affairs. Today, the tendency to procrastinate is exacerbated even further. For instance, modern technology has made us more prone to procrastination. An example of this is the creation of the snooze button. According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, “The snooze button is one of the first technologies designed to give us more time, yet we have not gained anything. We still delay.” He adds, “We are a nation of ‘doers,’ but we are also, like people from other industrialized nations, a people of ‘waiters.’” Location may have something to do with it as well. A study conducted on coastal regions of the continental US found that chronic procrastination rates are higher in the Northwest — northern California, Washington, Oregon — than in other areas of the country. Additionally, a 2013 paper in Psychological Science reported that people who think their relationship partner will help them with a task are more likely to procrastinate.
Procrastination often manifests as a coping mechanism for dealing with pressure and anxiety surrounding trials such as studying for exams, writing a paper, or in my case, writing this article. Psychologically, procrastination is a problem of self-control, causing an individual to pursue behaviors that provide short-term relief by making stressful or boring tasks immediately avoidable. According to researchers, “procrastination on a neurobiological level actually appears to be emotionally driven, stemming from an internal desire to protect ourselves from negative feelings associated with the fear of failure.” Motivational psychologists have suggested that procrastination may be due to a lack of incentive that makes it hard to close the gap of ambivalence between intention and action, contemplation and doing. Often the brain processes any overwhelming information (such as the idea of being stressed by multiple projects or assignments) in a way intended to protect us from panic, depression, self-doubt, or other troubling emotions. This “fight or flight” response by the amygdala region in our brain helps us avoid this possibly “threatening” situation and procrastinate by countering panic with another focus of our attention. Short-term gratification such as watching Netflix, having a snack, or hanging out with friends can immediately relax us by releasing dopamine, the pleasure-and-reward neurotransmitter.
Scientists are attempting to find out if the act of procrastination might actually yield cognitively beneficial effects on intelligence, creativity, and development. Some studies suggest that daydreaming, a well-known form of procrastination, may in fact stimulate mental development. Research by Daniel Levinson at the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that children who regularly daydream have a better working memory and the ability to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously than those who do not. Additionally, sympathizers of procrastination often argue that it doesn’t matter when a task gets done, as long as it gets done eventually. Some even argue that they work better under pressure.
Despite these proclaimed benefits of procrastination, chronic procrastination is not good on any level for our bodies or our brains. In 1997, APS Fellows Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister rated college students on a scale of procrastination, academic performance, stress, and general health and found that “procrastination cannot be regarded as either adaptive or innocuous. Procrastinators end up suffering more and performing worse than other people.” It turns out there are two types of procrastinators: the chronic procrastinator and the occasional procrastinator. A chronic procrastinator has perpetual difficulties finishing tasks, while the occasional procrastinator decides whether or not to procrastinate based on the task ahead.
Everyone procrastinates differently, and some more than others. Ferrari states, “while everyone may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator.” For chronic procrastinators, it often has little to do with time management and is actually an emotional response these individuals struggle to control. Ferrari explains it as trying to tell a depressed person to cheer up: it’s pointless and doesn’t address the core of the problem. Emotional regulation is the real story around procrastination, according to researcher Timothy Pychyl. “When you say task aversiveness, that’s another word for lack of enjoyment. Those are feeling states — those aren’t states of which [task] has more utility.” For chronic procrastinators, the emotional feedback loop is continually malfunctioning; they never learn to start earlier the next time around. Ironically, the very quest to relieve stress in the moment might induce more stress, preventing procrastinators from figuring out how to relieve the stress in the long run. On a broader scale, people who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and are more likely to have inadequate retirement savings and missed medical visits.
Despite the seemingly unstoppable procrastination that people face daily in a world filled with distractions, there is a way to stop it all: we just have to train ourselves to not procrastinate. Look at it like training a puppy to do a trick by giving them a treat. A trick in our case would be to consciously think about the completion of a task and the positive feelings associated with it as a metaphorical treat. We need to train our brains to see the completion of a task itself as a dopamine-producing experience rather than the immediate gratification of procrastination. As we learn more and more about procrastination and how our brain functions to create certain behavioral habits, we can begin to learn how to tackle the problem of procrastination more strategically. Until then, however, we will just have to sit down, get a cup of coffee, and grind through our work!