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How is procrastination linked to mental health?

By Colin Murray


During the American Civil War in the 1860s, thousands of soldiers were held in prison camps under the most distressing conditions. Morality was low and mortality was high. Oftentimes, these prisons had an invisible but very real perimeter that prisoners could not cross, named the ‘deadline’.

 

After the civil war, the word ‘deadline’ gradually took on another meaning. What was once a very literal border began denoting a time limit for projects, job applications, contracts and just about anything involved in our often-bureaucratic lives.

 

Unfortunately, a large percentage of us knowingly put off projects and walk closer and closer to the deadline, knowing fully well what waits on the other side. It isn’t enemy aggression, but the consequences are also hard hitting. This seemingly illogical behaviour is called procrastination.

 

Procrastination, or the “voluntarily delay in an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay”, has been prevalent in society for millennia. Numerous philosophers have ruminated over what the cause, potential benefits and pitfalls of this behaviour could be. Perhaps the most striking writings about procrastination from antiquity come from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the stoic philosopher. Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations that one must “stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you”. Although neuroscience and neurobiology in his life were far from what they are today, this statement is far more accurate than the stoic Roman Emperor probably realized. But I’ll get to that later.


Procrastination and Mental Health

Roughly 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators (i.e., putting off tasks several times a week and/or day), although this number is higher (50%) in students. Although people who practice procrastination are mislabeled as lazy, procrastination has its roots in genetics and the actual wiring of the brain, often rendering individuals seemingly little choice but to procrastinate.

 

So, what leads to procrastination? Researchers have identified a few important hints, including motivation, impulsivity and lack of task value. Each of these characteristics, which are not mutually exclusive, constantly interact with one another.


Self-control and Impulsivity

Self-control and impulsivity are perhaps the biggest contributors to procrastination. In fact, researchers have shown that these behaviours can be linked to procrastination through genetics, and are actually heritable. Self-control and impulsivity are essentially opposites of each other—although they are distinct and not necessarily two sides of the same coin. Self-control involves resisting temptation and holding oneself back. Impulsivity, on the other hand, is action without adequate forethought, giving into temptation more easily, and focusing on short-term satisfaction and goals. When someone procrastinates, their self-control—their ability to keep focussed on a single goal even if they do not enjoy the task—is reduced, whereas their impulsivity—their desire to abandon the task to perform another non-essential one—is increased.


Motivation

Motivation can work for or against procrastination. We can be motivated to complete a task, but also motivated to avoid it. Many factors contribute to which direction motivation will drive us. Researchers have identified task aversiveness, which typically promotes motivation to not perform a task, as a main component. This is a straightforward idea; if you dread doing something, you are less likely to do it until you absolutely must. This idea is supported by something known as the temporal motivation theory, which states that people become more motivated to complete a task as the deadline gets closer. This could be due to the reward or punishment of the deadline increasing motivation to complete the task to levels that outweigh our motivation to not complete the task.

 

Lack of Task Value

Lack of task value is simply how important someone perceives a task to be, and it is tightly tied to motivation. For example, if some task is highly engaging and associated with a substantial reward, one is more likely to place a high value on it, making them less likely to procrastinate. The reverse is also true, where laborious tasks that someone does not enjoy are more likely to be avoided. Some researchers theorize that procrastination is more common in students because many of them typically do not want to be in school, but instead are there due to social pressures. The same has also been hypothesized for people who have jobs that they do not particularly enjoy.

 

Procrastination is a combination of many interacting behaviours and biological factors, making it a very complex topic to research and for people to overcome. Created with Biorender.com.


All these behaviours are involved in procrastination, but are also commonly observed in various mental health conditions. It’s not surprising that although procrastination is not itself a mental health condition, it is often seen in various degrees in depression and anxiety. Which causes which is difficult to pinpoint, as procrastination can lead to stressful scenarios that may worsen mental health, or mental health issues may cause individuals to procrastinate, perpetuating the cycle.


This chicken and/or egg situation is the case with many topics, including how nutrition influences mental health, the connection between loneliness and mental health, drug use and mental health, and more. However, one clue that neuroscientists can use to understand these complex interactions is to pinpoint what brain regions are involved in these behaviours, and see if there is any overlap between them.


Procrastination Station

Research looking into procrastination—although widely debated—has generally settled on one main idea when talking about the brain. Neuroscientists think that procrastination comes about due to a mismatch in communication between our ‘cognitive control system’ and the ‘affective processing system’. 


The cognitive control system mainly refers to the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which essentially coordinates priorities and controls many tasks related to problem solving, attention and goal-directed behaviour.


On the other hand, the affective processing system involves the limbic system, a network of brain regions involved in emotional responses and regulation, reward, and more. When we procrastinate, our cognitive control systems seem to be less active, which prevents important signals from keeping the now more active affective processing system in check.

The prefrontal cortex and limbic system are constantly communicating and deciding what action to take next. Some think procrastination occurs when the limbic system wins. Created with Biorender.com.


With this knowledge scientists can begin to try to modulate these circuits to overcome procrastination. For example, researchers recently found that electrical stimulating the prefrontal cortex increases the likelihood that a task will be completed in a timely manner. In short, the increased brain activity within the cognitive processing system caused by this stimulation, quieted the urges to procrastinate put forth by the emotional centres of the brain.


This is where our old friend Marcus Aurelius was surprisingly accurate. By invoking that we “stop letting our emotions override what our mind tells us”, Aurelius broadly described what is happening in the brain during procrastination. The emotional centres of the brain are providing a strong urge to opt out of a certain task in favour of a ‘more attainable’ task, and the cognitive processing system is failing to suppress that emotional urge, which would allow you to perform the more difficult task. The result is a focus on achieving short-term satisfaction, reduced self-control, and ultimately, a loss of goal-driven behaviour directed by the cognitive processing system.

 

Procrastination also becomes easier when there are numerous activities that can provide short-term satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, as is common in modern life. For example, when I began writing this article, I also had a pile of dishes sitting in my kitchen sink. Although the more difficult task of writing was more important in that moment than autonomously cleaning dishes, I opted for the easier task, and my brain rewarded me when I completed it. This reward then triggered the need/want to complete another mundane, easily accomplished chore, for which I was rewarded again. In people that suffer from chronic procrastination, this cycle can continue almost indefinitely, and can be achieved with much simpler and unproductive tasks, like scrolling through social media. In short, our brain can reward us for avoiding what we need to do, by providing easier alternatives that do not necessarily help our larger long-term goals.


Overcoming procrastination?

Procrastination is a behaviour present in people of all ages, cultures, backgrounds and locations, and will likely not be ‘cured’ or phased out any time soon. However, many scientists, speakers and coaches have developed different techniques that may help people overcome procrastination, and prevent the deadline from seeming so literal.

 

Some of these include direct interventions such as active transcranial direct current stimulation, while others—like cognitive training programs—are less invasive and easy to do at home. Nonetheless, perhaps one of the best ways to start to overcome procrastination is to break up a seemingly monumental task or goal into smaller, digestible chunks, so that each step seems easier than, say, washing dishes. As former Roman Emperor Hadrian allegedly said, “brick by brick, my fellow citizens, brick by brick.”


 

Thank you to our community member who asked this question! If you have any questions about mental health, send them over to our questions tab or reach out to us on Instagram or Twitter!

 

If you’re interested, check out some of the sources I used in researching this answer! All sources used for this answer are strictly evidence-based.


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