Feeling Stressed? You’re More Likely To Procrastinate. A Neuroscientist Explains Why.

Feeling Stressed? You’re More Likely To Procrastinate. A Neuroscientist Explains Why.

July 11, 20223 min read

Procrastination can be thought of as losing the never-ending battle of approach vs. avoidance, with avoidance as the victor.

According to Alicia Walf, a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, when we are stressed, we are more likely to want to avoid not just the task at hand but the negative emotions we feel around that task as well. That’s because at a basic neuroscientific level, we have a bias toward the present and prefer the immediate reward of feeling good when the brain releases the neurochemical dopamine. Humans have a hard time considering consequences of inaction in the present.

Dr. Walf says that we tend to learn associations particularly strongly when there is a rapid release of dopamine. This is one way procrastination can become a habit, which is hard to break.

Some people actually procrastinate in order to get that burst of energy that motivates us to a quick completion of the task. This type of dynamic could involve basic emotional and reward structures of the brain.

Unfortunately, although avoiding the task may make you feel good in the short-term, this is misguided because it begets longer-term negative consequences. This is the crux of procrastination. Our bias toward the here and now tends to produce avoidance of thinking about the long-term until it is too late. Hence, a vicious cycle of avoiding the negative now then becomes negative later. This pattern is compounded because as much as procrastination can cause stress, stress can increase procrastination.

How can stress increase procrastination? The physiological and psychological function of stress is to refocus our attention on challenges and dangers so that we can deal with them. This happens very quickly, which has been advantageous to our species to avoid danger and approach safety without much thought. In this case, our limbic brain, including our amygdala, which is a sensor for danger and our hippocampus, which promotes storage of those memories, is driving this neural response. Other regions involved in emotion regulation, attention, and decision-making, such as the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, make contact with this limbic brain, but these regions are slower to act and more deliberate. Recent studies have shown less activity in these higher brain regions compared to the limbic brain during procrastination.

To reduce procrastination, it may be helpful to deliberately refocus attention on what is important and by using mindful techniques. The science in mindfulness supports a benefit related to these connections between limbic and higher cortical brain structures. On the flipside, stress causes us to refocus attention on what causes the stress and our reactions to it, rather than the task that may be at hand. When we are not in immediate danger from the stress, we still feel stressed out and fall into a pattern of overthinking and focusing on the wrong task. The wrong task in this scenario is procrastination driven by stress. In the end, Walf says, anything that people can do to refocus and reduce stress may be a useful approach to conquer procrastination.

Connect with:
  • Alicia Walf
    Alicia Walf Senior Lecturer, Cognitive Science

    Neuroscientist with extensive research into body, brain, and mind relationships related to brain health, social cognition and emotions.

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