Procrastination — we are all guilty of it. Irrationally delaying a task in day-to-day life can have minor effects, such as lost sleep from staying up late to meet a deadline, but it can also be detrimental. From a health perspective, waiting to go to the doctor until an illness becomes severe could be fatal. In the financial domain, procrastinating on taxes costs people hundreds of dollars per year in overpayments, and failing to start saving early for retirement can end up costing thousands of dollars. So why do we procrastinate, even though we know it is bad for us? There is a common perception that procrastination is associated with laziness or lack of motivation, but a recent fMRI study suggests something else.
A recent study published in Personality and Individual Differences by Wu and colleagues provides some insight into the neural underpinnings of procrastination by looking at a specific type of brain connectivity, resting state functional connectivity (rsFC), and investigating how this relates to individual levels of procrastination. This approach looks at how different regions of the brain are functionally connected, as opposed to anatomically (structurally) connected. When the brain is at “rest”, there is still some activity going on; it is always spontaneously firing at low-frequency fluctuations. Recent research has shown that there are distinct brain networks that fire together at rest, and these patterns have been linked to variations in cognitive abilities and behaviors.
The researchers hypothesized that procrastination is a result of failure in self-regulation, and thus brain regions involving impulsivity control and self-monitoring may have less functional connectivity in individuals who procrastinate more. They used measures of trait procrastination and self-control to assess procrastination tendencies and collected resting state fMRI data during which participants were instructed to lie quietly in the scanner, close their eyes, and let their mind wander for about 6 minutes. After careful analysis, Wu and colleagues were able to confirm that the functional connectivity between the hypothesized brain regions were indeed related to procrastination behavior. The circuit between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with value comparison, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region involved in the control of behavior, was found to have reduced connectivity in high procrastinators. Similarly, the connectivity between the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, involved in cognitive control, and the caudate, a reward processing area of the brain, was also reduced in severe procrastinators. Finally, the researchers evaluated connectivity within the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for behavioral inhibition, and found that this was reduced in heavy procrastinators as well.
When they put everything together, as they expected, the behavioral measure of self-control was the best predictor of procrastination tendencies, but the neural functional connectivity was actually able to add significant additional predictive power on top of what self-control could predict by itself. This suggests that there is something unique about the neural connectivity that is able to predict procrastination beyond the self- control that is measured in the lab. The reduced functional connectivity in high procrastinators observed in regions of their brains suggest that procrastination is related to other factors linked to self-control, such as impulse control inability and optimal weighting of value options, something that has only been speculated by researchers before.
So, how does this information help researchers figure out ways to help people reduce procrastination? Identifying that procrastination is associated with a lack of self-control and impulsivity provides a good starting point for interventions that may reduce that behavior. A review by Piers Steel at University of Calgary suggests that procrastination might be reduced by increasing one’s confidence about completing a task, reducing distractions, fostering automaticity by creating habits, and setting daily goals. There has also been a recent interest in internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy. Rozental and colleagues at Stockholm University created an online based 8-week treatment program with different modules designed to reduce procrastination, with topics such as goal-setting, time management, and motivation. In a study of 150 participants who all scored extremely high (top 25%) on an index of procrastination behaviors, they found that internet-based cognitive behavior therapy was able to substantially improve self-report difficulties with procrastination in participants who completed the modules in comparison to control participants who did not complete the treatment, demonstrating that online training can indeed be effective for even the worst procrastinators.
One thing is for sure: the recognition of procrastination as a cognitive deficit is increasing. All of this work provides a promising start for awareness and treatments for even the most severe procrastinators.
- Steel, P. The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychol. Bull. 133, 65–94 (2007). DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65
- Wu, Y., Li, L., Yuan, B. & Tian, X. Individual differences in resting-state functional connectivity predict procrastination. Pers. Individ. Dif. 95, 62–67 (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2016.02.016
- Rozental, A., Forsell, E., Svensson, A., Andersson, G. & Carlbring, P. Internet-Based Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Procrastination: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Res. Protoc. 83, 808–824 (2015). DOI: 10.1037/ccp0000023
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