Why your brain procrastinates and how to beat it

Procrastinators put off their to-do list, delay deadlines, and generally make more anxiety for themselves and the people around them waiting to see if they can pull it off. But a new study in Psychological Science finds that it may not be entirely their fault. Some brains are more wired to procrastinate.

Why some are wired to procrastinate

Researchers at Ruhr University Bochum looked at 264 participants’ brains and found that people with larger amygdalas —the parts of our brains that control emotions— were more likely to be procrastinators. These delayers were also more likely to have weaker connections between the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex —the decision maker part of our brain when it comes to taking actions.

The researchers suggest that these poorer connections interrupt our emotions and self-control and make it harder for people with these brains to focus. “Individuals with a larger amygdala may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action —they tend to hesitate and put off things,” Erhan Genç, one of the study authors, told the BBC. So next time you are having trouble focusing on work, you can blame your amygdala.

How to workaround this

But you are not doomed by your brain to be a procrastinator. Brains are flexible and you can break out of your procrastination loop once you understand your personal delay tactics.

One piece of advice is to break the deadline into more manageable parts, so that you do not get too discouraged to start. If you are an email procrastinator, try making the job of clearing your inbox a daily habit. Respond in a timely manner and delegate the rest. People who made email checking a daily part of their workflow reported feeling less stressed than those who let it pile up, one study found.

You can also try reframing the deadline date, so that it feels present. One study found that when people in the summer were faced with a deadline in December or one in January, they were more likely to start working immediately on the December deadline, even when the other choice is only one month apart, because we think in calendar years. When you work under a 12-month clock, a date in the calendar year seems more doable than one a year later. “While time elapses continuously, it appears that consumers think of time categorically. When thinking of a deadline as being in the same category as the present, consumers are more likely to start working toward their goals sooner,” the study authors concluded.

And if personal motivation is not working, recognize that we respond better to outside pressure than our own. In a 2002 study, researchers Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch recruited 60 students for a test where students got penalized for turning in work late. Some of the students got a weekly deadline, some got one final deadline for all three projects, and some could choose their own deadline. The self-imposed deadline group performed the worst and the group with external deadline performed the best.

We can get trapped in our heads to put off our work, but once you start spotting your personal delay tactics, you can break yourself free from them.