Disclaimer: I am writing this column 90 minutes before deadline so the topic is very close to my heart (in many ways).
First, we should never make the mistake of confusing procrastination with poor time management or laziness. It goes much deeper than that.
Procrastination is such a complex topic that every subfield of psychology addresses it — but in a different way. A neuropsychologist will define it as “a failure of executive function or how one plans ahead and prioritizes things.” A social psychologist, however, might define it as “a problem related to emotional regulation or trying to avoid negatives feelings such as stress,” while evolutionary psychologists may see it as an issue related to our genes and adaptation.
According to a 2014 study researchers at the University of Colorado conducted, it could simply be that procrastination is part of our evolutionary make up. As part of the study to find a genetic link to procrastination, the researchers asked sets of identical twins a series of questions regarding work habits.
The study compared fraternal twins (who only share some DNA, like any other set of siblings) with identical twins who share all the same DNA. The study included a set of mathematical models to see if the trait of procrastination could be inherited.
They found that half the time, differences in procrastination habits are related to differences in genetics. The researchers also found that the genetic variations related to procrastination habits also are related to genetic variations in another trait — impulsivity.
So, putting things off and acting impulsively are behaviors that might be inherited together. These findings seem more than plausible, considering whom we came from and the fact that early human life was focused exclusively on short-term survival.
You don’t have a reason to worry about next week if you aren’t sure your stomach is going to be full tomorrow. So, our ancestors put their priorities on short-term goals. Making sudden decisions that included less distant rewards served their survival better.
But, as the study also ackoweledged, it’s not all in our genes. In this age of dramatic technological advancement and greater access to resources, we place more emphasis on long-term goals than our ancestors could have imagined.
The director for the Center for Initiatives in Education and Canada’s Carleton University Psychology Professor Timothy Pychyl believes that procrastination is all about giving in to momentary feel good. Pychyl argues that problems arise when we repeat this behavior using more and more insignificant excuses to the point where it becomes a self-learned habit.
Also, if you overboard on the procrastinating, stress (which you were trying to avoid in the first place) and all things related, like high blood pressure and anxiety, will eventually impact you harder in the long run.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that advanced or “serial” procrastinators had trouble managing such things such as blood pressure and heart disease as they aged.
So, whether its inherited, learned or a combination of both, what is a possible solution to procrastination?
Speaking for myself, I have found that breaking up projects or work into smaller parts helps me stay on task. After completing each task, I find a way to reward myself. Then I can look forward to the next task and so on. (If you have ever had to deal with a thesis committee, you will know results can vary depending on the person).
As for my priorities, I already have my tasks for this week written down … now, if I can only find where I put the damn paper.