Five deadlines, a job performance review, and new workout regime…

The inability to Get Things Done is something I’ve watched hurt the lives of countless friends as well as myself. We have intention, ability, and the most beautiful goals any guidance counsellor will ever have you create. But then, life happens and these shiny goals are put aside where they collect dust instead of awards. What gives?

This week on the Nimbus blog, we’re actually gonna take a close look at your brain and some areas that researchers think may play a role in procrastination. We also take a look at how we can use common weaknesses to our advantage, like publicly committing ourselves to a goal to improve future time perspective, and journaling to increase episodic future thinking.

First Up: Procrastination

The wonderful art of finding a way to convince yourself that looking at pictures of puppies is far more important than checking in on your finances. Don’t you just adore the person you were yesterday, who decided to spend several hours memorizing the lyrics to Twenty One Pilot’s Levitate rather than writing that oh-so-important proposal? I have mastered the art of convincing myself that cleaning my kitchen for the third night this week is far more important than writing.

To understand more on this seemingly supernatural ability, I’ve turned to the researchers Peiwei Liu and Tingyong Feng of the Southwest University in Chongqing, China. (1)

There are many ways to look at the brain. For these studies the authors looked at grey matter. Grey matter is the the tightly-knit collection of cell bodies, axon terminals, and dendrites of neurons. This is where the synapses are – the connection points between neurons. It is distinct from white matter, which are areas of the brain that contain the axons. Think of it like a systems of telephones: the grey matter contains the person making the call, the phone the caller is using, the receiving phone, and the person receiving the call. The white matter is the length of telephone wire between Person A and Person B.

Because the messages are formed and received in areas of grey matter, we believe that this is where things like understanding and behavioural traits are located. When we are young, our brain is like a telemarketer – constantly picking up the phone and dialing every number known to mankind to let people know about the sale on vacuums they just can’t miss. They make plenty of connections, but are not very efficient at selling vacuums. The volume of grey matter peaks around puberty as the brain develops as many connections as possible. The brain, however also does something interesting – it begins to prune back the connections to become more efficient. As you age your brain turns into a seasoned sales person; instead of calling every number in the book to sell a vacuum, it will only call cleaning agencies. Fewer calls, more sales, more efficiency.

Because the messages are formed and received in areas of grey matter, we believe that this is where things like understanding and behavioural traits are located.

The researchers decided to use this theory to understand the brains of procrastinators. They looked at two classic indicators of procrastination, Future Time Perspective and Episodic Future Thinking, and how they matched up with grey matter in certain areas of the brain.

Future Time Perspective: 

FTP refers to goals we have created for the future and the understanding of what we have to do to accomplish these goals by the deadline. People who are future oriented have a keen understanding of what they would like their future to be and how today’s choices will impact that. They carefully plan and organize their future tasks – including blocking in time between now and the deadline to work on reaching their goal. Someone with a strong sense of future time perspective understands that a goal set way into the future isn’t some abstract idea – it is coming and real steps must be taken now to meet that very real deadline. The stronger your sense of FTP, the less likely you are to procrastinate.

Episodic Future Thinking

Episodic Future Thinking (EFT) is closely related to Future Time Perspective. Where FTP is the ability to understand the result our action today will have 1, 2, 5-years from now, the ability to project yourself into the future is EFT. Seeing yourself pass the bar exam five years from now or imagining what it will feel like to successfully retire before 65 are examples of EFT. A strong sense of EFT helps with the motivational factor of FTP – If you can taste success, you’re going to be far more likely to work today to get to that goal.

160 participants completed the General Procrastination Scale, to measure procrastination, and the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory to measure Future Time perspective. They then received an MRI scan. The researchers mapped the brains using something called Voxel Based Morphometry, which is an awesome statistical method that can draw generalizations while taking into account everyone’s brains are different.

The researchers found that the stronger a person’s sense of Future Time Perspective, the lower the rate of procrastination and the smaller the volume of two brain regions: The parahippocampal gyrus (paraPHC) and the ventromedialprefrontal Cortex (vmPFC).

People who are future oriented have a keen understanding of what they would like their future to be and how today's choices will impact that. They carefully plan and organize their future tasks - including blocking in time between now and the deadline to work on reaching their goal.

Parahippocampal Gyrus: The paraPHC is part of a network of brain regions that process contextual associations, and is involved in many different tasks. Primarily, it is known to play a role in episodic memory (memory of concrete things or events – times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual who, what, when, where, why)  and visuospatial processing (how we see and interact with the concrete world. Visuospatial processing helps us understand things like the desk is to our left, so we will have to alter the way we are walking so we don’t crash into it).

Ventromedialprefrontal cortext (vmPFC): The vmPFC helps us interpret abstract events, or events we anticipate but have not yet happened. It is known to help with moral judgements on abstract events. People with damage to this area might not condemn attempted murder (an abstract event), but will condemn an actual murder (a concrete event). In procrastinating, the deadline is an abstract event: it has not yet occurred and inefficiency in this area of the brain may make these deadlines seem unimportant.

Cool Story… But how do I get past this?

Lets work our way through this one. If you notice you’re having trouble taking goals seriously that are far off, your paraPHC and vmPFC may be less efficient than someone who always gets their stuff done. To fix this, we want to strengthen that connection in our brain that sees a future goal as a real and obtainable event: we’ll take advantage of Episodic Future Thinking and Future Time Perspective.

First up, let’s force ourselves to act in line with someone who has a solid future time perspective. Try setting deadlines for smaller tasks closer to the present and find a way to attach meaning to this smaller deadline. For example, if my goal is to have an article ready to publish every Sunday, I would set smaller, internal deadlines to finish the research for the article on Tuesday and the first draft by Thursday. To make this deadline seem as important as the final deadline, I’ll make a rule that I cannot leave the office until the deadline is met – it is as important as the final deadline. This helps me ignore that unhelpful little voice that says “you have plenty of time“. Because in reality, I don’t. Alternatively, you may just need to make the deadline seem more real to you in the present. Advertising an upcoming song to friends and family, committing to a race with some colleagues, or maintaining a social media presence where you hype up your upcoming projects are all good ways to keep your goal feeling real.

Advertising an upcoming song to friends and family, committing to a race with some colleagues, or maintaining a social media presence where you hype up your upcoming projects are all good ways to keep your goal feeling real.

We can also try to stimulate Episodic Future Thinking through journaling – a popular tool for consistent improvement. Every day review your goals and your reasons for wanting them. Imagine your life when you’ve achieved this goal. Combine this with a one-two–EFT-FTP-punch of reflecting on what goals you worked towards, what ones you didn’t, and what are you falling behind on? (Although in starting a journal I had to first deal with the crushing defeat that my bullet journal will never look like the ones on Pinterest).

Exercises like these may help to continually activate the vmPFC and the paraPHC, helping us to take meaningful action towards our goals. What your goals are, however, remain up to you.

Plenty of fancy lingo in these papers. Check them out to give your old SAT tutor a shock:

  1. Liu, P. & Feng, T. “The Effect of Future Time Perspective on Procrastination” Brain Imaging and Behavior (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11682-018-9874-4
  2. Hu Y, Liu P, Guo Y, Feng T. “The neural substrates of procrastination: A voxel-based morphometry study.” Brain and Cognition (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2018.01.001

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