The Science Of Procrastination: What Causes It and Ways to Stop

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Ask anyone who has stayed up all night to complete a paper in college or running around to find the perfect birthday gifts, and they will tell you the woes and perils of procrastination. One look at any group of people, and it becomes abundantly clear that you can divide people into two simple categories: those who procrastinate and those who do not. Naturally, the concept of procrastination — and why some people do it and others do not — is one that intrigues scientists. Recently, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder found that sometimes procrastination is not a choice — some individuals are predisposed to saving things for the last minute than others.

“Everyone procrastinates at least sometimes, but we wanted to explore why some people procrastinate more than others and why procrastinators seem more likely to make rash actions and act without thinking,” explains psychological scientist and study author Daniel Gustavson of the University of Colorado Boulder to the Association of Psychological Science. “Answering why that’s the case would give us some interesting insights into what procrastination is, why it occurs, and how to minimize it.”

Who is more likely to procrastinate? According to the researchers, those with impulsive tendencies are more likely to get distracted and, in turn, more likely to procrastinate. But the scientists warn that being impulsive does not guarantee someone will be a procrastinator — and vice versa — but that there is a correlation between the two.

“A perfect storm of procrastination occurs when an unpleasant task meets a person who’s high in impulsivity and low in self-discipline,” Eric Jaffe said to Psychological Science. “All told, these qualities have led researchers to call procrastination the ‘quintessential’ breakdown of self-control.”

Anyone who has waited till the last minute can attest that there is a feeling of regret, annoyance, and stress that comes with rushing to complete a given task. Which raises the question: Why do people procrastinate when they know the negative impact and emotions associated with the habit? According to scientists, it all boils down to dopamine, a feel-good chemical in your brain. When you procrastinate or get distracted by something, what you do instead of what you are supposed to do will release dopamine, making you feel good in the moment. And that immediate gratification is enough to keep your procrastinating.

“Every time something enjoyable happens, you get a dose of dopamine, which modifies the neurons in your brain, making you more likely to repeat this behavior,” explains AsapSCIENCE in a video on procrastination. “Often times procrastination is a symptom, not a cause.”

But if you think your can blame genetics for your procrastination, think again! There are proactive steps people can take to reduce the effects of procrastination, including: making sure you get enough sleep, eliminating distractions, breaking a larger goal into smaller goals, put self-imposed deadlines that are earlier than the final deadline, and reward yourself for your progress. The latter is especially important, as you can replace the positive reinforcement provided by dopamine (as mentioned above) with the reward you give yourself for not procrastinating.

“Learning more about the underpinnings of procrastination may help develop interventions to prevent it, and help us overcome our ingrained tendencies to get distracted and lose track of work,” concludes Gustavson about the findings of his study.

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