It is so dark outside that even the moonlight seems sparse as it just barely glances off your window. The stars glare coldly down to earth, and they seem to be urging you to get on with your work. It’s probably far past midnight; your rationality is long gone; your desk is littered with papers of unknown origin, binders from half a dozen classes, and a scattering of pens and pencils and chewed-up erasers; you have no less than three big assignments due the next day, the dread and hopelessness is clawing up your throat, and yet all you can do is alternate between staring blankly out the window waiting for daylight and watching Netflix.
No matter how much you tell yourself you need to get things done, some irrational but powerful part of your brain seems to win out, and you slip back into the vicious cycle of wishing you could do more but ironically wasting time while contemplating the seemingly hopeless situation at hand.
Admit it. That scenario is not entirely implausible and it happens to the best of us. Nearly all people experience this feeling at some point, whether they are teachers, middle-aged, working in the corporate world, college students, bad students, good students, or straight-A students; procrastination is a phenomenon that touches the lives of all humans. For the school-aged population especially, writing 1,000 essays in the dead of night and completing math homework on the harried bus ride to school the next morning may simply be part of a routine.
Recently, procrastination has become a legitimate field of scientific study, and researchers have discovered a number of interesting things: for one thing, everyone procrastinates. Everyone procrastinates, but not everybody is a procrastinator. Within a sample size of college students, Joseph R. Ferrari found that procrastinators identified with higher levels of public self-consciousness and self-handicapping tendencies, though procrastinators and non-procrastinators are not altogether different in areas of verbal and abstract intelligence. This is not to suggest that procrastination causes negative psychological discrepancies, but that people with those personalities are naturally inclined towards delaying things.
Upon analysis of the neuropsychology of a wider sample size of students, we find that chronic procrastinators, or people who are consistently unable to complete tasks on time no matter what the task is, make up over 20 percent of the general population. Most of the time, people tend to learn from mistakes, and when confronted with the same situation again, they are able to reassess and take a different approach.
Real procrastinators seem unable to connect those dots. They seek to relieve immediate stress, while simultaneously denying themselves of pleasure in the long run. People who occasionally put off dull tasks until later, or “prioritize” to a certain effect, are considered situational procrastinators who may or may not procrastinate, based on the extent of their situation. Chronic procrastinators have an incessant issue with completing tasks of any kind.
In reality, this seemingly inevitable stalling is fated to be; it is a biological habit ingrained in the human body–more specifically, in the brain.
The limbic system, or the part of our brain that is primarily involved in emotions and motivation, is largely known as the “pleasure center.” It influences the autonomic nervous system and is one of the oldest, most dominant parts of the brain.
The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, can be regarded as the internal planning system, as it is responsible for complex decision-making. Psychologically, the prefrontal cortex is the executive center that differentiates between right and wrong, predicts possible outcomes, weighs the cost-benefit calculus of decisions, etc. It is also in charge of short-term memory. This region of the brain, however, is less-developed than the limbic system (and especially so in adolescents, since the prefrontal cortex is not considered fully mature until about 25 years old).
The limbic system runs on a sort of autopilot, but the prefrontal cortex requires a more conscious effort to kick into action. Thus when you are contemplating whether or not to complete your homework or any task, your prefrontal cortex might be considering it, but the limbic system is automatically operating as best as it can for immediate relief.
When you put off menial tasks by watching some irrelevant YouTube video or other, the limbic system sends small amounts of dopamine coursing through your system; this short-term reward is of course outweighed by long-term effects such as the encroaching deadline on your English paper, but the addictive feeling of short-term pleasure generally blocks attempts at foresight.
Because this tendency to put things off until “later” is so tied to the physical aspect of people’s lives, genetic predisposition plays a major role in procrastination.
For that reason, certain people are extraordinarily averse to procrastination. In the same way that many seek to put off strenuous or stressful activities until later, others actively pursue the completion of such assignments. What causes some people intense discomfort actually relieves stress in other people. At the current stage in scientific study, this remains an inexplicable biological phenomenon.
Given that existential crises are prone to appear to those who have trouble focusing their energy explicitly on one task, people seem to take the cue that they need to beat procrastination, and become “better” people. This approach is misguided. Procrastination is a drain on life’s resources, yes, but what people need to overcome is not the urge to take a break once in a while; what we should focus on is the task of prioritizing and envisioning the future. Foresight and communication are imperative qualities one can have in the educational and corporate world of modern society, and understanding human nature can only add to that expedition.
However, there is little knowledge not worth knowing, few epiphanies not worth experiencing. Procrastination is a subject matter that many would like to discuss (and many would like to hold off as long as humanly possible), as everything comes with a price and everything comes with a lesson.
Procrastination is a wound that is self-inflicting and self-curing, and it empties our most precious resource: time. The clock is ticking, the hourglass’s crystalline contents are draining away by the second, the invincibility of youth disappears one day, and yet humans are often unable to muster up the self-discipline to make use of their prodigious productivity–productivity that could easily change the world at a far greater pace than we are already racing forward today.
For now though, we seem content to passively observe the bright balls of gas burning millions of light-years away. And maybe it is not the end of the world, for time is never really wasted. Maybe someday we will evolve to have machine-like efficiency, but the mysterious nature of the human brain is perhaps what makes us truly human.
Why wait? The Science Behind Procrastination. Eric Jaffe. APS. Observer Vol. 26, No. 4. 2013.
The Science Behind Procrastination. Amy Spencer.
The Science Behind Our Urge To Procrastinate. Alena Hall, July 15, 2014.
Compulsive Procrastination: Some Self-Reported Characteristics. Joseph R. Ferrari. Psychological Reports, 1991. Center for Life Studies, Cazenovia College.