Procrastinator Panic: is your brain rewarding putting it off?

time_watch_msclipartProcrastinators are motivated by deadlines.

Clarity and purpose, hard to find and easy to dismiss, now assemble at the last minute. Focus arrives, hard work ensues, and the job gets done.

That urgency at the last minute invigorates and inspires procrastinators. It’s almost exhilarating — and it is, because you’re getting the same brain-chemical reactions from “procrastinator’s panic” as you do from getting startled. Scientists call it ” CRF,” and it is a brain drug that is released at the panic of a deadline.

So what’s the problem? Well… every procrastinator knows it: you should have gotten that feeling of urgency a little sooner.  Sometimes “last minute” means by the deadline. All too often, it’s after the deadline passed and turned into a “drop dead deadline.”  But you got it done, so what’s the problem?

See the difference? Failures don’t ever get to it. Procrastinators get to it late. Then back to failure if it’s too late. Oops.

Let’s define the words “Failure” and Procrastinate”. Merriam-Webster helps us out:

Failure: omission of occurrence or performance; specifically :  a failing to perform a duty or expected action

Procrastinate: to put off intentionally and habitually intransitive verb:  to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done

To sum: Go procrastinators!  But…

Procrastination bad. Not ever doing it worse. But that doesn’t make procrastination good.

Late is bad, sure, and zero is zero. That doesn’t excuse late. Or worse, a lesser product than had you done it on time, and all the needless anxiety and wasted time in between.

We usually think of procrastination as putting something off until the last minute. That could be, but not necessarily. Instead, as Dr. Timothy Pychyl teaches us, procrastination is any delay that has a negative consequence. If putting it off to the last minute were effective, wouldn’t we all strive to be procrastinators?  Sorry, Last Minute Club, but we’re not what everyone wants to be.

There is a huge distinction between prioritizing and planning and procrastination.  Planning builds positive consequences. Procrastination does the opposite. Dr. Pychyl argues that there is no benefit in the last minute panic. “All procrastination involves self-deception,” he says (see Student Success Podcast no. 13), which means that we are, truly, kidding ourselves that we do better in the last minute. “When I say I work better under pressure,” Dr. Pychyl warns us, “that means I only work under pressure.”

“My name is Michael, and I am a procrastinator…”

What’s the difference between the first and the last minute, other than the last minute doesn’t allow for any more minutes to correct or better anything? At least we didn’t fail.

Doing it late is better than not doing it at all. For procrastinators, you’re okay until the deadline, at which point you become a failure. Then, when you eventually get to it at that final, last, “drop-dead deadline,” or even a day or two later, you become a procrastinator. So you’re only a procrastinator if you actually do it.

In school, never doing it is an F.  Procrastinators get a C or a D or something — but they passed, if by the skin of their teeth. All good, then. Sort of.

CRF: Procrastinator’s Panic

If procrastinators can put it off this long, why not keep putting it off?  (Embrace your failure!). Well, we’re learning something about brain-environment responses, and it seems that there is bio-psychological trigger for deadlines. Without the last minute panic, procrastinators wouldn’t bother. Instead, they actually get a rush from the deadline. From this Wall Street Journal article:

One chemical found to play a role in the brain’s stress response is known by the initials CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor). It springs into action when there is a bang in the night or a tight deadline approaching.

It’s as if deadlines trigger that “get it done already!” chemical, or what I’m calling here “Procrastinator’s Panic.”  Think about it: CRF marks the same brain reaction to a scary noise as to an immediate deadline.

More specifically, CRF triggers dopamine release. From this NH Register article:

A polypeptide hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor or CRF, that regulates our behavior when we’re under stress and causes a surge in dopamine to be released.*

(*Note: the second article argues that the CRF triggered dopamine release rewards further procrastination, although it does not address the panic-induced CRF release as per the first article).

Whether the CRF trigger ignites last-minute work or deferment behaviors depends on the individual and the situation. Our F, as in “never got to it,” friends, found release in not ever doing the work, whereas our procrastinators were finally motivated by Procrastination Panic, which can be deeply motivating.

Breaking the procrastination cycle

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Admit it, because the empirical evidence proves it: last minute work is always deficient.

Our A+ Club service asks students to send us drafts of any written assignment for two reasons: 1) to encourage students to compete drafts earlier than the last minute; and 2) to put students into a process of revision — which takes time. You can’t revise at the last minute.

It all implies two solutions for us procrastinators:

  1. Treat every deadline as if it’s a scary noise in the night, get your dose of CRF, and get it done. Or better,
  2. Realize that your Procrastinator’s Panic is a real brain phenomenon, and avoid your dependency on it.

I’m guessing that people who get things done right away have some sort of time-release on their CRF that keeps them motivated from the get-go. My wife is this way. She gets things done. It’s amazing! When something comes up, she just goes about it. She calls it “puttering.” I call it “doing too much.” But whatever it is, she’s getting stuff done.

We’re all blessed with different brains and psyches. But society puts similar demands on us all, so we’re stuck interacting with the world about us with what we each have uniquely inside of us. If you’re one of us – Procrastinators Unite! – then let’s admit it, and start doing something about it.

The first step is awareness. My daughter, Gaby, calls it “Mindfulness,” and you should listen to her podcast interview on this subject, as it’s brilliant.

Then there’s acting on our awareness — and that’s not easy. We’ll offer some advice on Specific Steps for Overcoming Procrastination in an upcoming blog post.

– Michael