If you’re reading this, I assume it’s because you’re a procrastinator. Maybe you clicked on the link to avoid doing something you really should be getting done right now.
Procrastination has been causing us to miss deadlines for hundreds and hundreds of years. Greek poets and Roman scholars warned citizens to not “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” And I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the Bible, there’s a parable about a slothful farmer putting off sowing his fields or whatever, and dying a horrible death come winter. Or maybe that’s the grasshopper.
But as much as it seems like a byproduct of laziness and poor decision-making, there are some subconscious biological mechanisms at work in the brains of chronic procrastinators.
Scientists still aren’t entirely sure what happens to a person’s neurology when they feel the urge to procrastinate. But as this visual explainer from Shopify illustrates, we’re getting pretty close. One popular theory suggests that two areas of a procrastinator’s brain compete with one another whenever a task presents itself. Sort of like the angel and devil whispering persuasions into your ears.
So, when you’re confronted with something that needs to get done, your brain’s limbic system—the region responsible for regulating instinct and emotion—tells you to avoid it because your unfavorable feelings about the task mean it could potentially be life-threatening. That’s fight or flight. But at the same time, the rational part of your brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is working through all of the reasons why you really need to get to work. Because the prefrontal cortex works at a slower pace than the limbic system, you’ll end up procrastinating until it eventually overrides the instinctual urge to avoid doing your task.
Most of us like to think we’re able to learn from our mistakes, but procrastination, no matter how severe the consequences, is an exception to the rule. Chronic procrastinators are victims of a malfunctioning feedback loop. This “behavioral paradox,” according to the Association for Psychological Science, urges us to seek stress relief through procrastination, but ultimately leaves us with more, residual negative feelings.
There isn’t a lot of evidence to support the notion that we can break the feedback loop, except for a pretty neat concept called “neuroplasticity.” While the brain is unable to heal itself the way other organs do, neural pathways within brain tissue are capable of growing and reorganizing throughout our lifetimes. Neuroplasticity, in essence, is teaching our old brains new tricks.
Scientists have found evidence for meditation as a means to trick our brains into kicking procrastination. High amplitude patterns of something called “gamma synchrony,” which corresponds to a better control of interaction between neurons, have been observed in Buddhist monks during periods of meditation. Over the course of hundreds of hours of meditation, one study discovered, long-term practitioners were actually able to alter and structure and function of their brains.
Meditation can be interpreted as exercise for the mind. An experimental study asked participants to imagine a scenario in which they could choose to delay treatment for skin cancer. Instead of focusing on how things might have turned out better after the consequences had already occurred, the test subjects reported being more motivated by honing in on the potential negative outcomes of their procrastination before they happened. By engaging in mindfulness, chronic procrastinators overcame their urges to put off the task at hand.
Researchers at Harvard University also observed a positive change in gray matter in the brains of study participants who performed daily meditation routines. Experienced meditation practitioners, they found, exhibited “thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration.”
So is mindful meditation a cure-all for procrastination? Probably not. But you’ll never know for sure if you keep putting it off.