Procrastination is a near-universal experience. Who hasn’t felt the impulse to briefly shrink away from our responsibilities to check our feeds, gossip with coworkers or just stare off into space?
But for the 15 to 25 percent of adults that identify as chronic procrastinators, procrastination can also feel universally misunderstood. People who frequently delay tasks can be perceived as lazy, unmotivated or even malicious, but that’s not how the experience feels for them. Their side of the story tends to sound a lot like this plea for help from Reddit’s “getdisciplined” community:
“I’ve hopped through three different jobs to be where I’m at now, at a company that I love working on projects that I thoroughly enjoy, and getting paid well. The downside is that I constantly feel terrible…
Instead of working on what I should be doing, I browse social sites or work on little personal projects. Especially when deadlines start getting tight, I just kind of space out and do that instead of having to face my actual work… Then I end up scrambling to get something finished that I am not proud of at all. Instead, I could have built something that’s solid and functional, that I can be excited to get out and show everyone else. So, why doesn’t this happen?”
Indeed, why doesn’t it? Dr. Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology and head of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, refers to this paralysis as the “gap between intent and action.” His research indicates that the root causes of procrastination are unrelated to energy, motivation or competency. Rather, the core issue is an inability to regulate our own emotions.
“We think of procrastination as an irrational delay because our reasons for action simply aren’t sufficient to motivate action,” says Pychyl. “More accurately, procrastination is a-rational, without reason — because the real issue is emotional.”
When the negative emotions associated with a task start to settle in, procrastinators impulsively seek out distractions that will suppress those negative emotions. This suggests that procrastination and impulsivity are intrinsically linked — and science backs it up.
In 2014, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder studied 181 identical-twin pairs and 166 fraternal-twin pairs to test whether procrastination was influenced by impulsivity. “Everyone procrastinates at least sometimes,” explains Daniel Gustavson, an author of the study. “But we wanted to explore why some people procrastinate more than others and why procrastinators seem more likely to make rash actions and act without thinking.”
The sets of twins were surveyed on their tendencies towards impulsivity and procrastination, along with their ability to set and manage goals. By comparing identical twins (who share all of their genes) with fraternal twins (who share half of their genes, like any other siblings), the researchers were able to discover the impact of genetics on delaying tasks.
They discovered that procrastination and impulsivity were both heritable nearly 50% of the time, and that there was a perfect genetic correlation between impulsivity and procrastination. If you inherited one trait, you almost certainly inherited the other.
Finally, the study found that genetic influences on goal management ability “substantially overlap with those shared between procrastination and impulsivity.” Difficulty in managing goals is what leads to both impulsivity and procrastination.
If goal management issues are the root to procrastination, and procrastination is largely emotional in nature, how exactly do our goals influence our emotions?
Let’s take another look at our Redditor friend’s story. He likes his job, and says himself that projects start well enough at first: “When I get something new to do, I go all-out for the first day or two… and then I just do a complete 180. My mind goes, ‘We have plenty of time to work on this, instead of breaking it down piece by piece and doing a little a day, let’s do something else!’”
This failure to solidify our intentions — and the impulse to make excuses for it — is part of the self-sabotage, says Pychyl. “We don’t really feel like doing the task, so we make vague declarations like ‘I’ll get to that this week’ or ‘I’ll do that later.”
But the deadline inevitably comes without the work being done, because there was never any intent to complete the work established beforehand. With no work, no plan and no time left to complete either, the pressures of the task mount and drive us to procrastinate even further. The solution, then, is to establish the intent before doing anything else.
“We need to move past general goal intentions to specific intentions for action,” Pychyl advises. Figure out what the smallest step towards progress looks like, and solidify the intent to do it by writing it down. By making even a little bit of progress, you’ll build momentum that carries you through your next tasks.
But what about that genetic link? Are we mere pawns in the game of DNA-destiny? Not so, cautions Pychyl. “The genetic contributions amount to half of the variability in these traits. The rest is that ‘nature via nurture’ dance.”
In other words, we’re the product of both what’s in us and what’s around us. While genetics can account for our tendencies, they can’t account for our choices. Procrastination isn’t delaying a task as much as it is delaying the choice: are you going to do this, or not?
And if not now, when?