Understanding the biology of procrastination

Hi guys!

How are you? Today we are going to talk about a very important subject, procrastination. We all suffer from the problem, some more, some less, but no one is free from this thing. This article will be divided into three posts for easy reading, and this is the first.

After all, what is it? The word comes from the Latin procrastinatus, being ‘pro’ (ahead) and ‘crastinus’ (tomorrow), that is, for tomorrow. With that, one can know that, since the days when Latin was a living language, people left tasks for the next day.

Okay, but why does this happen? Contrary to what many people imagine, procrastination is not about willpower or discipline. The explanation for this problem is largely in the biology of the human being.

According to the doctor and neuroscientist Paul MacLean, the human brain is divided into three parts, reptilian or primitive brain, limbic or emotional brain and neocortex.

To give a better example, I will use my hand: the most primitive part of the brain or the brain stem would be the arm. This part was the first to develop with evolution and guarantees our survival by controlling things like hunger, thirst, sleep, etc. The second part, called the emotional brain, would be the thumb resting on the center of the palm. It is a smaller region, but super important as it is the center of our emotions. Finally, the rational brain or neocortex would be, in our analogy, the four fingers closed over the thumb. They form the gray matter and represent the evolutionary leap that enabled the creation of language and what differentiates us as a species.

If we look at the brain of our ancestors, like Homo habilis, we will see that not only has the brain practically doubled in size, but the shape of the skull has changed considerably to house the newly developed frontal part. However, if we compare our brain with the first Homo sapiens sapiens (or the first man like us), we will see that there has been no significant change since then. That is, our brain is as it is 200 thousand years ago!

From Prehistory to the Ancient Age, 196 thousand years passed, and our way of life remained very similar during that time. We, humans, came together in small agglomerations and lived off hunting and fishing. Our concern came down to what we would eat IN THE DAY and how we would protect ourselves from the PRESENT natural hazards. That is, all actions brought immediate results.

It was with the invention of writing that things started to change because of the way we learn things changed. With the acceleration in learning, new forms of organization started to be created. With the creation of the first cities, new concerns also came. And our actions, which always brought immediate results, began to produce results that were not so immediate – for example, if I work today, I will earn coins to buy food at the end of the month.

Now speed up the last two thousand years. If we focus on the last two hundred years, we see how this environment of non-immediate results has evolved. Virtually all of our actions have results in the distant future: we study for several years to possibly get a good job. We work for several years to perhaps earn well. We earn money to maybe travel and relax. Seizing the moment is such a rare thing that, even when we try to disconnect, we can’t stop thinking about the future!

However, our brain has not kept up with this evolution. Our brain is much like our primitive brain, which prefers immediate results. We are beginning to learn to treat future threats as if the result is in the present, but we are still at the beginning of that learning. 

Check below the changes in society from another perspective.

In this context, even if we want to be slim and beautiful, our brain still wants that immediate result from a calorie bomb like a sandwich or an ice cream. Or, even though we know we have to deliver a job next week and we should be working on it, our brain can only think of that wonderful little game. It is a constant war between our Future Self and our Present Self.

In this way, we can’t rely on our willpower to convince our brain to do things that don’t immediately reward us, just because the Future Self wants it. For that, we have to:

  1. Understand how daily tasks are repeated through habits through understanding the cycle of habits;
  2. Identify the tasks we are procrastinating on;
  3. Select effective actions to make these tasks more attractive, easier to perform, or have an immediate result.

 

Only then will we be able to turn the task we are procrastinating into a new lasting habit.

Click here and learn more about the habit cycle and here to learn how to avoid procrastination.

What’s up? Were you relieved to know that procrastination has nothing to do with willpower?

 

Have a great day and see you next time!

Lu Vianna