How Procrastination is Misunderstood


Procrastination is often linked to feeling overwhelmed by a task.

Most of the world believes that procrastinators can “get the job done” if they just set their mind to do so.

But from a brain’s perspective, that’s not always true.

For example, when our midbrain is not fully developed, we experience difficulty seeing the bigger picture and details.  Yet, to start and complete a task or project, we need to be able to keep the bigger picture in mind while simultaneously adhering to the smaller details.

If we have a developed midbrain, we probably don’t realize how important such “wiring” helps us complete tasks.  Likewise, if we have an underdeveloped midbrain, we probably don’t realize that we’re even missing those important functions.

We do, however, know that every time we look at or think about what we’re supposed to do, we start to feel overwhelmed.  If we additionally have an underdeveloped pons—which is likely if we have an underdeveloped midbrain—we now also start to feel anxious about feeling so overwhelmed.

In such case, the angst triggers a flight response, so we get up and go do something else.  The brain is happy now because we’re now no longer feeling overwhelmed or anxious.

But when we ultimately come back to the task, it hasn’t changed—and neither has our brain.  So we, once again, repeat the overwhelmed, angst, flight cycle.  Of course, each time we repeat that pre-programmed brain response, the rest of the world views our actions as more procrastination.

If we have an underdeveloped pons, we may also have angst about what we’re being asked to do or where we need to be.  Here, we respond by delaying since we’re in no hurry to experience the projected upcoming discomfort.

For example, if a child experiences school as something that is painful, why would he be motivated to get ready for school without delay? In other words, the brain may register procrastinating as in its best interest.

So how might we help those with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain complete tasks without others viewing them as procrastinators?

First, we break down tasks, presenting just a small bit at a time.  Doing that greatly reduces the probability of feeling overwhelmed that then (recall) triggers angst and subsequent flight.

Simply, we short-circuit that unproductive cycle by extinguishing the first part. Namely, if the brain isn’t feeling overwhelmed, then there is no reason to feel anxious or flee.

This can be as simple as folding a math worksheet into fourths, where the child now only sees ¼ of the problems at a time. Or, we may ask our child to just put away his clothes, waiting to tell him to put away his toys.

We may even break down the task of putting away the clothes by first asking our child to pick up any clothes that need to be washed and put those in the hamper.  We would then follow that with asking our child to now fold clothes that need to go in a drawer, and so on.

For long term projects, we can generate a schedule that breaks down and prioritizes different tasks. Such a schedule would include specific times for completing each part (with wiggle room) so that the whole project is then completed on time.

If our child delays in order to avoid feeling angst or uncomfortable, we can discuss ways to improve those situations, too. For example, we may explore options that make it easier to focus in the classroom, which (if implemented) would then alleviate much of the dread associated with going to school.  With those ideas in place, the child no longer feels a need to delay getting ready in the morning.

We can also examine whether fear is motivating the procrastination. I have a friend who is a breast surgeon, and she’s often frustrated by how many women put off making an appointment once they’ve discovered a lump because they “didn’t want to hear it was cancer.”

Yet, postponing the appointment never reduced the probability the lump was cancer. In fact, it only made subsequent treatment more difficult since the cancer was now no longer at the early stages.

Of course, there’s a difference between those who procrastinate occasionally (e.g. delay doing taxes) and those who are viewed as chronic procrastinators.  Yet, both types share a misguided belief that postponing (fill in the blank) somehow makes the task different or easier when approached at a later date.  Not only is that not true, but more times than not—the delay causes additional problems.

So, in that sense, it’s good for all of us to pause whenever it appears we’re procrastinating. That gives us a chance to ponder what’s really going on in the brain . . .  so we can then know the best way to move forward.


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