Written by Gerald Lois M. Roldan and Alexis Bienne Montaller
Illustrated by: Max Mendoza
I have three quizzes, a paper, a presentation, two readings, and this article due by the end of the week but guess what I’ve been doing the last 2 hours…, that’s right! Scrolling through TikTok and hating myself for not being able to exit the app despite getting spoiled over and over again with super bowl news, but I am now halfway through my tasks and have come to the realization that the hardest part is over— actually starting them.
After naps and an excruciating battle with this ever-so-powerful nemesis, I finally broke free of our beds and got on with this article. On top of everything, we go back to what procrastination literally is. With the easiest research one could do, Merriam-Webster defines procrastination as putting off something intentionally or habitually. Interestingly, this dictionary chooses to attack us today. As we were feeling a little modest ourselves, we took it further and found its origin – in Latin with pro meaning “forward” and crastinus meaning “tomorrow.” We may not be Latin but we pushed forward this article every tomorrow we can get.1
Now, we might build up an argument that the whirlpool of TikTok might cause this procrastination. However, ancient history says otherwise. Long before the emergence of renegade dance crazes and family guy clips juxtaposed with soap being shredded, ancient philosophers have been toying with the idea of procrastination and have warned us not to fall into its trap since then. Hesiod, a Greek poet, wrote in 800 B.C. a caution not to “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” Another Roman consul named Cicero referred to procrastination as “hateful” in the conduct of affairs.2
Then again, we push it forward. With our dreams, our causes, and our carts, we push forward our tasks until the deadline literally feels deadly enough. Most cases are seen in students with a string of school requirements compressed toward the very last hour of the due date. This not only became prevalent but actually memeified during the pandemic when online learning was the norm. However, all these are not confined to classrooms but can also be seen in workplaces, offices, governments, and so much more. One might say it’s an epidemic of some sort as it spares no one. Despite endless time management strategies and checklists, there will come a time when today’s work becomes tomorrow’s, and by then, you’re on your way to class. Interestingly, we can’t solely blame it on our own will.
The Neural Web of Procrastination
Physiologically, there are two main parts of the brain responsible for our inherent drive to procrastinate.
The limbic system, one of the most dominant parts of our brain, is working 24/7. This portion of our brain is fully developed from birth for it controls our moods and instincts. Under the influence of the system are basic emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and “drives” such as pleasure libido. It is the voice that urges you to get away from danger or tasks that seem disagreeable or unenjoyable.
The prefrontal cortex is a weaker portion of the brain that’s located right behind your forehead. It also plays a huge role in making decisions and assimilating information. Psychologists say that this part of the brain makes us human as this portion of our brain is what differentiates us from other animals as we get to discern our ‘animal instincts’. The prefrontal cortex is what eventually forces us to complete tasks. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work automatically—in order to make it function, it needs effort.3
Research done by Sirois and Pychyl on procrastination and mood regulation explains why as soon as a particular task seems like such a daunting tiring chore, the limbic system takes control and starts a process called ‘immediate mood repair’.4 This leads to procrastination for three easy-flowing steps; first is taking the self out of the unpleasant situation, second is choosing another task that is more enjoyable, and third is continuing the task that provides dopamine, a neurotransmitter dubbed as the “happy hormone”. Dopamine functions as a chemical neurotransmitter released by the brain that helps out the body in many ways such as movement, cognition, attention, and many more. In terms of procrastination, dopamine helps us focus and control the flow of information in the brain.5 We become more interested in something else that is more pleasurable and receiving dopamine–which is very addicting. The chemical dopamine assists the brain in controlling our pleasure and reward centers. Whenever we do or see something that we like, the brain releases a small amount of dopamine, making us more likely to keep doing whatever it takes to get more dopamine. Like a temporary bandage, procrastination kicks in.
Delayed gratification and burning limitations
Ironically, despite knowing a lot about procrastination, the title still stands and we waited till the last minute to finalize this article. It might stem from Dr. Shin and Dr. Grant’s proposition that putting work off pays off. As it turns out, there is a curvilinear relationship between procrastination and creativity.6 It might not be direct but in a way, pushing forward tasks keeps the creative juices coming. This might be the sole motivation of most procrastinators: to wait for that kick, to anticipate a push, to bank on that rush. Technically, it works by putting you in hyperdrive and starts all the motors running at a pace you didn’t even know you can work with. Then again, fast things go quick then crash and burn. This could happen when procrastination is mismanaged.
