By DR EUGENE YJ TEE and DR CHOY TSEE LENG
You arrive at your office on a Monday morning ahead of your colleagues. Deciding to get a head start to the workweek, you come in at least an hour earlier than usual, and start on that financial report you held off last week.
Then there’s that difficult client you need to ring up today. Let’s not forget that backlog of emails flagged for follow-up last Friday evening. You leaf through your contact cards for the client’s phone number, but given the disorganised mess your business card folder is in, you decide to start on that financial report instead.
You see numbers with lots of decimal points. Now you remember why you put that report on hold. Well, clearing emails shouldn’t be too difficult – an easy task to start the workweek, you think. You log on only to see 50 new emails added to your backlog of previously-flagged messages.
That difficult client has also sent you an email marked “urgent” and judging from the preview of that message, he doesn’t sound too happy. It’s not even the start of your official hours yet, and you are already yearning for the weekend to come sooner.
Your colleague comes in a short while later and you think, well, it wouldn’t hurt to ask about her weekend. You join her for coffee. You’ve effectively made the situation worse for yourself, and deep down you know it.
You really should have started on one of those tasks. It’s already half past 10 in the morning, and you feel guilty for not having accomplished anything despite clocking in early.
We all do it!
At some point in life, most of us have procrastinated – generally defined as putting off an undesirable task despite knowing the negative implications. Procrastination affects between 20% and 25% of adults worldwide.
In a local study published in the Malaysian Psychology Journal last year, 22 out of a sample of 310 students reported they almost never procrastinate but 92.9% acknowledged to procrastinating in study-related activities. Of course, there may be good reasons to leave certain tasks for later. The problem arises when procrastination tempts you to repeatedly do so.
Related post: 5 Dangers Of Procrastination And How You Can Beat It
If you are in a leadership position, you may have procrastinated over a series of important decisions. Indeed, leaders often procrastinate about important decisions – that proposed merger, who to hire for a senior management position, important budgeting consideration, and other things – that make up a leader’s portfolio.
Leaders need to make those important calls, and yet, they too, are prone to putting off all the tasks they need to complete before a decision is made.
When leaders procrastinate, the delay often results in poor, sometimes even damaging outcomes to the organisation. Procrastination limits a leader’s ability to be proactive – to develop the necessary foresight for making tomorrow’s decisions today.
This might interest you: How To Stop Putting Off What You Need To Get Done!
To a leader, time is a sunk cost; how well the leader uses his time determines the quality of the decisions made. Procrastination is a thief of the leader’s time.
Procrastination is rife in all spheres of our work and personal lives, but it can be overcome. Some interesting insights on how to do so come from neuroscience – the study of the nervous system, and how it influences our thoughts and behaviours.
The neuroscience of proscrastination
Neuroscience studies the brain, but its interdisciplinary nature offers revealing perspectives to many fields. Our brains are wired to integrate, predict and automate – each experience leaves a neural footprint, so future responses to similar events would be faster and more efficient.
This outcome was advantageous to our ancestors, where rapid reactions increased survival. The primitive hindbrain, an older part of our brain; drives this process to develop habits.
Newer regions of the brain – like the forebrain – enlarged and became dominant as we evolved, and when instinctive behaviour became more purposeful. This shift was necessary to adapt to modern, complex settings, where voluntary deliberation is more beneficial than instinctive drives.
The pre-frontal cortex of the forebrain is key in this voluntary process, in charge of decision-making, organising and inhibiting inappropriate behaviour. It is this same region that matures in our mid-twenties, accounting for the decline in reckless and impulsive behaviours when we come of age.
How is all this related to procrastination?
In the past, the instinctive system promoted survival through immediate drive satisfaction with minimal consideration of its consequences. However, this system can clash with modern circumstances and the voluntary system.
Procrastination occurs when we succumb to instant urge gratification (e.g. having coffee instead of working on that report) despite knowing the consequences (e.g. not having the report in time for management’s review).
In short, the instinctive system overrides the voluntary system, even when it is disadvantageous to do so. Current neuroimaging research shows that procrastination occurs when various pre-frontal regions of the brain fail in regulating impulsivity.
You can control it
Interestingly, selectively stimulating another part of the brain – the medial frontal areas, actually lowers the likelihood of procrastinating. What this all means is that while it is tempting to conclude that the brains of the procrastinators “made them do it”, the reality remains that we are ultimately still in control of our actions.
While the instinctive and voluntary systems can be at odds, they are not mutually exclusive, nor is it always detrimental to give in to our instincts. As such, one way to overcome procrastination is by strategically delaying gratification rather than suppressing or giving in to it. At no point are procrastinators oblivious of the negative repercussions of procrastination, reflecting awareness and choice over their actions.
One study showed that while procrastination, poor self-control and goal management share similar genes, this genetic overlap may not directly cause procrastination. If anything, it leads to procrastination via interaction with environmental factors.
Put simply, procrastination can still be managed despite having a neural or genetic susceptibility to it – especially if we become more aware of how our environments trigger our tendencies to procrastinate.
Knowing why we procrastinate can help in its management. This can include reframing or breaking timelines into manageable chunks, maintaining mini rewards at regular intervals to stay motivated, removing or minimising distracting situations, or having procrastinators work closely with disciplined peers to stay on track.
For work cultures where procrastination is deeply entrenched, researchers have suggested major systemic “rebooting” (e.g. changing key performance indicators or assessment formats), so that employees are forced to abandon their habitual routines and start again on a fresh slate. In doing so, the voluntary system takes precedence and the instinctive system is reset.
In this regard, our brains are like car engines in that they drive procrastination tendencies. The drive itself can be impacted by engine malfunctions, weather and road conditions. If all else fails, the engine can be recalibrated or restarted.