Procrastination, Explained by Science [Video]

procrastination brains

Everything I’ve ever accomplished has played out in its final moments like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, deadlines achieved by slipping my work under the last remaining inches of a closing tomb door. Will I ever kick this procrastination thing?

Meh, I’ll think about it later.

If scientists could bore into your brain and track down that one neuron – that tiny one-in-one-hundred-billion brain flaw, the root cause of your procrastination – and squash it like an insect, couldn’t they solve the problem for everyone forever?

The truth is, the reasons people procrastinate (as well as the parts of the brain that drive those put-it-off behaviours) vary so widely. Naturally the mechanisms for tackling those causes are equally diverse.

In my colleague’s recent article (which I avoided reading until now), he dove into tactics to help entrepreneurs based on specific motivations for the their procrastination – “Thrill Seekers”, for example, could benefit from creating last-minute panic with fake deadlines. Is it really that simple?

Our Studio Team, bent on solving all of the mysteries of earth and space, was not satisfied to hover at the surface. What if there was more to it? They slashed the do-it-later problem wide-open, relegating one of their own to lab rat status.

This is what they uncovered:

To read the full transcript of this procrastination video, click here.

Procrastination is an emotion-focused coping response. It's not a problem with your time management.

Marco Patricio, the aforementioned human test subject and producer of this piece, spiralled down, down, down into a rabbit hole of research. The “ahas” and the juicy bits were edited into three minutes, but he learned so much more.

There is much scientific speculation. As we concluded in the film, no one really knows the answer, but our expert, Dr. Tim Pychyl touched on "The Happiness Theory" and three others that are worth exploring:

The Happiness Theory

What is it?

“The Happiness Theory” – also referred to as “giving in to feel good” – resonated with the producer. It says that human nature favours the easy, quick win. We’ll delay tasks that threaten our immediate happiness. (“Washing dishes would really kill my buzz right now.”)

How to Deal

Producer's notes:

“(The Happiness Theory) calls back to the history of our existence – to what it means to be human. We’ve been trained through thousands of years of evolution to seek instant gratification. It’s what’s helped us survive as a species – it has driven engineering and innovation and it’s something that’s uniquely human. When something is difficult we seek to make it easier. When something is expensive we seek to make it cheaper. When something is wasteful we seek to make it more efficient. This natural element doesn’t fare well in our modern society, with schedules and deadlines and intangible goals. When we avoid things, it’s not because we don’t want to do it necessarily, it’s because we want to feel good. If you can be mindful, you can reframe the aversion you’re feeling in context of your goals. What do you actually want from your life? It helps you to see it not as a personal failure, but as something that’s hardwired into us and something that can be overcome with practice.”

Intransitive Preference Structure (Loop)

What is it?

“If I tell you that B is greater than A and C is greater than B, by transitive relation, you know C is greater than A,” Dr. Pychyl explains. When stress is applied, however, we become irrational in how we rank our preferences.

Basically, layman to layman, this theory says that our brain becomes math-blind. Say you write a to-do list in order of urgency. Procrastination reorders that list, assigning priority to things you prefer. “Do it tomorrow” seems insignificant (it’s just one day!) but over time, several tomorrows add up to “too late”. Our brain doesn’t do that math.

Here’s an example: it’s Monday and you’re launching a new product on Thursday and you need to shoot and edit product photos. Your brain makes day to day preferences for starting it later: do it today < do it tomorrow < do it Wednesday. But now it’s Wednesday night, and you haven’t started. Suddenly, at the last minute, you wish you had started it on Monday, and the preference now loops back: do it Wednesday < do it Monday.

How to Deal

A commitment device is a means to “lock” you into doing things that are difficult (you know, those tasks you typically procrastinate). A simple example is setting up monthly deposits into a savings account via automatic withdrawal. Commitment devices might be tools, apps, or automated tasks. Even peer pressure can be effective: take your intentions to the streets! Write them in a public forum or share them in a group to provide accountability outside of yourself.

Producer's notes:

“For me this worked by making a tangible list of things to accomplish, in the order that I want to accomplish them, and then using the pomodoro technique to actually get the work done. Every time I procrastinated doing something, I'd write it down, which would reminded me of that task's importance (very, very low) in relation to the one I set out to accomplish.”


