Unpuzzling Procrastination

8 min read

Imagine the following chain of events. You have an important essay due in a month’s time. You write the title and blatantly lie to yourself, saying you’ll start it after a week, which becomes two weeks, which becomes three. Cut to 11:59 p.m. on the night of submission. You have spent the last three hours scrambling to complete a month’s worth of work. You rush to submit the assignment with barely ten seconds to spare. Does this sound familiar? 

Chances are, yes. Procrastination is not something new. We can parallel today’s instances with those that occurred centuries ago. George Nissen (who wrote Mozart’s biography) said that the night before the premiere of his opera, “Don Giovanni”, Mozart stayed up writing its overture, finished at 5 a.m., and performed it the next day without any rehearsal. In comparison, submitting your assignment at 11:59 p.m. doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

So, what exactly is procrastination? The habit of leaving things to the last minute is seemingly ubiquitous: “80 to 95% of college students engage in procrastination,” noted Piers Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary, in a 2007 study on the nature of procrastination. However, very few people know the science behind why they procrastinate. 

There can theoretically be a never-ending list of the types of procrastinators, but most professionals agree on the broad classification of them into three groups: thrill seekers, indecisive procrastinators, and avoiders. 

Thrill seekers are the ones who embrace the amplifying emotional rush before a deadline and crave the thrill of finishing a project just before it’s due. They often make this information public, by telling anyone who will listen that they finished a bulk load of work in just a few hours’ time. Thrill seekers are also the ones who experience the “reward” of procrastination. Completing tasks at the last minute gives them a sense of satisfaction, which propels them to repeat the cycle (if you’ve ever put off studying for an exam, excitedly pulled an all-nighter before the paper, emerged smiling the next morning, and then boasted to everyone, “I finished the entire portion in a night!” you’re probably a thrill seeker). 

The next procrastinator to make it to the top-three is the indecisive procrastinator, who simply fears failure. Often comprising of perfectionists, this group procrastinates because they’re scared to be held accountable for unsatisfactory results. They believe that it’s better to not do a task at all than to do it and be unsuccessful. However, as a deadline approaches, the indecisive procrastinators realise that they have no option but to finish their assigned duties. This often results in these perfectionists having to (ironically) submit hastily-completed, substandard work, which massively diminishes their self-worth.

The procrastinator I can relate to the most is the avoider. Avoiders are extremely concerned about what other people will think of their work. They dread the prospect of being judged, irrespective of whether their task is successful or not. Speaking as an avoider myself, I can come up with a long ‘cons-and-cons’ list (there are no pros in an avoider’s mind) for almost every outcome of every task that I undertake, including writing this article. What eventually motivated me enough to start writing was my fear of not replying to an email for 4 days. So, my avoidance diverted its attention to a new judgement I wanted to steer clear of (being thought of as unprofessional), and allowed me to finally focus on my work.

To understand what exactly goes on inside the mind of a procrastinator, you can compare the areas of the brain involved with characters in an action movie. The dependable, valiant hero is the prefrontal cortex, which controls decisions, planning, and rational problem solving. The villain (not an evil villain but a fan favourite that entails a love-hate relationship) is the limbic system, which contains the pleasure centre of the brain that feeds off instant gratification. The prefrontal cortex and limbic system are constantly in the middle of a prolonged fight scene. In the case of a procrastinator, the limbic system wins most of these fights, and the task is put off till another scene. But doesn’t the hero always win when it comes to movies? As the deadline nears, the villain sometimes exposes its major weakness – its amygdala, the part of the brain that controls fear. It scares itself enough to allow the hero to finally win the battle. Hence, the task at hand is finally completed (it may be done horrendously, but nevertheless, it’s done).

Since procrastination goes on inside our brain, it begs the question: Is it encoded within us, or is it something we can change? In the last decade, with studies about procrastination gaining popularity, several research teams have hypothesized that procrastination could be due to genetics. A 2019 study conducted by Dr Genç and his colleagues from the University of Dresden, Germany, explored this possible influence of genes in detail.

They focused on a single gene that produces TH (an enzyme) and controls dopamine production. Dopamine is a messenger of signals in our brain that regulates emotional responses. It is associated with “reward” feelings (from our old friend the limbic system). The TH gene expresses itself differently from person-to-person, resulting in different dopamine levels. Dopamine’s capability to influence distraction could determine whether it also inadvertently influences procrastination. 

The study yielded intriguing results. There was no relationship found between the variables in males. In contrast, females who carried a TH gene variant, that corresponds to genetically higher dopamine levels, were found to be more prone to procrastination. However, this relationship seems to depict correlation rather than causality. 

While dopamine and the TH gene could hypothetically affect a person’s likelihood to procrastinate, another study- done by the same research team in 2018- has shown a correlation between procrastination and the size of the amygdala (everything seems to lead us back to the anti-hero limbic system, doesn’t it?).

Since research has not yet confidently identified whether procrastination is behavioural or in our genes, it is simply unfair for us to label procrastinators as “lazy”. Beneath the surface, it’s more than just putting off tasks for later. In fact, if procrastination becomes chronic, it can seriously impair someone from performing well at any task.

So, what can a procrastinator do to get over their impediment? I’ve noticed that these four habits help me to be more productive.

  • Set small, achievable goals: If you’ve got a 1000-word essay due next month, write one paragraph today. If you have a book to read for class next week, read one chapter today. (Don’t wait for the last minute like I did for this article). It doesn’t matter how small your goal is. Remember, anything is better than not starting at all. 
  • Keep a timetable: Seeing all the work you have left to do can sometimes trigger panic, but by planning your tasks beforehand and managing them one at a time, the work gets finished well before the deadline. 
  • Use the 5-minute rule: Tell yourself that you’ll only spend 5 minutes studying for your test/writing your essay/practicing your instrument. Chances are, once you start, you’ll spend way longer than that and complete everything well before time. 
  • Celebrate small achievements: Did you read one chapter from next week’s study material? Did you write a page of your essay? Did you finally send that email response to your teacher? Great job! Give yourself a pat on the back- you deserve it!

For any procrastinator, relating to other people’s experiences can be a source of comfort- especially if the other person’s degree of procrastination makes yours seem completely normal. After watching a TED talk about the disastrous effects of someone else’s procrastinating habits, I felt immensely better about myself. You can watch it here: (It’s guaranteed to produce laughs)

Since there is no concrete proof behind the reason why people procrastinate, we have a better chance of breaking free from it by following mindful habits rather than screaming at our family for genetically impairing us. Everyone has experienced some form of procrastination in their lives- even people who call procrastinators “lazy” often put off doing their work- and as it appears, this problem is here to stay. So, the next time your mom yells at you for staying up all night before an exam, remind her that even Mozart procrastinated and pulled through the night.


Citations : 

Genetic variation in dopamine availability modulates the self-reported level of action control in a sex-dependent manner. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/14/7/759/5527424
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325780#Magnifying-the-TH-gene

The Structural and Functional Signature of Action Control https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797618779380 

The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Steel, P. (2007). Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65–94. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65 

Written by Kyra Dordi
Edited by Raphael Ng
Illustrations by Lim Daphne

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