More often than not, burnout causes procrastination. When things get overwhelming, we tend to push tasks forward and let tomorrow worry for itself – or the next tomorrow, or the next ones after that. In fact, Dr. Balkis reports a positive correlation between emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced academic efficacy, and academic procrastination.7 However, juggling deadlines especially when they’re one after the other can be overwhelming and can in return cause burnout. When the rush is not rushing you anymore and just tiring you, that’s when you know that the adrenaline ran out from the procrastination. Luckily, we got just enough rush to finish this article otherwise this page would be empty.
In a sense, procrastination and burnout keeps us in a draining cycle where we keep delaying tasks because we’re overwhelmed and we become overwhelmed with the delayed tasks. Now we know how Sisyphus feels pushing that rock over and over again. There lies countless strategies of how to manage this dreadful feeling but, like in shoes, no one size fits all. It is on our discernment that we are able to handle our physiology and psychology.
Breaking free from the draining cycle
But don’t fret, there are many ways to manage procrastination. One example is called the Pomodoro technique, a time management strategy that divides 25-minute periods of concentrated work into five-minute breaks. This is seen as an effective method as it makes the tasks seem more manageable by providing a structure on how to tackle your work because you already know when to take a break and when to end the break.8
Another method is the prioritization of tasks and optimizing of schedules. Just be careful not to take too much time ‘scheduling’ tasks. I know how easy it is to get lost in Google Sheets and Notion for hours. However, there are cases when we think that we have already accomplished something of value and put off doing the actual tasks. When it comes to that, just do it! By overthinking how to approach the task, we only give ourselves more time to find ways to avoid it, which is ironically the opposite of time management. Sometimes, a simple to-do list on a sticky note is enough. Just get the ball rolling and eventually you’ll be wrecking-balling through your list of tasks in no time, for what is procrastination if not the absence of progress?
Now, it is important to note that there is no one way to manage procrastination because not every technique works for everyone. This is why it is important to learn the fundamental reason for procrastination so that you too can understand the way your mind and habits work. According to psychologist Joseph Ferrari, the solution to procrastination is not time management because while everybody is inherently designed to procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator.9 Procrastination is a chronic habit and the secret to breaking this harmful habit is to cheer up! Making the task more enjoyable like being in a good environment would do wonders for our motivational levels. This way, we address our desire for dopamine and build a healthier relationship with productivity.
Ultimately, we must be our own Kris Jenners! Unless you hire an actual manager, you have no one to keep you in check other than yourself. In order to properly find that routine that works for you, take time to reflect on how our bodies and psyche work. Are you the type to tackle a task headstrong because you know yourself and you can’t give yourself time to doubt? Are you the type who needs a motivational talk and breathing session before a whole study day? Or are you the type who first needs to lay everything out on a whiteboard and plan a whole strategy complete with a timetable? Any other way, it is good to experiment and find a niche that works for you.
As habitual as it may seem, procrastination has a biological component with it that we cannot deny. It is embedded in our systems and we fall prey to such tempting nuances. Still, this does not mean we are its prisoners. Our cognitive abilities allow us to think beyond and transcend the physiology of our bodies. It is a long shot, even for us. But then again, we reached the end of this article meaning we succeeded. We beat the deadline and we may procrastinate, but at least now, we know better than to bank on that rush.
Balkıs, M. (2013). The relationship between academic procrastination and students’ burnout. Pau.edu.tr. https://doi.org/2536-4758
Collins, B. (2020a, March 3). The pomodoro technique explained. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryancollinseurope/2020/03/03/the-pomodoro-technique/?sh=4f2254053985
Eric Jaffe. (2013). Why wait? The science behind procrastination. APS Observer, 26.
Jaffe, E. (2023). Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination. APS Observer, 26. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/why-wait-the-science-behind-procrastination
Mandal, Dr. A. (2010, January 10). Dopamine functions. News-Medical.Net. https://www.news-medical.net/health/Dopamine-Functions.aspx
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2023, February 2). Merriam-Webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/procrastinate#:~:text=We%20won’t%20put%20off,especially%20through%20laziness%20or%20apathy.
Shin, J., & Grant, A. (2021). When Putting Work Off Pays Off: The Curvilinear Relationship between Procrastination and Creativity | Academy of Management Journal. Academy of Management Journal. https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/amj.2018.1471
Sirois, F., & Pychyl, T. (2013). Procrastination and the priority of short‐term mood regulation: Consequences for future self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(2), 115–127. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12011