Science Behind Procrastination

Jaylon Brooks

Procrastination is a common character trait among college students. Our lives are filled with an endless array of assignments, making any form of escape enticing. Whether you find yourself binge-watching Netflix, scrolling through social media, or deep cleaning your apartment, here’s the science behind why you can bring yourself anywhere but your desk.

“Some people will be more inclined to procrastinate when it comes to school obligations, where the timelines are in the future,” said Diana Young, associate professor of psychology. “They just keep giving themselves excuses to continually put off completing things,” Young continued.

Wanting to run away from things that make you feel uncomfortable is a human instinct, but it becomes a problem when avoiding responsibility becomes a habit.

According to Real Simple, a magazine on emotional well-being, procrastination can be broken down into a fight between the brain’s limbic system and prefrontal cortex. The limbic system controls survival instincts, which naturally encourages immediate satisfaction over long-term reward. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex regulates decision-making and planning. Unlike the limbic system, which is automatic, the prefrontal cortex must be activated.

“The prefrontal cortex deals with exerting self-control, Procrastination is marked by a failure to self-regulate,” said Whitney Heppner, associate professor of psychology.

The human limbic system is older and far more dominant than the prefrontal cortex and wins most of the time. The result is you putting a task off for later.

Everyone procrastinates, but chronic procrastinators have it hardwired into their brains as the default setting for handling tasks.

College presents a particular challenge to chronic procrastinators. Living away from home, where parents and caregivers may have kept them on track, these students become more likely to give in to temptations – like staying out all night with friends, instead of starting on their research paper.

Students also find themselves procrastinating when work piles up from multiple classes. Others procrastinate because they’ve gotten positive results from this behavior before and believe that they perform better during crunch time.

“Some students have tricked themselves into the thought that they do their best work under pressure and that is empirically untrue,” Heppner said.

Experts prove that procrastination is not a good strategy; people naturally do better with tasks when they have more time and are under less stress. Even if this weren’t the case, choosing to use panic to finish assignments isn’t healthy or sustainable in the long term. Understanding this notion requires training of the prefrontal cortex and quieting of the limbic system.

When the human body is under duress, it releases the stress hormone cortisol, which is designed to help in fight-or-flight scenarios. Among other things, cortisol boosts energy, raises the heart rate, and increases a person’s alertness.

“Releasing cortisol is helpful in the short-term, but the continued release is bad for you, which is one reason why chronic stress can have physical effects on the body,” Heppner said.

According to a study from the Journal of Education & Sciences: Theory & Practice, procrastination can also be caused by a fear of failure. Some people tie their personal value to their successes and failures and often feel less of a person when they don’t perform well.

To protect themselves from the prospect of failure, they avoid completing the assignment or task in question until the very last minute. Young said that giving yourself an incentive to complete a boring or undesirable task is one method for fighting procrastination. A tip she explained is to set aside a personal reward, like a sweet treat or an episode of your favorite show, and tell yourself that you can only have it after finishing a task.

“Suddenly that behavior that you don’t want to do in the short-term is now paired with something that you find very enjoyable,” Young said.

Students are more likely to procrastinate in classes that don’t seem very entertaining or fun. One way to avoid this is to try and reframe the task, putting a focus on what makes it rewarding or interesting. For instance, choose to write a paper on a topic you find intriguing.

Avoiding the undesirable is in our human design. But through self-discipline, incentives, or perspective, chronic procrastinators can find a way to live with less stress. As finals approach, taking time and space for your work will enhance your performance overall. For more specific tactics, reach out to experts, like Dr. Young and Dr. Heppner in the GC psychology department.