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Neuroscience of Procrastination and Motivation!

Escaping the thief of time, also popularly known as procrastination, is no easy task. We all get caught up in that constant loop of not doing things, feeling guilty about it, then ending up doing nothing again, ultimately succeeding in nothing but feeling bad about ourselves. It all happens while we stay consciously unaware of how our brain works around this concept. So let us explore the brain a bit and understand the neuroscience behind this phase that all of us are familiar with.

The procrastination cycle starts with not feeling like doing tasks that require attention. When one puts off a task that they are supposed to be doing, they end up in a state of helplessness because of the guilt. They often end up waiting for the perfect solution to present itself to them due to the helpless feeling. At the end of the day, there is no real work done by someone who is stuck inside this loop.

Let us see this loop from different perspectives. Why is it deeply ingrained in every person?

Neuroscience says, we procrastinate because of the internal war between our limbic system and the pre-frontal Cortex (PFC). The limbic system, being vital to survival of our species with its pleasure centers, often wins the war, besting the less developed and weaker PFC.

If one is to look at this war logically, considering the chronology and turn of events in human evolution, from ancient times we were focused only on survival with food, shelter, and reproduction, leaving the Limbic system majorly responsible for our actions. When the threats to survival lessened, the human brain started wanting more, wanting progress and wanting to evolve, making growth its major focus. Let us understand why the limbic system is opposed to the idea of growth and considers it a threat to survival. The brain's biological needs are different from its current needs because growth means exploring new domains and putting oneself in a less comfort zone with different threats and challenges. Hence begins the internal war.

So whenever we try to grow, we are in a constant clash with our biological needs, and because it’s much stronger, we tend to procrastinate at some point, irrespective of what work we do.

Now that Procrastination seems like something inevitable and unsolvable, how do people even conquer it? It's simple; we need Motivation to stop Procrastinating!

In goal-oriented behaviors, we need the motivation to initiate, guide, maintain, and act where there is no instant reward and a longer time frame. In our day-to-day activities, motivation to be productive seems more essential now that we know this.

Motivation is simple when it comes to animals. Simply teach them that completing a task T will result in a reward R, and boom, problem solved! Humans, on the other hand are more difficult to crack...

This difficulty in cracking the cookie known as human motivation comes with the need to understand a couple of basic concepts.

Firstly, let us have a look back at the workings of Dopamine, the neurotransmitter. A chemical released at the end of a nerve fibre to keep our brain functioning. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation, memory, pleasure, and learning. It is also known as the “feel-good” hormone. Irregularity in dopamine levels is a key factor in many major neurological disorders as well.

Dopamine and Motivation
The human brain favors activities that induce more dopamine and avoids activities that secrete less or no dopamine.

Activities that provide positive rewards are constantly reinforced and gradually enhanced over time, and the urge to engage in similar kinds of activities grows and gets strengthened. (Ref)

Let’s look at some less known facts about this magic Hormone every human is chasing:

Contrary to popular belief, Dopamine is an anticipation hormone rather than a pleasure hormone, and it is released as a reward to anticipation that settles in rather than at the end of an action reward (Ref). The higher the certainty of reward, the lower the dopamine levels! We call it the Dopamine Prediction Error because dopamine levels drop when the outcome is expected.

So this explains why we lose interest in a Cricket match when we can predict the game's result two overs in advance and why we are on the edge of our seats when there is no certainty of the winner until the last ball.

Dopamine seeks uncertainty, and uncertainty primarily stems from novelty. Humans aren't typically willing to put themselves in challenging or novel settings. However, dopamine is known to promote exploratory behavior in novel environments.(Ref)

Novelty could be in any form. For example, if a chocolate gives you ‘X’ amount of dopamine, the second chocolate isn’t going to give you the same amount of dopamine. That doesn’t mean one must search for newer types of chocolate, rather, increasing the quantity consumed of the same chocolate at one go can help boost the dopamine levels. This causes humans to get addicted to and excessively indulge in habits and actions that have detrimental effects on oneself both physically and mentally.

