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More than just a habit: procrastination is in the brain

More than just a habit: procrastination is in the brain

Procrastination can be the outcome of disruptions in brain regions responsible for tasks such as self-control, attention, planning and deciding priorities
A messed-up neural system can be a reason for procrastination | Representational image by Seetha Lakshmi Venu | Canva

Sometimes, when there are tasks to accomplish, we find ourselves reluctant to take them up and instead, postpone doing them.

According to   Dr Prerna Kohli, clinical psychologist and founder of MindTribe, people think procrastination is associated with laziness, lack of discipline or inefficiency in taking action.

However, recent studies have shown that the root cause for putting tasks off for no particular reason could lie deeper: in brain regions and a messed up neuronal network.

Procrastination is a habitual postponing of completing tasks – to a time that never seems to come. But sometimes, we have to pay a hefty price for procrastinating, as happened to Amit Sharma, 29,  from Jammu. He had to bear some significant expense on the car for his habit of delaying important works.

Sharma recalls how his father always advised him not to keep the car idle for long to avoid engine failure. But Sharma would often ignore his words and postpone the task for later.

Once he travelled to Delhi to prepare for an exam and was away from home for many months. On his return a shock awaited him: The car engine had broken down. In his absence, his family members could not drive it out. “After returning to my hometown after a year, I took the car to a mechanic. He found that the engine was damaged,” he says wistfully.

No doubt Sharma had to pay a huge amount to fix the issue. “I could have avoided this situation, but because of my procrastination, I had to pay a large amount [for repairs]unnecessarily,” he says with regret.

Buzz around procrastination

Is procrastination a medical condition? Dr Kohli says it is not classified as a medical condition as such in the two international medical manuals – the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the ICD (International Classification of Diseases).

Dr Marek Wypych, researcher, Laboratory of Brain Imaging (LOBI), Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology, Warsaw, Poland, states that around 15 per cent of people worldwide experience procrastination and some seek help.

Procrastination manifests differently in people. Although researchers do not have a definitive answer to what causes procrastination, Dr Wypych says, “One of the factors responsible for procrastination is higher impulsivity [the urge to act quickly].” Genetic factors for impulsiveness and factors such as environment partially determine this.

He says other factors include weak emotional regulation, like looking for instant gratification, which might be partially trained during a lifetime.

When the brain sees no faults

The brain is like a computer which works on a feedback algorithm. The pros and cons of every action register in the brain. The brain uses this stored data as a reference and input for the feedback loop. Such a checking mechanism reduces future errors.

But what happens when the brain does not get feedback from past errors? We tend to make the same mistake repeatedly, as happens in procrastination.

The brain has two systems called error processing and inhibitory mechanisms to monitor an error. The interplay of these two systems helps us stay safe mentally and physically. Recent studies have highlighted how any malfunction in these two systems in the brain leads to procrastination.

  1. Broken error processing mechanism: This system usually helps one recognise the mistake and alerts the body to avoid further repetition. Identification of any error or deviation from standard results begins in a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex. Various other brain parts, such as the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia and the dorsal striatum come into the picture to regulate error processing. The error processing system then triggers behaviour changes to dissuade future errors. However, this system goes for a  toss when a person is not able to identify a mistake as a mistake and continues to repeat it.
  2. Untamed thoughts: Our thoughts are monitored by a network of interconnected brain regions that work together to restrain undesired thoughts or behaviour. These regions – namely the anterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, inferior parietal lobule and thalamus — promote self-control and direct us to perform beneficial tasks. An injury or neurological condition disrupts this network, leading to an inability to avoid activities that give us momentary satisfaction, or difficulty in self-controlling behaviour patterns and decision-making. Ruminating on his repeated setbacks, Sharma says he procrastinated and failed to work consistently, which consumed years of his life. “Since I am striving to get a government job, I have to be disciplined and consistent in my efforts,” says Sharma.

Emotions block action:

The limbic system is the main brain centre that regulates emotion. People tend to procrastinate when this system takes the lead over the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in taking action to complete the work. For instance, acting impulsively instead or making emotionally driven decisions.

As a result, Dr Kohli says people feel too weak to execute the tasks because of their inability to control emotions and give in to the urge to delay tasks.

In a study, Dr Wypych and his team found differences in brain activity between high and low procrastinators. For people who procrastinate less, researchers noticed more interaction between two brain regions – the anterior cingulate cortex and the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Thereby promoting self-control activities or behaviour that prevent the loss.

In the findings, they interpreted that people who procrastinate less generally fear failure, which provokes them to act in challenging situations (for example: where there is a chance of punishment).

In contrast, people who procrastinate more become inactive, possibly because of a fear of failure and/or poor emotion regulation skills, Dr Wypych explains.

The fear unleashes a loop of negative emotions like self-doubt, leading to poor performance in the task. This, in turn, further enhances negative emotions like stress and/or guilt, affecting self-control and ultimately ending up in procrastination.

Train the brain to procrastinate less

“It’s important to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. Training the brain is akin to training a muscle. It requires consistent effort, practice and sometimes, a bit of patience,” says Dr Kohli.

From her experience of 30 years helping people overcome procrastination, Dr Kohli shares a few tips on how one can avoid falling prey to procrastination.

  1. Self-awareness: Recognise and acknowledge when you procrastinate. Address the factors accordingly.
  2. Break tasks into manageable steps.
  3. Use time management techniques.
  4. Set specific timelines to complete a task.
  5. Reward yourself for completing the tasks or making some progress.

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