I have been in two minds whether to post this piece or not – I was going to do it last week.. but I put it off. Yet I am not alone in such behaviour…
Procrastination – putting off a decision or putting off some task – even finding other stuff to do (aka displacement activity) so that we can kid ourselves we are too busy to take on the issue we are putting off. Sound familiar?
A study in “Psychological Science” of both proactive folk and procrastinators (…I wonder how they categorised them?) looked at scans of their brains. It found that the amygdala – an almond-shaped structure in the temporal lobe which processes our emotions and controls our motivation – was larger in the procrastinators. “Individuals with a larger amygdala may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action – they tend to hesitate and put off things,” says Erhan Genç, one of the study authors, based at Ruhr University Bochum.
Worse, the procrastinators had poorer connections between the amygdala and a part of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC). The DACC uses information from the amygdala to decide what action the body will take. It helps to keep a person on track by blocking out competing emotions and distractions. The researchers suggest that procrastinators are less able to filter out interfering emotions and distractions because the connections between the amygdala and the DACC are not as good as in proactive individuals.
So it’s a double whammy – the procrastinators have a large amygdala ensuring that they are awash with emotional responses; and the lack of connections to their DACC mean that it is unable to set these emotions aside… thus leading to feelings of unease relating to the event in hand. And so the event is dismissed… or a displacement activity (without such effect) is found.
Yet there is evidence that mindfulness can help – previous studies have shown that mindfulness allows people to avoid “unconscious emotional responses”; and also to be able to focus much better and so avoid distraction.
Prof Tim Pychyl, from Carleton University, Ottawa, who has been studying procrastination for the past few decades, believes procrastination is a problem with managing emotions rather than time.
In fact mindfulness can reduced the size and impact of the amygdala: “This study provides physiological evidence of the problem procrastinators have with emotional control,” Pychyl says. “It shows how the emotional centres of the brain can overwhelm a person’s ability for self-regulation. Research has already shown that mindfulness meditation is related to amygdala shrinkage, expansion of the pre-frontal cortex and a weakening of the connection between these two areas”.
So if you’re a procrastinator then don’t put off the mindfulness training – it could be your best hope yet!