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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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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Beyond the Coffee Crutch: The Secret to Vitality at Work

iStock_000002195003XSmallWhat’s the number one reason for procrastinating? Survey says: low energy. Tackling tasks or chores when we are already tired is a surefire recipe for putting stuff off. Don’t we deserve to rest our feet, to have moments to recuperate after a long day? No argument here; that’s what I want too. The only problem is that we are probably going to be equally tired the next day and yet the task still remains, perhaps made even worse by the wait. Since chores rarely do themselves, we often have to find a new way to eke a little more energy from ourselves each day.

Promising to help us out with this is the recent research by Charlotte Fritz, Chak Fu Lam, and Gretchen Spreitzer, titled “It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge worker’s energy management.” Science to the rescue once again.

Surveying 200 plus working professionals, the research team assessed the workers’ levels of both vitality and fatigue along with strategies that people use to up their energy. What they found wasn’t exactly what you would expect. These techniques were the ones that those with high vitality used:

  1. Learn something new
  2. Focus on what gives me joy in work
  3. Set a new goal
  4. Do something that will make a colleague happy
  5. Make time to show gratitude to someone I work with
  6. Seek feedback
  7. Reflect on how I make a difference at work
  8. Reflect on the meaning of my work

These techniques are value seeking and value creating activities, looking for what is enjoyable in your job or trying to frame the work in a way that creates value. On the other hand, the list below details the activities that are connected to workers with lower vitality and higher levels of fatigue.

  1. Drink a caffeinated beverage
  2. Talk to someone about common interests (e.g., sports)
  3. Listen to music
  4. Surf the web
  5. Check and send personal email or text messages
  6. Make plans for the evening or weekend
  7. Day dream
  8. Shop

Which of these lists do you belong to? If you are doing more of the latter, it likely means that you are chronically tired or fatigued. You need to tend to your energy levels. You have options, including getting more sleep, eating better, exercising, all the stuff you already know. But in addition to that, there is all the tactics from the vitality list. Value and energy are closely related as we always seem to have the energy to do what we like. How often did you not have the energy to write for work but were capable of novella long email messages to friends? Is shopping really less energy intensive than what you are avoiding? No, it is just more enjoyable.  Here’s a supporting excerpt from Chapter Eight of my book, The Procrastination Equation:

Whoever we are, we are likely to put off doing whatever we find excruciatingly dull. Boredom signals that what we are doing is irrelevant, and so the mind slides off the task. It makes sense, then, that procrastinators are much more likely than non-procrastinators to perceive life’s daily tasks as drudgery. Of all the boring tasks that fill the world, the one that tops most people’s hate list is routine paperwork. The busywork— filling in timesheets, submitting expense reports, and supplying the data that companies and governments endlessly require—seems pointless, even when it isn’t. Fortunately, however, boredom isn’t inherently part of any job—anything can be made more interesting simply by the way we treat it.

It seems pretty simple, “reflect on the meaning of my work” or “do something that will make a colleague happy,” but simple doesn’t mean ineffective. You might get an energetic boost by reflecting on how others depend on you, by being a hero to your boss, or honing a new skill that advances your career.  Of course, there are other techniques for increasing the value of your work and I cover a few more in Chapter Eight of my book, like “Games and Goals” and “Double or Nothing,” but that’s enough for now. Take another look at that vitality list and decide to do one thing. And in the spirit of seeking feedback myself, tell me how it worked for you. I’ll bet you it does better than that second cup of coffee you were thinking of getting.

Fritz, C., Lam, C. F., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2011). It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge workers’ energy management. Academy of Management Perspective25(3), 28-39.

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Hard Work Beat Talent (But Only If Talent Doesn’t Work Hard)

76370-66978In a world where we are ridiculously overcommitted to making sure everyone is equal in every way, a new study just published in Psychological Science contains some sobering news you might not like. In their paper “Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance ,” David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz kill the myth that talent doesn’t matter. We would love to believe, of course, that all we need to do to be the best is to try hard enough. You can be anything you want as long as we really want it: rocket scientist, pop icon, sport hero. There is no shortage of popular pundits promoting this myth. As Hambrick and Meinz point out:

Malcolm Gladwell (2008) commented that “The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real world advantage” (pp. 78–79). In his own bestselling book, The Social Animal, David Brooks (2011) expressed the same idea: “A person with a 150 IQ is in theory much smarter than a person with a 120 1Q, but those additional 30 points produce little measurable benefit when it comes to lifetime success” (p. 165). Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks are simply wrong. At least in science, a high level of intellectual ability puts a person at a measurable advantage—and the higher the better.

The people peddling this notion that talent is irrelevant often cite a 1993 paper by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tech-Romer regarding deliberate practice in which the researchers argue that success is usually built upon purposeful, thoughtful and intense efforts to improve performance over about 10,000 hours. This is true; hard work does pay off. The Beatles got to be so good because they had to perform their music four hours a day (eight days a week) during their two year stint in Hamburg. Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at chess after years of honing his skills at the Brooklyn Chess Club. But that wasn’t the question. What we want to know is whether hard work makes talent irrelevant. Will every group that jams together for 10,000 hours become the Fab Four and every chess obsessed child become a world champion?

Hambrick and Meinz showed the basic relationship between hard work and talent in this chart. The vertical axis measures your level of performance. Higher up means spectacular. The horizontal axis charts your innate talent, in this case cognitive ability, what the rest of the world refers to as “intelligence.” Further to the right means super smart. The two lines refer to different levels of deliberate practice. The red line refers to those who have put in the hours while the blue refers to those who haven’t made the effort.

There are two things to take away from this. The first is that being smart is a useful thing to inherit, right up there with a large trust fund. The more smarts you have, the higher your performance. And despite what Gladwell and Brooks say, intelligence’s benefits don’t disappear; the more innate talent of any sort you have, the better off you are going be.

If you take a careful look, however, you will notice that those of us with more modest abilities do have a chance. Even if you weren’t born with genius in your genes, you can outperform the smartest of individuals as long as you work hard and the latter doesn’t. Also, the differences between the smart and the not-so-smart shrink quite a bit if they both work hard. That means that talent still counts, but hard work puts you right up there.

Unless you are in a profession where there can only be one winner, like going for Olympic gold, this is pretty good news. With hard work, at the bare minimum you can be good at what you do. And though you might never be the best, you can give the best performers a run for their money. On the other hand, if you have chosen a career where only the very, very best succeed, you better be born with a lot of talent.

Necessarily, people who are exceptionally talented are also exceptionally rare. But from what we know about the prevalence of procrastination, people who work hard are also pretty rare too. Most of the time, you are going to be end up competing against rivals with one of these attributes, talent or hard work, not both. Those with natural aptitude and the willingness to put in the effort are as rare as diamonds, and twice as valuable. If you see one, take a picture, get an autograph, and wish them good luck. This world has problems and we especially need people like them.

As for us mortals, let’s take one more look at the chart. Is it better to be hard working with modest talents (the low end of the red line) or smart but lazy (the high end of the blue line)? The answer is cut and dried: hard work wins out. I told you might not like the news. But if you are ready to work hard, to change procrastination into motivation, you now know where to get started. by being here, you are already there.

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.