Procrastinating Workouts? Here's surprising research into the brain of procrastinators and action-takers.
Procrastination is a silent killer.
Whether it’s putting off a daunting project… allowing your to-do list to pile up... or delaying workouts - procrastination is a stressful and destructive habit.
Growing up, I was the king of procrastination. Some people would wait to finish their homework until the night before it was due. I’d wait until the morning before. I’d set my alarm for 5am and pound out page…after…page… until that puppy was complete. Sometimes I got away with it. Other times I paid for it royally.
Fortunately, I had a deadline that drove me to eventually take action. But when it comes to working out, most people don't have the pressure of a deadline to push them. So they keep putting it off despite the consequences.
According to a 2007 review by the University of Calgary, psychologist Pier Steel found that procrastinators performed worse… struggled with more medical problems… were more likely to waste money on taxes… and put off pressing decisions such as retirement or saving money.
The thing is, most procrastinators know it’s hurting them...
So why do they keep doing it?
The brain may reveal some answers.
Researchers from Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, had 264 healthy subjects undergo MRIs. When looked at the results, they found two key differences between the brains of procrastinators’ and action takers’.
Difference #1: Procrastinators Had Larger Amygdala’s
Here’s what the amygdala does:
The amygdala is basically the “smoke detector” of the brain. It’s on constant lookout for threats such as an attacker, wild animal or other dangers. If it detects one of those, it sounds the alarm, signaling your body for the flight-or-flight response. Yet, just like a regular smoke detector, it’s susceptible to false alarms. This can happen even if the fear is simply imagined.
According to researcher Erhan Genc, here’s what a larger amygdala means:
“Individuals with a higher amygdala volume may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action -- they tend to hesitate and put off things.”
In essence, a larger amygdala means more sensitivity to fear, which stops them from acting. It’s this fear or uncertainty that creates hesitation. The interesting thing is that taking action is one of the many things that can actually “calm” down the amygdala (and limbic system).
According to Dr. Alex Korb, in his book The Upward Spiral:
“Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.”
Difference #2: Procrastinators Had Fewer Connections Between the ACC & Amygdala
Action takers had more connections between the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the amygdala. One of the roles of the ACC is assisting decision-making and regulating emotions. Thus, their ability to keep negative emotions at bay (such as fear) is enhanced because they have more connections between those two parts of the brain. Procrastinators on the other hand, had fewer.
According to Erhan Genc:
“Due to a low functional connection between amygdala and dorsal ACC, this effect may be augmented, as interfering negative emotions and alternative actions might not be sufficiently regulated.”
Because there are fewer connections between these two parts of the brain, it’s harder for procrastinators to regulate negative emotions such as fear. The ACC usually helps them cope but since they have fewer connections, it makes it more difficult.
Studies like these can put the blame on the brain, and it’s easy to believe there’s nothing that can be done since it’s “in our heads”.
So are procrastinators hopeless?
Hardly. While it’s interesting to see the differences in the brain, the question becomes:
Do procrastinators’ brains start that way?
Or does the brain develop that way because of the act of procrastination?
In fact, there are studies showing that the size of the amygdala can be reduced by things such as meditation. Whatever the case, in each moment we can override procrastination.
One way is to remember the breakthrough moments.
Those moments where you acted despite procrastination. Moments where you broke through your hesitation and took action. Maybe you were exhausted and the last thing you wanted to do was exercise but you did it anyway. Even though you didn't feel like it, you made it happen.
Draw strength from those moments.
Figure out what pushes you over the edge.
Whatever it is, find out what drives you and tap into it more often.
And get in the habit of working out even when you don't feel like working out.