Volume 10, Issue 4 e1492
Advanced Review

To do it now or later: The cognitive mechanisms and neural substrates underlying procrastination

Shunmin Zhang

Shunmin Zhang

Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing, China

Search for more papers by this author
Peiwei Liu

Peiwei Liu

Department of Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida

Search for more papers by this author
Tingyong Feng

Corresponding Author

Tingyong Feng

Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing, China

Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality, Ministry of Education, Southwest University, Chongqing, China

Correspondence

Tingyong Feng, Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing, China.

Email: [email protected]

Search for more papers by this author
First published: 14 January 2019
Citations: 36

Funding information: National Natural Science Foundation of China, Grant/Award Number: 31571128; Scientific innovation projects for postgraduates in Chongqing, Grant/Award Number: CYB18112

Abstract

Procrastination, the voluntary and irrational delay of an intended course of action, has troubled individuals and society extensively. Various studies have been conducted to explain why people procrastinate and to explore the neural substrates of procrastination. First, research has identified many contributing factors to procrastination. Specifically, task aversiveness, future incentives, and time delay of these incentives have been confirmed as three prominent task characteristics that affect procrastination. On the other hand, self-control and impulsivity have been identified as two most predictive traits of procrastination. After identifying contributing factors, two important theories proposed to explain procrastination by integrating these factors are reviewed. Specifically, an emotion-regulation perspective regards procrastination as a form of self-regulation failure that reflects giving priority to short-term mood repair over achieving long-term goals. However, temporal motivation theory explains why people's motivation to act increases when time approaches a deadline with time discounting effect. To further specify the cognitive mechanism underlying procrastination, this study proposes a novel theoretical model which clarifies how the motivation to act and the motivation to avoid vary differently when delaying a task, explaining why people decide not to act now but are willing to act in the future. Of note, few recent studies have investigated neural correlates of procrastination. Specifically, it was revealed that individual differences in procrastination are correlated with structural abnormalities and altered spontaneous metabolism in the parahippocampal cortex and the prefrontal cortex, which might contribute to procrastination through episodic future thinking or memory and emotion regulation, respectively.

This article is categorized under:

  • Economics > Individual Decision Making
  • Psychology > Theory and Methods
  • Psychology > Emotion and Motivation
  • Psychology > Reasoning and Decision Making

Graphical Abstract

People would decide to do a task only when the effect of future incentive outcome is stronger than task aversiveness. Delaying a task can increase the time distance between the current self and task aversiveness, relieving the current self from the negative emotion. On the other hand, delaying a task narrows the time distance between the task and future incentive outcome, increasing motivational effects of future incentive outcomes on the delayed task. In addition, individual differences in procrastination are correlated with structural abnormalities and altered spontaneous metabolism in the parahippocampal cortex and the prefrontal cortex, which might contribute to procrastination through episodic prospection or memory and emotion regulation, respectively.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST

The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.