Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Procrastinating 101: Of Old Brains and New Conditions

Chapter 3 of The Procrastination Equation:  How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, by Dr. Piers Steel, is entitled "Wired for Procrastination:  Putting Off is Human Nature."  And that's what I love about it.

No, not the title, silly--the brain-science-based humanity of Dr. Steel's depiction of this oh-so-common behavioral pattern.  [Note:  not "affliction," "scourge," "condition," "pathology," or "curse."]

In Dr. Steel's view, we put things off because of the way our brains are built.  Procrastination is the unintended consequence of a process of natural selection that favored individuals who approached the four "F's"--feeding, fighting, fleeing, and [ahem] mating--with just a bit too much alacrity, i.e., responded quickly/impulsively.  Freud spoke of a horse and rider, Plato of a split team of horses drawing one chariot--and much later, the Heath brothers relied on Jonathan Haidt's elephant and rider (see my earlier blog posts on their brilliant book, Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard) to describe the difficulties we experience in governing our actions.  In Steel's account, these metaphors grow up, ala neuroscience, and become the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

The limbic system, seat of emotion and desire, drives procrastination, as the overmatched prefrontal cortex, with its executive functions of planning and future orientation, struggles to exert control over our hardwired impulsiveness. These structures of the brain evolved because of survival advantages enjoyed by individuals with the characteristics they embody.  But evolution is tripped up by the considerable lag time in the millenia it takes for change to occur.  Thus, the world for which our brain was adapted no longer exists.  It has been supplanted by one in which our developed reproductive edge becomes--you guessed it, p-r-o-c-r-a-s-t-i-n-a-t-i-o-n!

But let Dr. Steel himself tell it like it is:

In the environment where we evolved, we drank when thirsty, ate when hungry, and worked when motivated.  Our urges and what was urgent were the same.  When we started to anticipate the future, to plan for it, we put ourselves out of step with our own temperament, and had to act not as nature intended.  We are all hardwired with a time horizon that is appropriate for a more ancient and uncertain world, a world where food quickly rots, weather suddenly shifts, and property rights have yet to be invented.  The result is that we deal with long-term concerns and opportunities with a mind that is more naturally responsive to the present.  With paradise lost and civilization found, we must forever struggle with procrastination.

This neuropsychological structuralism presents the same difficulty as the structuralist sociological theories, French and otherwise, that confounded me as a graduate student long ago.   Then, it was the problem of preserving agency and mutability, while avoiding  "bootstraps" prescriptions and blaming the victim.  In identifying social and economic "structures" that explained individual situations too neatly, there sometimes appeared little room for change, particularly for those individuals on the bottom.  Here, in the science of the newly imageible brain, the temptation to "blame" our brains for our lack of self-control presents itself.  "The dog ate my homework" could easily become "My amygdala made me do it."

However, Dr. Steel doesn't plan to let us off the hook so easily.

Bottom line:  procrastination is not our fault, but we have to deal with it nonetheless.
The book's subtitle and its opening paragraphs contain more than a hint that we readers are going to be held to an expectation of pulling ourselves up from postponement, with or without bootstraps.

Along the way, if this chapter, and the companion pieces I located on YouTube are any indication, we are in for an instructive, nonjudgemental, and entertaining time of it.   Cesar Milan, Left 4 Dead, Seinfeld. . . this guy is watching my TV, and playing video games with my sons.  And demonstrating his bona fides as a once-if-not-future king of procrastination. 

Dr. Piers Steel on The Neurobiology of Procrastination

Next week, it looks like sociology's turn, in Chapter 4--"ProcrastiNations:  How Modern Life Ensures Distraction."

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