Just can’t bring yourself to start that work report? Given yourself a break after typing out your essay title? Don’t worry, this spell of procrastination – intentionally delaying a task – may not be completely your fault. In fact, you might even be able to blame your mum for it.
Well, partly. While you’re wholly responsible for all your (in)actions, recent neuroscience and psychological studies suggest you can inherit a tendency to procrastinate.
So, how much is procrastination down to your parents? Are there specific genes to blame? And what can you do if you are prone to the problem?
Don’t delay finding answers any longer: with the help of the University of Sheffield’s Dr Fuschia Sirois, who has researched procrastination for 20 years, we explore all these major quandaries below – and offer evidence-based strategies to fight your own inertia.
Is procrastination genetic?
Your tendency to procrastinate is partly genetic, according to research emerging across the last decade. In fact, one landmark study published in the journal Psychological Science examining identical twins argued that 46 per cent of a person’s tendency to procrastinate was down to genetic factors, making the problem “moderately heritable”.
However, this study – based on questionnaire results from 663 individuals – is by no means perfect. After all, with many of the twins raised in the same households, it’s virtually impossible to separate nature from nurture. As Sirois says: “There’s always an interaction with genes and the environment.”
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Unsurprisingly, scientists have not uncovered specific genes that directly cause procrastination. However, one intriguing 2018 study found compelling evidence linking the behaviour to a gene involved in the production enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase (associated with the regulation of neurotransmitter dopamine).
After analysing the genes of 278 men and women, and inviting these participants to complete a questionnaire, the researchers found a surprising pattern. While no correlation was found amongst the men, data revealed women who carried a variant of this gene were more likely to procrastinate.
Unfortunately, the researchers couldn’t establish a link between these findings and those of a major previous study that found a negative correlation between a tendency to procrastinate and the size of a person’s amygdala (a brain region associated with the processing of emotions). That is to say that the larger your amygdala, the more likely you are to procrastinate.
But here’s the thing: these findings only reveal a link: there’s little evidence to suggest your chronic procrastination habit is caused by a sizable amygdala – it may well be the other way around.
However, Sirois is still confident that innate biological factors can play a huge role in your procrastination habit. “We know that some people are predisposed to having higher or lower thresholds for the amount of negative emotions they can tolerate,” she says.
“And if your tolerance for negative emotions is set very low, you’re in an uncomfortable position. Unless you have good emotion regulation skills, you’re likely to procrastinate as it’s an immediate rewarding strategy for managing negative emotions.
“When you put the task aside, you get immediate mood relief. You get that hedonic shift. And that reinforces procrastination.”
Is procrastination a problem around the world?
There’s no definitive data revealing the prevalence of the problem. (Being such a huge undertaking, it’s no wonder researchers are putting it off.)
With that said, several localised studies – including those examining populations in the US, UK, Australia and Italy and Poland – have found that about 20 per cent of people procrastinate regularly, with rates much higher among university students. But the questionnaires used in this research aren’t always the same – nor are the demographics of those sampled.
These localised studies have revealed dramatically different attitudes towards procrastination around the globe.
“Some cultures can be very laid back, such as certain parts of Latin America, towards this issue. It’s not so much about productivity – it’s the meaning attached to delaying things,” Sirois says.
“There are other cultures where productivity is highly valued. And what you see in those cultures is an extremely low tolerance for procrastination, such as in Germany.”
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However, this stigmatisation of procrastination is hardly helpful – particularly when it is framed as ‘laziness’.
“Labelling the behaviour like this feeds a negative self-image and shame. It’s just going to make people feel worse – and make them procrastinate more,” she says.
“Procrastinators, especially chronic procrastinators, are extremely hard on themselves. They engage in these types of ruminative, negative, self-evaluative thoughts. They’ll think things like ‘Why did I leave this until the last minute? I had so long!’.
“However, if you engage in self-compassion, it’s possible to stop these wheels spinning.”
In practical terms, self-compassion means doing anything that breaks this cycle of rumination and gains perspective, with Sirois advocating mindfulness exercises and writing a letter to yourself.
“It sounds strange, but just write a short letter to yourself imagining you are one of your friends. If they were really struggling, what would you say?” she explains.
“This helps you recognise that self-critical script – and that procrastinating is something everyone experiences. Remember, you’re not the first person to procrastinate. Nor will you be the last!”
About our expert, Dr Fuschia Sirois
Dr Sirois is a reader at the Department of Psychology in the University of Sheffield, primarily examining behaviour regulation. She is head of the Self-Regulation in Health & Well-Being Lab and her research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals such as Health Psychology, Social Science and Medicine, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Quality of Life Research and the Journal of Behavioural Medicine.