Procrastination gets a bad rap: as a demon outside of ourselves, sitting on our extremities, preventing us from picking up a pen, or a broom, or a copy of TurboTax, like we know we’re supposed to. It’s that little imp that has had me up making a total of three separate cups of tea while I attempt to compose the very sentence you are currently reading.
But, as I’ve written in this space before, procrastination is actually linked to deeply set survival mechanisms in the human brain. Previous research has pointed to a battle between your limbic system (“fight or flight”) and prefrontal cortex (the slower, more rational future-planner) as the crux of procrastination. But just because procrastination is a natural response to perceived danger doesn’t mean it’s appropriate all the time. (Like when you spend a week trying to pick up the phone to book a dental cleaning.)
The New York Times has a fascinating deep dive into procrastination-as-self-harm, and how, as such, it’s actually more of an emotional regulation issue rather than a productivity issue. Researchers say it prioritizes a quick repair of bad feelings sourced in self-doubt, boredom, anxiety, etc., over the long-term happiness of successfully completing a task.
“But, of course, this only compounds the negative associations we have with the task, and those feelings will still be there whenever we come back to it, along with increased stress and anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem and self-blame. […]
But the momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what makes the cycle especially vicious. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief — ‘you’ve been rewarded for procrastinating,’ [professor of psychology Dr. Fuchsia] Sirois said. And we know from basic behaviorism that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit.”
We have to address the very unpleasant feelings procrastination is trying to help us avoid. According to the researchers in the NYT profile, that means finding a “Bigger, Better Reward” for our brains than putting things off. This can involve dividing a big task up so we get more frequent “hits” of reward. Or forgiving ourselves for the times we do procrastinate, so we’re not compounding our bad feelings by beating ourselves up. In short, recognizing that we’re human — and that it’s not a bad thing — can help us overcome our most human of protective mechanisms.