If you like to put things off or surf the internet instead of getting work done, you might be able to blame your ancestors. Procrastination and laziness are based in our genetics, and you can be predisposed to both, says Sharad Paul, MD, author of The Genetics Of Health: Understand Your Genes for Better Health.
While procrastination seems like a character flaw, it evolved for a reason. “The genes progressed down generations because these people were still holed up in caves fearful of predators [saying], ‘My tools are not sharp enough. I better spend more time perfecting this spear,’” he says. “These people survived more because they avoided conflict, and these genes were handed down to future generations.”
The genetics of procrastination are related to the genetics of impulsivity. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, says one of the reasons we procrastinate is because our brain isn’t buying into our plans. “If we stop and think about this, it makes complete sense,” says Paul. “We can identify with those times we had a business plan that we had written up in great detail, but were delaying doing something about. If we were to be honest about it, either we were not ready or hadn’t thought it through well enough. In Newport’s words, ‘You shouldn’t lament procrastination, but instead listen to it.’”
While procrastinators are delayers, lazy people are sloths, says Paul. Research from the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing and the University of Aberdeen identified a genetic mutation called SLC35D3 that produces a protein that interferes with the brain’s dopamine system, which triggers cells to initiate movement.
“In mice that had a faulty SLC35D3 gene, the dopamine receptors were trapped inside cells; therefore, these mice became couch potatoes,” says Paul.
Do You Have The Genes?
If you want to know for sure that you have sluggish or procrastination genes, Paul has developed a DNA test that can pinpoint the tendencies. “We can even predict people who are more likely to avoid exercise,” he says.
But you probably already have a clue as to what your results might be. “I guess we know if we are procrastinators and we see others getting things done,” he says. “Having said that, nothing in life or our genes is absolute. If we work hard we can express new genes and take control of our bodies and minds.”
What To Do Now
While it’s tempting to simply blame your parents, the buck stops with you, says Paul. “People think that genes determine their fate,” he says. “This is only true if their actions lead in that direction.”
Genes are protein makers that cause different functions, says Paul, but you’re in control. “Our diets, exercise, and environment shape our genes and make them produce different proteins,” he says. “Understanding your genes is basically you directing or fine-tuning your machine–your body–for best performance.”
In the case of those sluggish mice, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Arizona put them on a workout routine and found the process activated new genes and increased levels of substances that promote tissue growth and health, including a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which enhances cognitive function such as learning and memory. “The phrase ‘jogging your memory’ may indeed be more literal than we imagine,” says Paul.
The best thing to combat procrastination or sluggishness is to get moving, says Paul. “Start slow and keep building endurance levels up,” he says. “There are many different forms of endurance exercise and many involve leg movement, for example, swimming, running, football, racquet sports, aerobics, and dancing. Pick one that you like and make sure you vary it. An average of just 30 minutes a day has been shown to be beneficial.”
Anything can be modified or improved, including our gene expressions, says Paul, who likes to reference the 10,000-hours theory Malcolm Gladwell shares in his book The Outliers, suggesting that talent is made with practice and commitment, not an innate trait.
“If you have the right genes, this could be perhaps a bit faster, but not by much,” he says. “Therefore, there is hope for us all.”