An estimated 80% of students and 25% of adults admit to being chronic procrastinators, BBC reports, and in an increasingly busy world with more and more distractions, things are likely to get worse. With studies connecting procrastination to illness, relationship issues and stress, understanding exactly why our minds wander is important.
Neuroscientists and psychologists have been working to determine the cause of procrastination and if it can be stopped. Tim Pychyl from Carleton University, Canada, says procrastination is a coping mechanism that is enacted in moments of stress. “We have a brain that is selected for preferring immediate reward. Procrastination is the present-self saying I would rather feel good now. So we delay engagement even though it’s going to bite us on the butt,” he says. However, Pychyl says that it possible for people to prevent chronic procrastination. “Willpower is like a muscle… over time you can strengthen your attentional resources.”
At the Boston Attention and Learning Lab in the United States, cognitive neuroscientists Mike Esterman and Joe DeGutis are using a training program that targets the brain’s dorsal attention network. This part of the brain is active when the mind is focused and mostly inactive when the mind is wandering. In most people, the right side of the brain’s dorsal attention network does the majority of the work. If both sides of the network are fairly even, excessive procrastination can happen.
Esterman and DeGutis conduct a number of tests to determine how the brain is functioning, including mindlessness tests and tests of sustained attention. They then conduct magnetic stimulation sessions after taking magnetic resonance imaging brain scans to locate the area of the brain they need to sustain. These enable procrastination to be managed.
Caroline Williams of BBC underwent Esterman’s and DeGutis’s tests, and found a positive response. A response to an initial test saw a 51% error rate, compared to a 9.6% error rate after the stimulation sessions. On a different test, which measured the attentional blink (how quickly the brain focuses after being distracted), Williams likewise improved. Her score changed from a 46% positive response to 87%.
And while Esterman and DeGutis admit that the brain can’t structurally change in just a few days, they say it is possible for the way the brain is engaged to change. However, brain training exercises must be maintained to see continual results. “[Stimulation sessions] will probably fade away in a week or two,” DeGutis says.
For at-home training exercises while the scientific side of things is being fine-tuned, Esterman and DeGutis suggest doing yoga and meditating multiple times a week. They also recommend spending time in nature and doing activities such as colouring in to engage the mind.