Are you a procrastinator or not? Most people can answer that question. You know whether you are a chronic procrastinator or whether you ascribe to the “don’t put off ’til tomorrow what you could do today” mantra. But what does that tell us about your brain? If you are a procrastinator, you probably have a larger amygdala — one of the brain structures of the limbic system involved in emotion, particularly fear — and the connections between that larger amygdala to your anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) are probably less strong. The ACC monitors the salience of emotions, particularly fear, and plays a role in initiating action.
The researchers who discovered this explained that this may cause you to focus on the potential negative consequences of the action and lets the fear of those interfere with getting started on the task.
While the research was with adults, we can recognize procrastination in younger individuals as well. We hear all the time from teachers and parents about students who procrastinate studying for a test or writing a paper until the last moment. Students develop all kinds of rationalizations aroundy why this is an effective strategy for them (rather than merely letting their emotional system rule the day). They may say it makes sure the information is fresh in their ind or that they get more done in less time when they are under a time crunch. Unfortunately, having information fresh in one’s mind is not the same as having learned it well. And as for getting more done in less time, if no real learning gets accomplished, then they might as well have spent the time on their favorite video game. The facts of the matter are that the research on spaced practice is overwhelming. Studying a little at a time over several days is more effective than a single study session that is longer. This is one of the aspects of how our brains learn that we discussed in a Nepris session with high school students.
But just because your brain is “wired” a certain way, for example to make you predisposed to procrastinate, that doesn’t get you off the hook. As Alice Walton put it in a recent Forbes article, “In fact, there’s a neurological underpinning for just about every behavior we do but, happily, the brain is very plastic and able to rewire, with repeated practice at something.”
So, if you tend to procrastinate, you don’t have to remain victim to the neuroscience of procrastination. The wonderful thing about our brains is that they are plastic. Neuroplasticity is how the scientists refer to the amazing malleability of our brains throughout life. Not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, you can literally talk yourself out of procrastination. Best of all, it becomes easier over time. The more you exercise the part of your brain that regulates the fear of the negative consequences of getting started on whatever it is, the easier it will become. In this way, as many others, you can rewire your own brain to a greater degree than you believe.
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