Procrastination isn’t your fault: Blame your brain

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You settle down to do work. You have a document open and a vague idea of what you need to do. But instead of writing your first sentence, instead of finishing the project, you drift away— to your phone, and another three levels of your favorite game; to Netflix, where you swear you’re just going to watch five minutes of that new show you’re obsessing over, five minutes that become a whole episode; to your bedside table, which you abruptly realize is shamefully messy and needs to be cleaned right now.

This depressingly recognizable pattern is procrastination, which up to 95 percent of college students report having a major problem with. Twenty percent of people are chronic procrastinators, or people who perpetually experience difficulty completing tasks.

Procrastinators are the lepers of the working world, heralded as lazy, unfocused and impulsive. Canadian psychologist Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D, describes procrastination as “self-regulation failure.” But according to recent studies, procrastination is not (entirely) our fault.

The science on procrastination is surprisingly extensive. DePaul University psychology professor Joseph Ferrari correlated procrastination with low self-esteem, while the American Psychological Association theorized that procrastinators are bred by lax school curricula and insufficient punishment for poor work habits. A study published by Ritu Gupta in Current Psychology, an internationally recognized scientific journal, found that people who believe in “fate”—who are also generally more anxious and neurotic—have a greater proclivity towards procrastination.

To forestall the inevitable bickering over nature versus nurture, let’s turn to the brain itself, and the delightfully feisty war the limbic system and prefrontal cortex wage against each other every time we attempt to complete a task.

The limbic system contains the brain’s “pleasure center” and is involved in generating feelings of satisfaction like those we derive from sex and eating. It’s an old, almost primitive area of the brain, and many of its tasks are completed automatically or instinctively.

Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, which is located directly behind your forehead, helps regulate complex decision making. The essential role of the prefrontal cortex is executive function; this region of the brain helps us sort out right from wrong, estimate the future consequences of our actions and negotiate complicated social interactions.

The battle between the limbic system and prefrontal cortex, given their respective purposes, is bizarrely reflective of the struggle we undergo consciously each time we choose to ditch a project for a smartphone game or Netflix. One part of our brain wants to give us pleasure—don’t work! Do what feels good! The other understands that we have specific responsibilities we’re expected to fulfill and that the future consequences of procrastination are unpleasant.

Our brains, in essence, are a battleground. This limbic-versus-prefrontal mêlée is indicative of a larger truth: we’re not as responsible for our procrastination as our bosses and obnoxiously productive coworkers make us believe. Procrastinators are slaves—or at least indentured servants—to the complex chemical wiring of their brains. Some people are naturally more swayed by their limbic systems; others have more effective, less easily silenced prefrontal cortexes.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you’re doomed to a lifetime of procrastination if you have a lousy prefrontal cortex. The brain, like your quads and abs, can be systematically trained to maximize its strength and efficiency. But the next time someone huffs over your lack of productivity, or you mournfully reflect on your embarrassingly massive Internet history, know that your actions may not be a result of carelessness or idiocy. Instead, point a finger at the real culprit—the three-pound hunk of flesh we call a brain.

Victoria is a senior studying history and biology. Follow her on Twitter @HillsVictoriaM.

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