We each have the same number of minutes and hours in the day, but some people get a lot more done with them than others. Time is valuable and it is limited. We can’t go out and buy more of it. And one of the biggest thieves of time is procrastination. It forces us to check our facebook feed rather than write an essay, or play video games rather than work on our presentation. The time we spend on these displacement activities is rarely enjoyable. At the back of our mind is the constant nagging sensation that a deadline is fast approaching and that the essay won’t write itself. Why do we do this, and why, when our time is so valuable, do we let it slip away?
For the past 15 years, I’ve been studying the frontal lobes, the parts of the brain that are responsible for planning, decision-making and organizing our behavior. I also do a lot of writing. Whether it is grant proposals, papers or blog posts such as this, writing is what I spend the majority of my time doing. Writing is particularly effective at triggering procrastination. The blank white page and the cursor’s steady blink is a soul-destroying sight. Indeed, writing is so effective at making us procrastinate, that we have a specific name for it: writer’s block. And students of all levels, middle school, high school, undergraduates and graduates, will at some point experience it.
In this, and a few follow-up posts, I’ll be looking at some of the reasons why we procrastinate and what we can do about it. I’ll draw on a mishmash of sources for this: my experience as a writer and teacher and my research as a behavioral scientist and neuroscientist.
Why is thinking hard?
After 15 years of research, I think I can definitively answer why students procrastinate: thinking is hard. But that doesn’t really get us very far. The more interesting question is why is thinking hard? Thinking isn’t just hard, it is REALLY hard, and that contrasts with nearly everything else we do in life. There is no such thing as eater’s block. I’ve never once had a student complain that they have a chocolate cake needs eating and they just don’t know how to get started. And there is a reason for that. Our brains are wired to ensure that we get everything we need to survive. Eating, drinking, flirting and having sex, indeed everything that we do that ensures our survival and ability to reproduce, triggers in our brain the release of a chemical called dopamine.
The neurons that are responsible for releasing dopamine are buried deep in our brains in an area called the midbrain. This is an ancient structure that hasn’t changed much since the time of the dinosaurs. Dopamine neurons project up into the frontal lobes where they release their dopamine. This reinforces the behavior we’re currently performing and makes it easier to do in future. Dopamine makes a behavior seem more compelling and less effortful. So when our ancestors trudged up a mountain and stumbled on a watering hole, their dopamine neurons would fire. This ensured that they were more likely to trudge up that same mountain in future to get water and therefore increased their odds of survival. Unfortunately, humans have also gotten really good at activating our dopamine system with things that don’t enhance our survival. Cocaine, alcohol, heroin, cigarettes, gambling, video games and facebook status updates, all directly or indirectly activate our dopamine system. Engaging in these activities make our dopamine neurons fire and makes those activity more compelling and more likely to be performed in the future.
Thinking does not activate our dopamine neurons. Thinking depends on the cortex, the wrinkly, outer mantle of the brain. This makes thinking hard and effortful. However, there are ways in which we can recruit the dopamine system to help out. Dopamine neurons most readily fire when we encounter primary rewards. These are rewards in our environment that we don’t need to learn anything about. Instead, evolution has hardwired us to find them rewarding. Sweet tastes, smiling faces, laughter, sex, beauty: we don’t need to learn that these are rewarding. Evolution has made sure that our brains already know it. But there is another class of reward:secondary rewards. These are things that we learn to enjoy because they are repeatedly associated with primary rewards. What is happening in our brains during this process is that dopamine neurons are beginning to fire to the secondary rewards just as they would to a primary reward. As an example, consider money. Humans find money rewarding, but we aren’t born with any knowledge about money. Instead, as children, we learn that money can be used to acquire primary rewards, such as toys and candy. Eventually, as money is repeatedly associated with primary rewards it becomes a reward in its own right. Indeed, in adults, money strongly drives dopamine neurons.
The processes that enable us to learn about rewards are very potent. They can even make a reward out of something that we are hardwired to find unpleasant. For example, consider beer. When we first taste beer it is bitter and unpleasant. This is because evolution has hardwired us to detect certain chemical compounds that are associated with poisons and to find them unpleasant. However, in the case of beer, the effects of the poisonous compound are actually quite enjoyable so long as we are in a safe environment. Through the repeated pairing of the unpleasant beer taste with the pleasant effects of being inebriated we come to treat the taste of beer as a reward in its own right.
Secondary reinforcement is an important learning mechanism. It allows many different things to reward our behavior, not just those things that evolution stumbled upon as helpful for our survival. And it gives us a powerful way to control our own behavior. We can ensure that each project has a clear, concrete goal and we can ensure that attainment of that goal is recognized and celebrated in some way. For example, suppose that you have a difficult email to write that you are avoiding and procrastinating about. Give yourself a clear, concrete goal (pressing send) and then give yourself a reward for completing the goal. Many of those same displacement activities that we discussed at the beginning of this post can be co-opted to now serve as rewards. Once you press send on your email, treat yourself with a guilt-free 10 minutes of facebook time, a cup of coffee, or time spent playing your favorite video game. By so doing, you’re ensuring that completing your projects reliably lead to a hit of dopamine, and you’ll be less likely to put them off in future.
In my next post, I’ll look in a bit more detail about what makes a good goal, the role of subgoals, and the reason why setting goals can sometimes be the most difficult part of a project.
Jonathan Wallis is a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley in the Department of Psychology and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He specializes in behavioral neuroscience, cognition, brain and behavior. Jon received a Ph.D. in Anatomy from the University of Cambridge, and did his postdoctoral work in the lab of Dr. Earl Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.