The Genetics of Procrastination

Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if someone delays working on an assignment until right before its deadline for no reason, despite intending to work on it earlier, that person is procrastinating.

Procrastination is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students. It’s associated with a variety of issues, such as worse academic performance, worse employment and financial status, worse emotional wellbeingworse mental healthworse physical health, and delay in getting treatment for one’s issues.

There’s a genetic component to procrastination, which has important implications for understanding who procrastinates, why they do so, and what can be done about it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the genetics of procrastination, and see what its implications are in practice.

 

The genetic heritability of procrastination

Research shows that there is a significant genetic component to procrastination, to traits that are associated with procrastination (e.g., self-control), and to conditions that can lead to procrastination (e.g., ADHD). This means that the ways people procrastinate and their reasons for procrastinating can be influenced by the genes that they inherit from their parents.

Specifically, the key evidence regarding the heritability of procrastination comes from studies on twins, which found that procrastination is moderately heritable. The exact estimates for this heritability vary across studies, based on factors such as the sample and measures that the researchers used. The best-known study on the topic found that almost half (46%) of the variance in procrastination can be attributed to genetic factors, as opposed to environmental ones. However, other studies, including by the same researchers, found lower estimates of heritability, such as 40%, 28%, and 22%.

Based on this, it’s reasonable to estimate, from a practical perspective, that approximately a third (i.e., ~33%) of the variance in procrastination can generally be attributed to genetic causes, or at least around a quarter of the variance (~25%). For comparison, this isn’t far from twin-based heritability estimates for depression (~35%) and anxiety disorders (~30%–50%, depending on the type of disorder), but is much lower than for ADHD (~80%).

The findings on the heritability of procrastination align with findings on the role of genetics when it comes to associated traits, which are strongly associated with the tendency to procrastinate, such as self-control and conscientiousness. Similarly, there’s also a genetic component to some conditions—such as ADHD, depression, and anxiety—that can cause people to procrastinate.

In addition, the genetic components of procrastination are also strongly correlated with the genetic components of associated traits and issues, such as impulsivity, executive functions, and goal-management failure, as well as with their phenotypic manifestation. This suggests that these factors may be partially responsible for people’s procrastination, something that is supported by behavioral research. Furthermore, other types of factors, such as age and dopamine levels, may influence people’s procrastination, and some of these factors, such as gender, may moderate the influence of genetic factors.

There are many caveats about all these findings, such as that, as noted above, they’re influenced by the specific sample and measures that researchers used. This means, for example, that future genome-wide association studies on the topic may find different estimates for the genetic heritability of procrastination than the twin-based estimates.

Accordingly, there are many remaining questions regarding the genetics of procrastination, such as exactly how much of people’s procrastination is attributable to genetic factors. Nevertheless, there is sufficient evidence to show that there is a significant genetic component to procrastination, even if we don’t fully understand it and its magnitude yet.

 

The role of environment in procrastination

Similarly to genetics, people’s environment can influence their procrastination, in terms of factors such as how and why they procrastinate. It can do so in both negative and positive ways, and in both the short term (when it comes to their state procrastination) and the long term (when it comes to their trait procrastination). For example:

  • If a student receives unnecessarily harsh criticism on an initial essay draft, even though they worked hard on it, this could cause them to delay working on the essay, in order to delay dealing with the unpleasant criticism.
  • If a student consistently receives unnecessarily harsh criticism for years, for instance because they have undiagnosed ADHD, this could cause them to delay working on academic assignments, in order to delay dealing with the unpleasant emotions that are associated with those assignments.
  • If a student receives encouragement for working hard on an initial essay draft, even though they made mistakes, this could motivate them to work on the essay on time.
  • If a student consistently receives encouragement for years for working hard even if they make mistakes, this could improve their self-efficacy, which can make them less likely to delay working on academic assignments that they’re given.

Some environmental factors are outside of a person’s control, such as the style of parenting that they experienced as a young child, or the general family environment that they grew up in. Other environmental factors are sometimes—but not always—within a person’s control, at least partially, such as who they socialize with, what outcomes their work can lead to, how organized are the systems (e.g., job or school) that they’re in, what types of deadlines they have, and what type of time-management systems they use.

Environmental factors can influence people’s procrastination through various mechanisms. For example, a distracting environment can make people more likely to procrastinate by making it harder for them to concentrate on their work or by tempting them to engage in other activities.

