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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Are You A Chronic Procrastinator? Science Reveals Behavioral Advantages

When we talk about procrastination, it’s most often as a bad habit that we want to break free of – but what if procrastination could actually be an advantageous behavior? Now researchers think that may be precisely the case. Among several different theories, scientists suggest that increased procrastination may be connected to with higher dopamine levels, particularly in women. 

Procrastination – It’s In Your Genes

Women who are genetically predisposed to higher levels of dopamine and an increased tendency to procrastinate are subject to two conflicting forces. Research shows that they’re more distractible than their peers with lower dopamine levels, but that they also have a greater degree of cognitive flexibility. In professional settings, this has both advantages and disadvantages. 

The Benefits Of Procrastinating

One of the major reasons why procrastinating is beneficial is that it leaves room for creative thought – it’s cognitive flexibility at work. More importantly, procrastination is also an act of patience. History’s greatest leaders were procrastinators who didn’t act unless it was necessary. This is a powerful skill for today’s leaders, as well. Being able to wait out a problem, consider your options, and only act if the situation forces your hand is a great business skill and can keep you from making rash decisions because you’re anxious about an outcome.

Another benefit of procrastination is that it provides you with opportunities to gather more information about a situation. In business, many people associate decision-making with the existence of a “problem.” Rather than turning every set of circumstances into a problem to be solved or an issue to be addressed, procrastinating represents an opportunity to take a step back. Many people procrastinate because they’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. When we stop and think before we act, we have a chance to determine whether something is really a problem and give ourselves time to create better solutions, rather than working from a limited set of readily available but subpar ones.   

What If You Don’t Want To Procrastinate?

Just because there are advantages to procrastinating, including saving valuable resources and focusing on more significant tasks and challenges, that doesn’t mean your procrastination habit is precisely welcome. Whether you’re in management, an entry-level position, or even still a student, procrastination can still make situations more stressful, frustrate team members, or otherwise lead to setbacks. But if many people have a biological predisposition to procrastination it raises the question, can those habits be changed? In addition to women with high dopamine levels, people with a less robust functional connection between their amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex also show pronounced procrastination, but our brains are more flexible than we may at first suppose, even in adulthood.

Breaking Through Procrastination

If you’re looking for solutions for chronic procrastination, a quick internet search will reveal dozens of solutions, some more useful than others. One of the simplest and more effective strategies, though, is to use a calendar to manage your time. Newer calendar programs can even break down your existing time use patterns so that you can see more clearly how you distribute your work, when you’re most productive, and so that you can organize tasks in a way that makes sense for your cognitive style.

Calendars are a future-oriented way of managing time, but part of what makes procrastination such a hard trap to escape is precisely that it is focused on tomorrow. Until you bring the focus back to today, you’re not going to be able to change your behaviors. One reason that we push things off until tomorrow is because of a conviction that we will somehow be better able to perform the task then, but doing something less well today or getting it started while you still have time is more effective than not starting at all. It’s okay not to get everything perfectly right, especially when you have time to go back and review your work. You don’t have to hurry to be the first to the finish line, but you also shouldn’t dawdle just because you can.

In addition to our tendencies toward focusing on the future – just how many days do you have until that deadline? – we also procrastinate because we’re distractible and we can’t seem to find the work style that fits us best. Sometimes referred to as finding your “flow,” your flow state is the circumstances under which you work best. It might be a particular time of day, a location, a certain playlist, or some combination thereof. And while it can be tough to experiment if you’re stuck in the same cubicle day after day, just pouring yourself a different drink or swapping your usual podcast for ambient noise could make a big difference in how well you work.

Procrastination can be self-defeating, holding you back from your goals, but it can also be a signal that you’re at risk of burnout, have too much on your plate, or otherwise need to make a change. Even those with a natural propensity for procrastination will put things off more and feel more anxiety about that delay when they’re working under less than optimal circumstances. 

So next time you find yourself putting off for tomorrow what you could do today, stop and consider: are you procrastinating because you’re unhappy or anxious, because you have too much time, or for some other reason? Understanding what’s pulling you away from the task at hand is the first step to getting back on track.

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