For centuries, so-called experts and motivational speakers have preached that we should conquer the ‘enemy’ called procrastination, at all costs.

Because if we fail to avoid laziness, we’ll waste away our life’s potential.

So what do we do?

Each day, we try even harder to motivate ourselves to get important things done. But when we procrastinate, we beat ourselves up and blame it on our laziness.

What if instead, there was a better explanation behind why we procrastinate, other than a lack of willpower or motivation?

Here’s what scientists have recently discovered.

Would You Fight or Flight?

In 2018, a team of researchers conducted a groundbreaking study to investigate the differences between the brains of people who struggle with procrastination and those who don’t.

To do this, the researchers recruited 264 participants to complete specific tasks, and afterwards conducted fMRI brain scans on each person.

The results were astonishing.

Amygdala hijack

Image credit: Wiki commons.

The researchers discovered a higher volume of amygdala—an almond-shape set of neurons that process our emotions—in the brains of the participants who procrastinated than those who were more action orientated. [1]

Moreover, they discovered that the procrastinators had weaker connections between the amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC)—another region of the brain responsible for self-control and emotional regulation.

These breakthrough findings provided the long awaited neuroscientific explanation for what psychologists had referred to as an “amygdala hijack.” [2]

Image credit: Evelyn Neal

In layman’s terms, during high pressure scenarios which trigger memories of negative experiences, the amygdala triggers a fight or flight response.

It takes over our ability to think of the long term consequences of our actions and leads us to avoid the important task at hand, because it’s perceived as a threat to our safety.

As a reward for escaping the threat by procrastinating, we’re temporarily relieved and feel better.

But this doesn’t last long.

Sooner or later, the negative emotions creep back up again—boredom, self-doubt, anxiety, stress and so on—and to cope with this, we continue to procrastinate until the last-minute deadline.

This vicious cycle of avoiding negative emotions and rewarding ourselves by procrastinating, is what turns procrastination from a one-off behavior into an addiction.

To us, procrastination is simply a matter of laziness.

To our brains however, it’s a matter of life and death.

Quick note: In the upcoming Procrastination Masterclass, I’ll be sharing simple strategies to help you use proven psychology to stop procrastinating, stay focused on your most important tasks and get things done with less effort. 

Procrastination is the Symptom. Fear is the Root Cause.

“Do one thing every day that scares you.”

— Mary Schmich

By definition, laziness is the unwillingness to work or use energy. But the majority of us are willing to get things done.

Beneath the surface, it’s fear—not lack of motivation or willpower—that prevents us from taking action towards our goals.

Procrastination is simply one of many coping strategies to avoid facing these fears.

One would think that after writing and publishing articles nearly every week, for the past two and a half years, I’d have conquered my fears and self-doubt.

Not so.

Like you, I also fear failure, and often feel like I’m not good enough.

Each day I sit down to write, I struggle with perfectionism and second guess every word I write.

I battle with impostor syndrome, alongside the fear that readers will soon be turned off by my writing and stop reading my work.

The fears haven’t gone away. But I’ve learned to dance with my fears—instead of trying to get rid of them—and write anyway.

Likewise on your end, what are the biggest fears holding you back from taking action towards your goals?

Visualize the worst case scenarios: The painful scenes of failure and disappointment.

Make peace with them.

Then take a deep breath, feel the fear and take action anyway.

For more ideas on how to use proven psychology to stop procrastinating, focus on what matters most and get things done with less effort, check out The Procrastination Masterclass.


Footnotes

1. Schlüter et al (2018). The Structural and Functional Signature of Action Control, Psychological Science, 1-11. “Individuals who are state oriented when it comes to initiating actions and therefore tend to hesitate or procrastinate show higher amygdala volume” (p. 5).

2. The term “amygdala hijack” was initially coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

3. Sirois, Fuschia & A. Pychyl, Timothy. (2013). Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 7. 115–127.

4. Hershfield, Hal. (2011). Future self-continuity: How conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1235. 30-43.

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