In addition, environmental and genetic influences can interact in various ways. For example, someone who is genetically prone to impulsivity will be more likely to procrastinate due to temptations in their environment than someone whose genes make them less impulsive. Furthermore, the environment can also play a role when it comes to epigenetics, by influencing the way a person’s genes are expressed, which can play a role, for example, when it comes to various neurobiological mechanisms involved in procrastination.

As with genetics, the exact way in which a person’s environment influences their procrastination is unclear, and there is much we do not yet know for certain. Nevertheless, it is clear that environmental factors have a significant effect on people’s procrastination, and that some of these factors are within people’s control, at least partially, while others aren’t.

 

Implications of the genetics of procrastination

The genetic heritability of procrastination means that some people are more likely than others to procrastinate due to their genes, or are more likely to procrastinate in certain ways and for certain reasons. However, there are two important caveats about this.

First, the influence of genetics varies based on many factors, such as the population that a person belongs to, and the specific causes of that person’s procrastination (e.g., ADHD vs. depression).

Second, people’s genes (sometimes referred to in this context as their nature) are responsible for only a portion of their procrastination, as their environment (sometimes referred to in this context as nurture) also plays a substantial role. This means, for example, that some people procrastinate a lot despite being genetically predisposed not to, and conversely, that other people don’t procrastinate despite being genetically predisposed to doing so.

As such, although people’s genetics influences their procrastination, it’s not the only factor that does so. This means that even people who are predisposed to procrastination can generally overcome their procrastination or at least reduce it, and this is supported by behavioral research which shows that it’s possible to reduce procrastination using various interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

 

How to stop procrastinating

As discussed above, even though there’s a genetic component to procrastination, it has only a partial influence on people’s tendency to procrastinate. This means that you can likely reduce or overcome procrastination, by using anti-procrastination techniques such as the following:

  • Set concrete goals. For example, instead of a vague goal, such as “work on this paper next week”, set a concrete goal, such as “starting Monday, work on this paper each day for two hours in the afternoon, and have a first draft ready by Friday”.
  • Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you have a large project that feels overwhelming, such as writing a research paper, you can break it down into a series of small steps, such as creating an outline, finding relevant resources, and writing the introduction.
  • Start with a tiny step. For example, you commit to writing only a single sentence or exercising for only 2 minutes, while giving yourself permission to stop after taking that tiny first step, to reduce the pressure associated with getting started.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re writing a paper, accept that your work won’t be perfect, especially when it comes to the first draft.
  • Figure out what you’re afraid of, and address your fears. For example, if you realize that you’re afraid of getting negative feedback from someone who isn’t really important, you can tell yourself that their feedback doesn’t matter.
  • Prepare for future contingencies. For example, figure out which distractions might tempt you to procrastinate, and plan how you will deal with them.
  • Switch between tasks. For example, if you’re stuck on a task and can’t make progress, switch to a different task until you’re ready to go back to the first one.
  • Schedule your work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning, then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible.
  • Improve your work environment. For example, if your current work environment has a lot of irritating background noise, get noise-canceling headphones or go somewhere quieter.
  • Improve your social-support network. For example, you can find a role model to imitate or an authority figure to hold you accountable, or you can associate with people who motivate you to make progress while minimizing your contact with people who make you feel stressed.
  • Get enough rest. For example, if you need to work hard on tasks that require deep concentration, make sure to take enough breaks that you don’t get burnt out. To encourage yourself to do this, you can remind yourself that even if getting rest can reduce your productivity in the short term, it will often be much better for you in the long term, both in terms of your productivity and in terms of your wellbeing.
  • Develop self-efficacy. Specifically, this is your belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals. You can develop it in various ways, such as identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
  • Forgive yourself for past procrastination. For example, if you need to get started on a task that you’ve been postponing for a long time, you can say “I shouldn’t have postponed this task in the first place, but that’s in the past, and what’s important now is to move on and just get this done”.
  • Develop self-compassion. Specifically, you should develop the three components of self-compassionself-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Acknowledge and reward your progress. For example, you can treat yourself to some pleasant treat once you’ve managed to achieve your study goals for a week in a row.

In addition, when figuring out which anti-procrastination techniques to use, it can help to first identify the causes of your procrastination, since this will help you find the techniques that are most relevant in your particular situation. This is because, for example, if you procrastinate due to underlying anxiety, then your solution will likely be different than if you procrastinate due to ADHD, or if you procrastinate due to abstract goals.