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On the Nature of Procrastination


Though it’s blamed on laziness and the mismanagement of time, knowing its true origin might help us to avoid it.

Procrastinare, in Latin, means “to leave something for tomorrow.” The word comes from the Greek akrasia which can be translated as “doing something against our own good.” At the intersection of these two definitions, we might say that to procrastinate is to do something different from that which we ought to do. It’s an act involving immediate and high levels of frustration the study of which occupies several disciplines.

Although it’s usually thought that procrastinating implies the mismanagement of time, neuroscience has found that it’s actually an emotional tool for dealing with stress. When taken to extremes, it can seriously affect several aspects of life. The neurological mechanisms involved in the process of procrastination act on the limbic system which seeks immediate rather than long-term rewards. This includes the prefrontal cortex which reminds the rest of the brain that we’re doing something we shouldn’t be doing and that explains why procrastination implies such a vicious cycle in providing immediate pleasures.

In the digital age, the possibility of distracting ourselves on social networks or on any website, has made procrastination frequent and almost cultural. This has helped to reduce our attention spans (nothing’s easier than to forget what we’re doing to review social networks or similar online content). Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, during office hours, are some of the sites most repeatedly visited.

But according to many experts, procrastination, besides being irrational (not taking charge of a task and suffering the consequences for it), also concerns an emotional issue and is related to our moods, especially when they’re bad. Thus, postponing duties or tasks has nothing to do with the mismanagement of an agenda but is a response to dealing with the emotions produced by certain tasks: boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, low self-esteem, and resentment, among others.

To counteract procrastination, a habit like any other, multiple responses have been put forward. Some experts on this mental mechanism propose that if the brain needs distractive lapses, one should provide them and take that time into account on our lists of things to do. If, for example, every hour of work in front of the computer requires of us some ten minutes to review our social networks, there’s nothing wrong with it. But because it’s a habit, it’s mutable and can, little by little, transform itself —gradually reducing rest time to achieve still higher lapses in concentration. Instead of visiting social networks every hour, one might start doing it only every two hours, and so on. Habits can take weeks to change so the exercise requires, above all, a lot of patience. Concentration and attention span are like muscles: the more you exercise them, the stronger they become.

On the other hand, some neuroscientists recommend meditation as a way to end procrastination. It’s one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for achieving concentration and improving our ability to pay attention. Meditation modifies the brain, and these changes include regulation of the limbic system. This gives space to the more structured and rational parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) for making decisions. This is in addition to all the other physical and emotional benefits for which meditation is well-known.

It’s possible that the methods put forward so far for dealing with procrastination will take some time and effort, but that’s no surprise: in general, nearly any worthwhile process will come about through will and discipline.

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