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Procrastination: Is It Hereditary or a Product of Environment?

geneProcrastination has been mostly oversimplified as laziness. But there’s more to it than poor time management. It is a psychologically complex phenomenon that can affect all aspects of our everyday life, including our health, relationship, and work. In fact, most of the time, we procrastinate in order to temporarily elevate our mood. When we procrastinate, we get a short-term good feeling just because we think we can do the task tomorrow.

There has been a long debate regarding the source of procrastination: Is procrastination a fault of our environment? Or is it a built-in trait?

Some researchers argue that procrastination is not hereditary, but a by-product of our environment and the way we have grown up: For example, we never got rewarded for doing our homework early in school. There’s no incentive for doing tasks ahead of time.

However, my research on procrastination and later research in this area have shown that we can inherit procrastination. In other words, genetics can play an important role in our procrastination habits. Delaying things may be a product of our own evolution. Our willpower never had to resist environmental temptations for such a long period of time.

Living in the present had an evolutionary advantage. It enabled us to do the required tasks urgently. Our ancestors used to fight, flee, feed or mate when they felt the urge. It was the best strategy to react impulsively instead of making long-term plans.

Procrastination is a struggle between two parts of our brain: The prefrontal cortex, the region that controls planning and problem solving, and the limbic system, our “inner child” that wants immediate gratification. As a deadline approaches, urgency eventually persuades the limbic system to cooperate with the prefrontal cortex, and we get to work.

But in today’s world, self-control is more useful than impulsiveness. Conscientiousness, a basic personality trait that governs our self-control and motivation, can win the war between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.

In one study, a team of researchers in the University of Colorado, Boulder examined the genetic roots of procrastination, impulsiveness, and goal-setting. They found that genetics played a sizable role in procrastination, even when controlling for environmental factors like growing up in the same household. Based on this study, the overall variation in procrastination among people is around 50 percent due to their genetic influences, and 50 percent due to environmental influences. In addition, the results showed that procrastination and impulsivity are linked primarily through genetic influences on goal setting and prioritizing goals to effectively regulate actions.

The results of this research are published in the Journal of Psychological Science. However, the type of genes that are responsible for these traits is still unknown, and should be further studied.

Even if procrastinating is in your DNA, it’s possible to decrease the habit. However, it takes time and practice. Precommitting to goals, like automatically deducting from your paycheck to a savings account, can help. You can also schedule your hardest tasks for the time of day when you have the most energy.

Blocking out distractions is another important strategy. By removing the audio alert of a new message, you can substantially reduce the number of visits to email, Twitter, or Facebook. While these techniques can help us in getting tasks done on-time, we will still put things off occasionally.The above-mentioned studies showed that procrastination can be hereditary. But, don’t get frustrated and give up on your efforts to get your tasks done, blaming it on your genes.

As a person with procrastination-prone genes and frequent internet distractions, I have been able to defeat my genes by meeting my deadlines! So, hopefully you will be able to do it as well.


Gustavson, D. E., Miyake, A., Hewitt, J. K., & Friedman, N. P. (2014). Genetic Relations Among Procrastination, Impulsivity, and Goal-Management Ability Implications for the Evolutionary Origin of Procrastination. Psychological science, 0956797614526260.

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Looking for a fun book that informs? Take a peek at The Procrastination Equation. It is the perfect gift for last Christmas. Check out the reviews.

Thought for Food: How to Scientifically Think Yourself Thin

food for thought

So how is your diet going? Chances are you are on one or that there is a diet in your future. The majority of Americans think about dieting all year round, with as many as 41 percent on a diet at any given time, in an attempt to lose an average of thirty-seven pounds. Britons aren’t far behind: about a third are constantly on a diet. The statistics for the rest of Europe, even France, are similar. We all seem to have a few pounds or kilograms to lose and have trouble doing it.

Let me see if I can pique your interest in a helpful idea. Right now, we all know what we need to do to shed the weight: eat less and exercise more. No mystery here. The problem, then, isn’t with our knowledge but our ability to put this knowledge into action. We try to eat less, to get to the gym, but we can’t find the motivation to follow through. Resigning ourselves to our predicament, we end up looking for the easy but probably ineffective, like the fad diets from dubious Internet advertisements. This makes it a mental issue, not a physical one, and since the source of our problems are in our minds, so will be the solution.