Now that we have covered the workings of Dopamine, let's move on to the next concept. This one is more close to home; it is about where and what motivation we need.

Paint these pictures to yourself, you have to go to school on a Saturday morning. And in the first scenario, it is for a "Fun-Fest" with no specific dress code. The second scenario is not that fun; you have to reach the school by 8 AM for Extra Class :/

It is very clear that though both the scenarios expect us to come to school on a Saturday morning, we need little to no motivation for the 1st scenario, whereas we need a huge amount of motivation to get through the 2nd scenario.

And why is that? It is because we humans are naturally motivated to do things that interest us and need external motivation for less interesting tasks.

That brings us to the next concept, the 2 major types of motivation.

Extrinsic & Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is a type of motivation that comes externally in the form of content, people, surroundings, environment, etc. In this kind of motivation, one isn’t interested in the activity naturally and is focused more on the end goal.

Intrinsic motivation is a type of motivation that originates internally. One does not engage in the activity because they need to, but rather out of desire. Also, this is purely based on personal choice. Here, people are more focused and appreciate the process more than the end result.

Here, Extrinsic motivation has a few inefficiencies, such as short time span and inconsistent dopamine prediction effect.

Because we aren’t naturally motivated to perform a task, we constantly picture the end goal and how we would feel about it. But the end goal cannot be achieved overnight, it is a process; and it takes time. This nature of goal setting makes extrinsic motivation short-lived and one must constantly get back to such sources to gain motivation.

Another subtle problem with this is that, after a certain point of time, the extrinsic motivation becomes the reward and the dopamine is released right after we gain motivation.

In other words, we become content consuming the content. This leads to no fruitful action and thus no tangible result. Does that sound familiar?

This is exactly where intrinsic motivation fills the gap. Because intrinsic motivation comes from within, one is more attached to the process than the result, and so, the 2 major shortcomings of extrinsic motivation can be overcome.

Intrinsic motivation does sound like a really fancy and too-good-to-be-true thing, right? Intrinsic motivation can be achieved, but it is equally difficult because there is no common solution for everyone. It can be achieved through introspection.

There are many questions you can ask yourself to find your intrinsic motivation. I’ll share 2 questions that give good perspective:

  1. What would you do for the rest of your life if money & society were not a part of the equation? Why would you do that?

  2. What brings you true joy? What activities make you enjoy the process rather than achieve the end goal?

Answering these questions will give you a good perspective on what your intrinsic motivations are.

How can we use Motivation to defeat Procrastination?
  1. Procrastination generally occurs when a task in front of you seems too huge to tackle. Break it down to such an extent that the task in front of you becomes unavoidable. For instance, if you want to read a book, don’t start with reading the first page, rather start with just picking the book and staring at the front page and then proceed by taking smaller steps further.

  2. Identify your intrinsic motivation and use it to execute the tasks rather than relying solely on extrinsic motivation.

  3. Finally, the most important mindset shift that’ll help you win over procrastination is:

“Here on wards, I do what I need to do, not what I want to do.”

This is a compelling mindset shift which gives you an intrinsic motivation to do things. It is this drive that keeps you going even when the task is quite challenging and monotonous. Again, I do what I need to do, not what I want to do.

To conclude, procrastination is a real issue and should not be dismissed as laziness. Motivation can surely act as a tool to get through procrastination and help you be productive. But keep in mind that there is no shortcut to HARD WORK.

It’s cliché but try to re-understand it. For every decision that you take in a direction that “you need to do and not want to do”, you need to start with the first step, and there is no shortcut to step 1. The only thing that is going to help you get to step 1 is the mindset “I do what I need to do, not what I want to do”.

As we know, there is no growth without pain, if you just put your head down, break down your tasks to the simplest of things, and keep moving in the direction without looking up, after a certain point you will have realized how far you’ve come and how much you have grown in life. This is the beauty of life; growth starts with pain, and that’s what makes growth exclusive yet accessible for everyone.


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