The Procrastinating Caveman: What Human Evolution Teaches Us About Why We Put Off Work and How to StopJuly 10th, 2011 · 60 comments
Survivor: Paleolithic Edition
Rewind time 100,000 years ago: several different species of humans co-exist on earth.There was, of course, our own species, Homo sapien, but we were joined by our more athletic siblings from the Tree of Life, Homo erectus, who had left Africa and colonized Asia long before we ventured beyond the mother continent, all the while another sibling, the stocky Neanderthal, was hunkered down in a European ice age.
Advance another 90,000 years, however, and our species is the only game left in town.
Scientists have worked hard to figure out why we survived while other early humans did not. The answer to this question lies at the core of our species’ story, but it also provides insight into a topic of significantly less importance on the grand scale, but nonetheless one that haunts many of us in our everyday lives: procrastination.
The Planning Edge
“The most obvious answer [to the question of Homo sapiens' survival] is that we had bigger brains,” explains paleoanthropologist John Shea, in a recent article from BBC News. “But it turns out that what matters is not overall brain size but the areas where the brain is larger…one of the crucial elements of Homo sapiens’ adaptations is…complex planning.”
Complex planning is a subtle skill: it requires you to both conceive of future steps and evaluate whether these steps are a good idea.
Sharpening a spear and charging a mammoth, and sharpening a spear and throwing it at a mammoth from a distance, are both complex plans. Early Homo sapiens could not only conceive both plans, but they could also notice that the latter plan, with its much reduced risk of trampling, was the better choice.
Scientists now recognize that this skill is one of the key reasons we survived while Homo erectus and Neanderthals did not. It also, as I hinted above, teaches us something interesting about procrastination.
Rethinking Student Procrastination
We suffer from procrastination at all ages, but in this post I want to focus on students, as it’s the group whose work habits I understand the best. Professionals give lots of reason for student procrastination. Here are three examples from a representative university web site on the topic:
- Fear (of both success and failure).
- We think our work is of low quality.
I’m sure these can all play a role in procrastination, but in my experience there’s a fourth reason that’s significantly more common: your brain doesn’t buy your plan.
Let me flesh this out. Assume you’re a student who feels a strong urge to put off studying for an exam. The first question to ask: What is your plan for studying? Most students don’t put much thought into their study habits, so your plan is likely vague and haphazard, rife with distraction, pseudowork, and passive review.
What I’m arguing is that the complex planning component of your brain evaluates this plan — as it has evolved to do — and then rejects it as not sound. (Grinding it out all night at the library is as haphazard a plan as charging the mammoth with a spear: your frontal lobe is having none of it!)
Here’s the second relevant question: What does this rejection feel like? Complex planning is a pre-verbal adaptation, so it’s not going to manifest itself as a voice in your head exclaiming “plan rejected!” Instead, it’s going to be more intuitive: a biochemical cascade designed to steer you away from a bad decision; something, perhaps, that feels like a lack of motivation to get started.
If this explanation is true, then you would also expect that students with smart study habits to struggle less with procrastination. This is exactly what I observed when I studied elite undergrads for my red book: only a small minority of the fifty hyper-organized students I interviewed reported procrastination as a serious problem.
In this telling, procrastination is not a character flaw but instead a finely-tuned evolutionary adaptation. You shouldn’t lament procrastination, but instead listen to it. Treat it as a sign that your skills as a student need more work.
Procrastination Beyond Last Minute Studying
This evolutionary perspective on procrastination applies beyond students putting off school work.
It also helps explain deep procrastination: a sinister variation of this trait that causes students to lose the will to start any work. As I’ve argued, deep procrastination afflicts students who are suffering though hard course loads without a strong sense of why. In other words, deep procrastination can be seen as a rejection of a plan, but this time the plan is on a larger scale: your grand narrative for why you’re at college and how it will help you live a good life.
This perspective also helps us cope with procrastination beyond graduation. Why do we delay on ambitious projects that could change our life for the better? The common explanation from the blogosphere is because we’re afraid of failure and lack courage.
The evolutionary perspective on procrastination, by contrast, says we delay because our frontal lobe doesn’t see a convincing plan behind our aspiration. The solution, therefore, is not to muster the courage to blindly charge ahead, but to instead accept what our brain is telling us: our plans need more hard work invested before they’re ready.
These topics are deep and I hope to address them in more detail in the near future (this post is the first of a several in short summer series I have planned). For now, I want to leave you with the general idea that procrastination is not your enemy. It is instead a constructive source of criticism — a voice from our paleolithic past telling us that although it likes our goals, we need to put a little bit more thought into how we’re going to get there.
If this warning system was good enough to prevent mammoth trampling, it’s certainly good enough to help you finish your term paper without pulling an all-nighter.
(Image by Kevin Dooley)