Everything is created twice, first mentally and then physically. First comes belief and then comes action.  However, if the belief isn’t nurtured, and more importantly, shaped in a very particular fashion, the actions won’t follow. There are two mental tricks that you need to master. These techniques require precision. Get the details wrong, and they will backfire and actually work against you.

The mind’s imagination can play two roles. One is a call to action, to change belief into reality. The other is fantasy, to allow us to gain satisfaction and enjoyment from afar by simply imagining what it would be like. The first helps with getting stuff done. The second replaces getting stuff done. We will need to use both in our efforts to lose weight.

The first method, the call to action, I’ve written about before in “The Motivational Wisdom of Lady Gaga versus The Secret.” To acquire the motivation to act, you mentally contrast where you are right now after first imagining where you want to be. Note the order of that, first you fantasize about being the ideal weight and then you reflect on the weight you are now. Here’s a walkthrough from my book The Procrastination Equation:

Mentally capture that feeling of vigor that will infuse your body and all the activities you’ll engage in with friends and family, once you’re in shape. As a parent, for example, it might be playing with your kids again. Now contrast that with where you are now. You are tired and rubbery, spending far too much time in front of the TV. Doesn’t feel good, does it? But it does make you want to do something about it.

So first you think about the positives and how virtuous you are going to feel from working out, how slender and enviable you are going to look by eating smaller portions and exercising more. Then you will contrast that feeling with the guilt and frustration you feel by doing nothing. Do just the positive fantasizing and often that’s all what you end up doing.

The second method is from a recent Science article by Morewedge, Huh, and Vosgerau, titled “Thought for food: Imagine consumption reduces actual consumption.” In a productive way, they exploit the fact that fantasy can take the place of action. Instead of having people fantasize about having lost weight, which would ultimately hurt their dieting efforts, they had them vividly imagine themselves eating a bowl of chocolate M&M’s, thirty of them to be precise. As per their title, imagining consuming a treat can take the place of the treat itself. Those who took the time to fantasize about a chocolate indulgence actually ate fewer M&M’s when a real bowl was presented to them. The trick here is to pay attention to the degree of fantasy. You didn’t get the effect when people imagined eating only three M&Ms; it wasn’t enough to satiate. You had to imagine all thirty of them.

So the next time you have a main course to order, imagine how great you will feel by choosing the healthy option. Then follow that up with reflecting on how lousy you will feel if you went with the high-fat status quo. And for dessert, imagine eating it, mouthful by mouthful, taking the time to visualize each bite. For a cheesecake or an ice cream parfait, that’s 15 to 20 loving spoonfuls. With the right degree of fantasy, you are on your way to be at the weight you always wanted for yourself.

Morewedge, C. K., Huh, Y. E., & Vosgerau, J. (2011). Thought for food: Imagine consumption reduces actual consumption. Science, 330, `530-1533.

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The Motivational Wisdom of Lady Gaga versus The Secret

GagaVs2As a guest judge on the television show So You Think You Can Dance, Lady Gaga had this to say: “That’s good that you won a lot of trophies, it’s nice, but you know what? After I sell a bunch of records, I take all the platinum ones off the walls and pretend I haven’t sold a damn one and I’ve got to go do it all again.”

Just like Lady Gaga herself, her motivational advice is controversial. Essentially, she suggests that images of success (e.g., trophies) can take the place of actual successes (i.e., more victories). So instead of going out and making it happen, we reflect on past or imagined glory and do nothing. The symbol replaces the reality. On the other hand we have Rhonda Byrne, the Australian TV ad executive who wrote The Secret.  A perpetual bestseller, The Secret advocates creative visualization, whichinvolves creating vivid and compelling pictures of your heart’s desire, with the aim of drawing this vision toward you. If you believe and even act as if your accomplishments have already happened, Byrne argues, then happen they will.

