As a chronic procrastinator, I feel a sense of anguish as each new year arrives. In a time of resolutions or nudge words, I still have goals from the old year.
“You know it’s going to stink in the future just as much as it’s going to stink doing it now, but internally you just can’t help yourself,” said Samuel McClure, professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscientist at Arizona State University. “It’s a fascinating phenomenon — that myopia you can’t escape — even though if you just stop and think about it, it’s ludicrous.”
There is individual variation, but “procrastination is a tendency that we all encounter in our life in different domains, or at different time points in our lives,” said Raphaël Le Bouc, a neurologist at the Paris Brain Institute and author of the study. “But the true cognitive mechanisms behind it are not really known. And this might be a reason why it’s difficult to overcome this tendency.”
Procrastinating brains believe that tasks will be easier in the future
Researchers asked 43 adults to rate their preferences for receiving smaller rewards quicker or larger rewards later, as well as for performing easier tasks sooner or more effortful tasks later.
For rewards, earlier research has shown that humans tend to be more impulsive and prefer a smaller reward sooner over a larger reward later, a finding that was replicated in Le Bouc’s study. A bird in hand now is worth two in some future bush.
His study also shows people similarly discount and downplay future effort, preferring an easier task now vs. a more difficult one in the future, such as memorizing 10 digits of pi in one day or 20 digits by next week.
When the researchers had 27 of the 43 subjects perform the same experiment in an fMRI neuroimaging machine, one brain area stood out as central to making this cost-benefit calculation — the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex.
Brain activity in this region seemed to combine information about rewards and efforts for a task; more effortful tasks increased its neural activity, while more rewards decreased it.
When you are struggling to decide because the choices are almost equal, that is when this brain area is most active, said McClure, who was not involved in the study. This fits with the subjective feeling of procrastination, he said: “You’re struggling with it and doing it anyway.”
Procrastination-prone brains were especially sensitive to the idea that doing tasks in the future was much easier.
“When they imagine doing an effort in one month, for them, the cost decreases a lot,” Le Bouc said. But for non-procrastinators, the cost decreases much slower.
Procrastinating is more likely when the task is harder
To measure procrastination more directly in the lab, the researchers asked the participants to choose whether to perform tasks for a reward now, or the same task tomorrow for the same reward. The participants were informed that they would need to perform one of the tasks on their chosen day. (After the experiment, they were informed that the second day of experiments would not take place.)
As expected, the more effort something takes, or the less rewarding the task, the more likely the participants were to want to procrastinate.
Crucially, the more someone downplayed how difficult future tasks would be, the more likely they would be to delay the task.
Procrastination is also not a one-time decision, but one we get to make repeatedly to put off the task until the proverbial tomorrow.
To assess procrastination behavior in more real-life settings, the researchers turned to bureaucratic busywork.
Participants were informed that to receive their payment, they had to fill out at home and return 10 pieces of arduous administrative paperwork such as documents for passport and driver’s license renewals, within 30 days. “The forms actually were quite boring,” Le Bouc said.
Using their behavioral and brain imaging data, the researchers were able to build a computational model to predict how long each person would delay completing the paperwork.
Almost everyone procrastinated to some extent. (Six people never returned any of the paperwork but still received payment.)
For both the in-lab and at-home experiments, the hallmark of procrastination severity was how much each individual believed the tasks would be less effortful in the future by making certain choices. Differences in the neural activity of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex also predicted participant procrastination predilection.
In other words, the more your brain discounts how much effort is required to do something in the future, the more likely you are to procrastinate.
How to face procrastination
The findings from this study suggest there are two ways to tackle procrastination, though more research is needed.
Remember the task. Because procrastination is a repeated decision, you need to remember you had something on your plate in the first place. “If you forget that at some point that you have this decision to make, then obviously you will never perform the task,” Le Bouc said. Setting reminders for the task and prompting that decision more frequently may reduce your probability to procrastinate, he said.
Envision your future self. You could also try addressing the cognitive bias of believing a task is easier in the future head-on. Envisioning your future self — the one who will be saddled with unpaid bills, looming deadlines and unwashed dishes — could remind you that procrastinating is not making the task any easier.
This practice, known as episodic future thinking, has been used as a way of counteracting addiction or food cravings.
“Trying to make these efforts in the future more vivid, more realistic, might increase the signal of the cost in your brain and might help you realize that, actually, the cost is going to be exactly the same as it would be now,” Le Bouc said.
Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? Email BrainMatters@washpost.com and we may answer it in a future column.
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