Affective Forecasting

What is it?

“Affect is just a fancy word for feelings,” Pychyl tells us. When it comes to feelings, it turns out that the crystal ball is pretty murky. We assume we’ll be less exhausted or more positive in the future (and thus more capable of the procrastinated task), which isn’t always the case. He explains:

“You might say ‘I should go for a run today. I don't feel like going for a run today. I'll go for a run tomorrow at 5:30’. You feel good because you've kept that intention, that noble intention to go for a run, but you've never gotten up at 5:30 to go for a run. That's how predictably irrational we are. We're not very good at predicting the future.”

How To Deal

Just get started. Eye roll emoji, am I right? We wouldn’t be in this mess if we could just get started now and not the day after tomorrow. But what if “doing it” just means doing one little part of it? One of the core messages in David Allen’s Getting Things Done is to list the next step. Break up that massive beast of a task. See? Less scary.

What’s that thing that you procrastinate a lot? For small business owners, taxes tend to fall into the “tomorrow” pile over and over. “What’s the first step?”, asks Allen. Maybe it’s just finding an accountant, downloading an app, or simply organizing receipts in a folder. Step one is the catalyst for step two and so on. Momentum!

Conversely, the “eat the frog” approach might work better for you. Pychyl reminds us of this famous Mark Twain quote:

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.

Future Self

What is it?

Affective forecasting negatively impacts future self. This gets a little Marty McFly, but bear with me.

Dr. Pychyl refers to a study conducted by Hal Ersner-Hershfield in which he used magnetic resonance imaging to see the brain in terms of blood flow (and essentially which part of the brain is active).The assumption made is that blood travels to the place in the brain that’s important in that moment. The participants were asked to think about their present selves, their future selves, and then a stranger. When thinking about present self, one part of the brain is active. When thinking about a stranger, blood flows to a different part. Makes sense, right? The interesting observation made was this: while participants were thinking about future self, the part of the brain highlighted by stranger-thoughts lights up again.

Our brain treats future self like a stranger, and we therefore have less empathy for that person.

How to Deal

Pychyl says, “Having empathy for future self can be very important for closing that gap and making present self realize, ‘This isn't the best choice in the long run because that's me and I care about that person.’"

Researchers found that people who looked at age-enhanced images of themselves allocated more money to a hypothetical retirement savings plans, versus those who looked at images of their current selves. Most of us don’t have a buddy down at the Bureau to whip off a digitally-aged rendering of our likeness, but the same effect may be achieved through imagination.

Connect to your future self through mindfulness meditation. Visualizing yourself in the future, in the third person, can improve connection to future self as a tool to reduce procrastination habits. Mindfulness also helps us find awareness, then acceptance, of the negative feelings we have towards a certain task.

Mindfulness can be a real resistance resource against procrastination, because we learn to take a non-judgmental stance towards our emotions.

So, we didn’t solve procrastination. Maybe we just added complication to an already head-scratching subject. At the end of the film, the producer leaves us with this:

“The thing that I realized about procrastination was the one thing I hoped that I wouldn’t. That everyone deals with it. That there’s no simple solution. And that you have to experience pain to get through anything worth doing.”

Additional Reading & Listening:

Full Video Transcript – Shopify Studio Team

iProcrastinate – Dr.Tim Pychyl [Podcast]

How to Stop Procrastinating and Actually Get Stuff Done – Shopify

Save Me From Myself – Freakonomics [Podcast]

The Neuroscience of Resistance and How to Overcome it –

How to Beat Procrastination: 3 Motivating Articles to Read over the Weekend – Shopify

Inside the Mindful Mind: How Mindfulness Enhances Emotion Regulation Through Improvements in Executive Control – Rimma Teper, Zindel V. Segal, Michael Inzlicht

Getting Things Done – David Allen [Book]

Intransitive Preference Structures: The Procrastination Trap – Dr. Tim Pychyl, Psychology Today

How to Craft a Morning Ritual to Supercharge Productivity and Your Online Business – Shopify

Dayna WinterAbout the Author

Dayna Winter is a Storyteller at Shopify. She follows more dogs than humans on Instagram and isn't a real redhead.