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Ideally, we would never procrastinate. We’d live in a world where obligations came first, personal desires second, and all of our deadlines were met with elegance and ease. Unfortunately, nobody lives in such a world.

The tendency to procrastinate is consistently annoying. Whether we’re avoiding bills, the dentist, or struggling to unpack from our latest trip, some number of life’s routine tasks are being deferred for future us. And, as everybody knows, future us is never happy about it.

To beat back this most pernicious habit, we look to the past. Here, we find that procrastination is the result of impartial evolution — we didn’t develop enough to escape its curse. Despite this lamentable fact, understanding procrastination is the best way to defeat it. And to understand it, we start with impulse.

Impulse

Before mammals replaced reptiles as the dominant large-bodied animals on land, creatures roamed the planet with little thought for the morrow. Impulses would emerge and, for the most part, animals would act on them. These impulses make up the root cause of procrastination.

Impulses are created by a number of physiological mechanisms in the brain. A large part of each, though, is created by dopamine — a molecule with many functions in the body. For impulse, it operates within our motor and pleasure systems to compel us toward things we want to do. Most often, these things were, at some point, advantageous for survival.

The dopaminergic response in impulse has two parts. First, it motivates us toward something we want. We crave chocolate, say, and dopamine gets secreted. The second is that it makes us enjoy certain things: When we actually eat chocolate, we secrete dopamine. Both these mechanisms work to build an impulse, pushing us toward things we find pleasant.

Animal life was guided by impulses like these for hundreds of millions of years. Once they hit, the animal didn’t understand how they related to other potential wants in their future. To phrase it differently, they didn’t understand how not buying Starbucks now might equal more money for houses later. This ability came with the development of something novel.

Foresight

It wasn’t until we could see into the future that we learned to suppress these impulses; it took an idea of how future goals aligned with those nearby. For the most part, this ability followed the development of the frontal lobes: The more they expanded, the more we learned to suppress immediate desires for those that would come later.

The frontal lobes gave us this ability through their reciprocal connections with dopaminergic parts of the brain. When many dopaminergic signals are produced, for instance, they first get sent to the frontal lobes to determine whether they should be followed or not. If the frontal lobes look into the future and determine that no, they should not be followed, the impulse gets suppressed.

The role of the frontal lobes in impulse control is easy to see. When you suffer damage to certain parts of the prefrontal cortex, for instance, you lose the ability to establish connections between future rewards and whatever you want right now. The result is an inability to favor delayed rewards over those right in front of you.

While I don’t think procrastination is entirely beatable, I do think its damage can be assuaged.

Many case studies reveal the same thing. Phineas Gage, for instance, one of the most famous trauma patients in neuroscience, had a three-foot-long railroad spike shot through his frontal lobes. After the incident, he transmogrified from a respectable young man into a petulant degenerate: He spent all his money, lost countless jobs, and treated all his friends terribly. He was, in other words, a victim of his lesser impulses.

Frontal lobe inhibition in humans didn’t evolve until mammals were allowed to flourish in the wake of the dinosaur extinction. Once afforded this open niche, we evolved larger frontal lobes to better see the future. This mild clairvoyance enabled us to stifle current wants for those farther off.

A constant battle

Procrastination unfolds as a result of the battle between these two systems — the strength of our dopaminergic impulses on one hand and the ability of our frontal lobes to suppress them on the other. Failures of either ability will compel us to follow our impulses rather than ignore them.

Overzealous dopaminergic activity is a consistent driver of failures with impulse control. Many people given dopaminergic therapy for things like Parkinson’s disease or restless leg syndrome, for instance, develop impulse control disorders — they succumb to things like pathological gambling or compulsive shopping. Their impulses, in other words, become too strong to ignore.

The frontal lobes can similarly create such problems. Many people, for instance, are born with a variation in a frontal lobe receptor that receives dopamine. This variation makes the receptor less adept at understanding the impulse signal. People with variations of this type are more likely to suffer things like ADHD and OCD — i.e., problems with impulse control.

Interactions between the frontal lobes and dopaminergic activity explain much of our proclivity to procrastinate. We feel the lure of an immediate reward — checking Instagram, playing guitar, writing something new — and, if the frontal lobes aren’t strong enough to suppress it, it overwhelms our ability to stay on task. The result is procrastination.

Know your enemy

While I don’t think procrastination is entirely beatable, I do think its damage can be assuaged. The most promising way to do this is through knowledge: If you can clearly identify the factors that help procrastination take shape, it’ll be easier to expunge them from your life. At least this is the hope.

Two of the more salient causes of procrastination are how distant something is into the future and how much you actually want to do that thing. Typically, the farther off something is, the more likely you are to procrastinate. The same is true of things you don’t want to do: The less you want to do them, the easier it’ll be to get dragged away by other impulses.

Whatever your strategy, procrastination is a constant annoyance.

Distance is a problem because our frontal lobes are regrettably poor at comprehending future rewards. This is why immediate desires normally have a stronger pull than those far off. With this in mind, we can try to infuse more value into those things that exist in the future, enumerating the many benefits of completing them. This, or we implement some sort of punishment system to make those competing immediate rewards less desirable.

The palatability of a task similarly influences our proclivity to procrastinate. If the task is especially aversive, we’ll have a difficult time sequestering the impulse to do other things. Again, the best strategy for this dilemma is to outline the benefits of that future reward, giving it more pull than the competing immediate rewards.

Whatever your strategy, procrastination is a constant annoyance. We delay assignments and doctor visits, and we neglect to clean our dishes — all because we’d rather do something else. This unfortunate disposition results from the partially defunct communication between our frontal lobes and dopaminergic impulses. But hey, at least we’re not lizards.


Especially fun papers

  1. These three papers (here, here, and here) describe how frontal lobe malfunctions with dopamine can lead to impulse control problems.
  2. This paper covers some of the more common causes of procrastination.
  3. These three papers (here, here, and here) talk about how impulse control disorders can emerge from too much dopamine.