You swear you won’t wait until the last minute to file your taxes or turn in that term paper. You’re late changing the oil in your car. You tell your doctor you’ll take your medication, only to drop the ball when it’s time to refill the prescription. Sure, you mean well, but time after time your actions fall short of your good intentions.
But take a deep breath. It happens a lot less often than you think, and here’s why.
We’re a nation of procrastinators—or so it seems (judging, for one thing, by the plethora of advice meant to help us kick that habit, like these articles at the right). But here’s the funny thing: There are plenty of good behaviors that we rarely put off doing. Few of us starve because we procrastinate on eating or run into kidney problems because we forget to use the bathroom. Nor has the species come grinding to a halt because we all procrastinated on having sex.
“Those don’t count,” you might be thinking–and you’d have a point, sort of. If procrastination really is the exception rather than the rule, then how come it feels like the opposite is true? The answer has more to do with memory than with behavior. Remember that family road trip when your parents accidentally left your little brother at the gas station? The reason you do is because it was remarkable, and remarkable things are easier to recall.
It’s the unremarkable events and behaviors that tend to go less noticed–even while they’re more regularly experienced or accomplished. We naturally follow through on things that feel right today and know to be right in the long run–and there’s nothing remarkable about that. The rest, though, we do remark–usually with a groan–and call it procrastinating.
Why do we procrastinate on some things but not on others? Imagine you’re Nature, and you’re trying to get the human species to survive and thrive. Some human behaviors lead to good outcomes down the road; others not so much. Naturally, you want these humans to engage in the good behaviors and to avoid the bad.
There are two ways that you can tackle this problem. On the one hand, you can endow human brains with marvelous new calculators allowing them to forecast the future benefits and harms associated with each behavior, and then to select the one that maximizes the benefit. On the other hand, you could simply hijack the brain’s existing pleasure-pain circuitry to make the good behaviors feel good in the present and the bad ones feel bad.
For the most part, nature has taken the second path. Originally developed to drive organisms toward food and safety and away from danger, the limbic system is one of the oldest parts of our brains (and of the brains of many other species). In a neat trick, nature then figured out how to leverage this system to make actions that are beneficial in the future pleasurable in the present, and those that are harmful in the future uncomfortable in the here and now.
Fat and salt and sugar are delicious because in a calorie-scarce environment those who hankered for them wound up finding great sources of nutrition, and in doing so had a far better opportunity to reproduce. Even sentiments like love and guilt are nature’s way of making commitment more likely and cheating less so. Our ancestors became our ancestors because their natural inclinations and emotions generally served them well, offering them a better chance at producing offspring. And here we are!
If that explains why so many beneficial behaviors come so naturally to us, then what about those that don’t? Why do we still have trouble saving for retirement, exercising regularly, and taking our medications as prescribed? Why don’t we behave better all the time?
That’s because our environment has changed far more rapidly than our brain’s wiring has. Retirement plans, a highly sedentary life, and prescription medications have come onto the scene very recently–from an evolutionary perspective, in the blink of an eye. There simply hasn’t been adequate time for natural selection to advantage those individuals who find it easy to engage in these more recent good behaviors and to pass those natural inclinations down to their offspring.
So while we’re waiting for nature to catch up with the times, let’s take a page from its playbook. If you want to stop procrastinating, the trick is to tip the scales in favor of the good behaviors by making them more desirable in the here and now. That means minimizing or eliminating any up-front unpleasantness associated with performing the right behaviors, as well as making tempting but self-defeating behaviors more difficult in the present.
For example, if you procrastinate on getting refills of your medications, sign up for an automatic refill program at your drugstore; better yet, have your medications automatically delivered to your home. This approach gets rid of the hassles by shifting the work onto someone (or, before too long, some drone) else.
Similarly, if you’re having trouble sticking to a workout regimen, find a way to make it more fun in the present: switch to a sport you like playing, work out with a partner, or make working out part of listening to your favorite podcast. By piggbacking the good behavior on one that you already find desirable, you’re far more likely to engage in it naturally.
And in the meantime, let yourself off the hook a little. Give yourself (or just your limbic system) a mental high-five after eating dinner tonight. In the grand, evolutionary scheme of things, that counts for something–indeed, nearly everything.
Bob Nease, PhD, is the former chief scientist of Express Scripts, and the author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results (HarperCollins) as well as over 70 peer-reviewed papers.