Who’s right? Lady Gaga has multiple Grammy awards, several world records (e.g., most consecutive weeks in the top 75 music chart), and her sales are approaching 100 million. She is also a master of fantasy, able to imagine herself to sexual culmination at will (a very neat trick indeed). Then again, The Secret has been on the New York Times bestseller list for about 190 weeks and it is endorsed by the undisputed queen of self-help, Oprah Winfrey herself. And though Rhonda Byrne might not have Lady Gaga’s facility at fantasy, her advertising background gives her top marks in understanding the power of images. Let’s let psychological science decide the winner.

The first clear voice on this issue of fantasy was that of Sigmund Freud, who wrote about the “irrational libido,” the part of our psyche that lives for immediate pleasure. To accomplish this, the libido uses what Freud termed a “primary process,” where it “produces a memory image of an object needed for gratification in order to reduce the frustration of not having been gratified yet.” So we imagine everything from revenge to accomplishment and then, without doing anything more, receive pleasure from the image alone. When we mature, we put primary processes in check and graduate to “secondary processes,” which deal with reason and reality. So as adults, we are able to delay gratification and endure the pain necessary to bring our plans to fruition. In short, Freud is definitely a Lady Gaga fan. Images and symbols, such as trophies, may be pleasurable to gaze upon but they can prevent us pursuing the real thing.

Alright, psychoanalysis is more than a century old and not exactly cutting edge science. But we can do better. Over the last decade, Gabrielle Oettingen of New York University has done a string of studies that test the power of fantasy on everything from romantic success to getting your dream job. Her basic design is to have three groups of subjects: a fantasy group, a control group, and a mental contrasting group. Fantasy groups are just that: essentially, proponents of The Secret who imagine they already have their desired outcome. The control group is the baseline, people left alone to their own devices. Then there is the mental contrasting group, basically following a form of Lady Gaga’s recommendation. They mentally contrast by fantasizing about what they want but then immediately afterwards compare where they are now with where they want to be. So if they want a better relationship, they fantasize about being with that gorgeous guy or gal but then deeply reflect afterwards on how they don’t have him or her. The mental contrasting group always ends by contrasting fantasy with reality.

Who wins? Lady Gaga or The Secret? It wasn’t even close. Oettingen’s results show that Lady Gaga-styled mental contrasting always does better than pure fantasy à la The Secret . In fact, they suggest that The Secret is motivationally misguided. The pure fantasy group did worse than the control group, people who were left completely alone. In other words, dreaming actually gets in the way of realizing your dreams.

Does this mean that those who follow The Secret will never get what they want? Of course not, but they won’t realize their dreams as often as the rest of us. That is unless they break the rules; I’ve heard some people gush about how The Secret has worked for them, but what I see is people who have positive expectations about success and then actively go out to pursue their goals. This isn’t The Secret, which advocates that you believe you have already achieved your dreams. As Gabrielle Oettingen puts it, “positive expectations (judging a desired future as likely) predicted high effort and successful performance.” On the other hand, she saw just the opposite with positive fantasies, which led to less effort and worse performance. In short, believing you can do it works; fantasizing you already did it doesn’t.

So here’s the scoop. Fantasy feels good, but when practiced in isolation it gets in the way of accomplishment. It is the motivational equivalent of pornography, where we allow fantasy to take the place of reality. However, if you are good at fantasy, like Lady Gaga, here’s how to make it work the way she does. After fantasizing, focus on your present world and how it lack the things you crave. There will be pain and discomfort because what you long for is no longer in your grasp, but don’t turn away from these emotions; they are a source of power that you can harness to get stuff done.

For more, there is always chapter 7 from my own book The Procrastination Equation. It is dedicated to exactly this subject. And to help you get going, here’s a little more mental contrasting. Think about how helpful it would be to have all these motivational tricks at your fingertips, how much easier your life would be. Now reflect on that it’s going to be same old slog as yesterday because you haven’t read the book yet.

Do you have other celebrity motivational advice? Perhaps some words of advice from LeAnn Rimes or Reese Witherspoon? Let me know and we will give it the same treatment, determining its scientific standing and origins.