Procrastination: Habit or Disorder?

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Biology 202
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Procrastination: Habit or Disorder?

Serendip Student

"Procrastination is 'the art of keeping up with yesterday and avoiding today.' "
- Wayne Dyer (6)

Universally common to college students, procrastination is often addressed as a bad habit. Yet, in most cases, this isn't a nuance, but a perpetual occurrence - no longer qualifying for the term "habit." Typically thought of as a behavioral trait, procrastination thrives on a cycle of blame shifting and avoidance. Falling victim to this "habit" myself, I embarked on a mission to seek out the causes of procrastination.

The results of my findings, were debates over whether procrastination is in fact biological or psychological. Convincing evidence exists for both perspectives, which attempt to resolve the mysterious question - why do college students and people of all ages, alike, procrastinate? Today's technologically dependent society can opt for hyperefficiency, yet mindless procrastination continues, often manifested through electronics(3). Furthermore, an online survey by The Procrastination Research Group posed the question, "To what extent is procrastination having a negative impact on your happiness?" of the 2,700 responses: 46% said "quite a bit" or "very much" and 18% claimed "extreme negative effect"(3). The dismal results speak to a common problem of procrastination.

The traits of procrastination are obvious, more interesting are the traits of the procrastinator. Chronic procrastinators avoid revealing information about their abilities, prefer menial tasks, make poor time estimates, tend to focus on the past and do not act on their intentions. These characteristics have been related to low self-esteem, perfectionism, non-competitiveness, self-deception, self-control, self-confidence, depression and anxiety(4). From a neurobiology standpoint, the listed traits refer directly to the I-function in actions that consciously abuse the self. The importance of the I-function's interpretation of information and modification of behavior can be illustrated in the self-handicapping and decision-making components of procrastination. The complexity of procrastination has forced researchers to divide it into different types, the most pertinent in my opinion - behavioral and decisional.

Behavioral procrastination is equated with self-handicap. Essentially, this self-handicap provides a means for further blame shifting, as could be seen in an example of a student doing poorly on an exam and using procrastination as an excuse(3). Studies on self-handicapping have shown that people use a wide variety of strategies in order to construct barriers for their success(4). The placing of these mental barriers is the work of the I-function manipulating the internal experience. Two studies conducted by Ferrari and Tice in a laboratory setting had participants (men and women) perform an identical task twice. In the first study, participants were notified that they would be evaluated on their performance of the task. Time was allotted for practice or engaging in fun activities. Results found that participants procrastinated for 60% of the time. The second study described the identical task as a fun game. Results of activity during the time allotted showed that procrastinators, in comparison with non-procrastinators, spent the same of amount of time practices. Thus, the results suggest that procrastination was a behavioral self-handicap only when the task was deemed evaluative(4). The pervasive tendency of the self-handicap creates a cycle of self-defeating behavior, which in turn send negative feedback to the I-function. Correspondingly, this self-inflicted degradation and shame is translated into health problems.

The second type of procrastination - decisional, is the pattern of postponing a decision when dealing with conflicts and choices(5). People with high decisional procrastination display tendencies of perfectionism in taking longer to make decisions. Thus, the study by Ferrari and Dovido hypothesized that people with higher decisional procrastination, in comparison with people lower in decisional procrastination, seek out more information about a chosen alternative before making a decision(5). This hypothesis underscores the fear of error and necessity for perfection in people with high decisional procrastination. In addition, varying levels of decisional procrastination correlates to fundamental differences decisive strategies(5). The argument Ferrari and Dovido put forth associate decisional procrastination with caution and assurance of correctness, by collecting data, before making a decision. Clearly the implications of this form of procrastination differ from those of behavioral procrastination, characterized by distraction and avoidance. Decision-making or critical thinking, is an activity of the brain. Yet, it seems to me that people with high decisional procrastination take greater care in taking a step forward, thus the I-function would have to be considered in light of the fact that while a decision is being made, the thoroughness is connected to notions of concern, desire and fear; reflecting individual traits.

Up until this point, procrastination has been discussed from a psychological standpoint. The perspective countering previously stated information is biological. Research done by R.L. Strub links procrastination to physical disorders and lesions in the brain, particularly in the frontal lobe - specifically the bilateral hemisphere in globus pallidus(1). The prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the frontal lobe controls cognitive processes. Many of its functions are routinely used in daily life (i.e. judgment, planning, critical thinking, empathy, attention span, organization, etc.). As the most evolved part of the brain, the PFC is responsible for necessary behavior in a social sphere, consequently affecting our personalities. "The capacity of the individual to generate goals and to achieve them is considered to be an essential aspect of a mature and effective personality. It is not a social convention or an artifact of culture. It is hard wired in the construction of the prefrontal cortex and its connections"(2). Given the importance of the PFC, a dysfunction can cause problems with organization, procrastination, judgment, attention span and distractibility. The PFC sends signals to the limbic and sensory parts of the brain. When a person needs to focus, the PFC decreases the distracting input from the other brain areas(2). Therefore, if there is a problem with the PFC, there is no filter mechanism at work. Underactivity of the PFC is common with Attention Deficit Disorder. While this argument is compelling, it personally made me feel as though I experience underactivity of PFC all too frequently. The behavioral aspects of the frontal lobe are critical in functioning from day to day and it is the abundance of these characteristics that make it seem unlikely that they would all be working perfectly at any point in time. On a lighter note, the PFC offers the procrastinator a scientifically legitimized excuse for procrastination.

There is yet to be any treatment offered for biological procrastination. However, for those people who subscribe to psychological explanation, there is help after all. Researchers offer an oversimplified solution that recommends procrastinators change the way they think(3). On a more individual basis, to tackle the universal problem of procrastination, people can try becoming aware of internal excuses, breaking up difficult tasks, focus on the negative consequences, make lists and most importantly question the rationale behind procrastinating(6). While experts attempt to rehabilitate procrastinators in a psychologically, I question the success of such actions due to the presence of the I-function. If the I-function is the intrinsic self, can it be changed? Perhaps along the lines of changing a frame of mind, altering one's desired behavior is a difficult task.

To balance the negative connotation of procrastination, there is evidence in the decisional procrastination theory (overly cautious decision-making) that it may have positive long-term functions(5). In all fairness, the opposing view is that procrastination is essentially an obstacle to achievement in both the long-term and the present(7). The attitude one takes towards procrastination is connected to which argument is more convincing. I began my research to find out why my friends and I put off work until the last minute. In return I uncovered debates of psychological v. biological, underscored with mind v. brain. Procrastination is a strong act of agency supported by the I-function. The neurobiological perspective of PFC stripped procrastination of any elements of agency. While eradicating procrastination will never occur on a universal level, I have hopefully removed the myth surrounding the ever-common act and in effect may even encourage a student or two to start studying earlier.

1)Physiological and Physical Disorders, Procrastination related to physical disorders and brain lesions

2)Frontal Lobes, Information on the prefrontal cortex

3)The Danger in Delay, Procrastination as self-defeating behavior.

4)Procrastination as a Self-Handicap for Men and Women: A Task-Avoidance Strategy in a Laboratory Setting, Two studies on behavioral procrastination

5)Examining Behavioral Processes in Indecision: Decisional Procrastination and Decision-Making Style

6)A Cure for Procrastination, General information on what procrastination is, why/when it occurs and how it is treated

7)The Procrastination Syndrome: Signs, symptoms, and Treatment, Diagnosis and treatment information

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