How the Brains of Doers and Procrastinators Differ

One of the ways into which people can be divided is  whether they are action-oriented or state-oriented. Action-oriented individuals easily get over any anxiety or agitation they feel about a task and just get on with it. They're the doers. State-oriented individuals, on the other hand, find it difficult to overcome their anxiety, agitation, dejection, confusion, or even uncertainty. They're often procrastinators. And the brains of doers and procrastinators differ.

Key Takeaway

Procrastinators tend to be state-oriented. They have higher amygdala volume, leading to higher levels of fear and hesitation. In addition, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex of state-oriented individuals fails to regulate the amygdala adequately. But, the brain is plastic and changes with experience. This means that you're not doomed to live with your fear-motivated brain. There are things you can do to overcome procrastination and retrain your brain. 

There are simple lifestyle changes that we can make to reduce our risk of dementia and disability in later life. These include managing blood pressure controlling cholesterol, keeping blood sugar normal, getting physically active, eating a healthy diet, losing extra weight, quitting smoking, maintaining social relationships, and managing depression and hearing loss.

Researchers from Ruhr-University Bochum wanted to know how the brains of action-oriented individuals (the doers) differed from those of state-oriented individuals (the procrastinators). To answer this question, they scanned the brains of 264 participants. Before the participants went into the scanner, they measured their action orientation using the Action Control Scale, containing questions, such as: 

When I do not have anything in particular to do, and I am getting bored:

A) I have trouble getting up enough energy to do anything at all (state-orientation).

B) I quickly find something to do (action-orientation).

They found that state-oriented individuals had higher amygdala volume than action-oriented individuals. The amygdala is a brain region that is known to process fear and is involved in risk assessment and decision-making. It is structurally and functionally connected with a large number of cortical and subcortical structures. The researchers were particularly interested in the amygdala's connection with the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), a structure that is involved in decision-making. 

What they found was that participants who were more action oriented showed higher resting-state connectivity between the amygdala and the dACC. The dACC is involved in self-regulation and exerts a top down regulation of the amygdala. When the connectivity between the amygdala and the dACC is low, as it is with state-oriented individuals, the top-down regulation of the amygdala is insufficient which could lead to more fear-based decisions.

There are a couple of significant things about this research:

  • State-oriented individuals have higher amygdala volume and insufficient regulation by the dACC. "The amygdala is known to be a neuroanatomical hub for fear-motivated behavior." The thinking is that people with a large amygdala have learned from the past "and evaluate future actions and their possible consequences more extensively. This, in turn, might lead to greater concern and hesitation." And the dACC fails to inhibit this excessive hesitation.
  • The connectivity between the amygdala and the dACC was measured while the participants were at rest. This is especially important because state-oriented individuals often find it difficult to start a task. This research shows that the dACC exerts weak influence over the amygdala while at rest, before starting an action.

To summarize, state-oriented individuals have larger amygdalas and show weaker inhibition of the amygdala by the dACC. They are more prone to procrastination and other fear-motivated reasons for delaying an action.

But this doesn't mean that state-oriented individuals are doomed to live with their fear-motivated brains. The brain is plastic and changes with experience. Which is a good thing.

Here are some things you can do:
  • Break down your big tasks or goals into small, even tiny, tasks that you can succeed at. This will reduce the fear and start to get you moving forward.
  • When you have success on a task, the brain releases dopamine, a feel good neurotransmitter. And dopamine makes it more likely that you'll succeed on your next task. This is the secret to motivation: structure your day as a series of small tasks to keep your dopamine levels up.
  • Accept that you're feeling anxious or fearful. Acceptance reduces the emotional charge and the amygdala activation. Acceptance doesn't mean liking the feeling; it just means acknowledging that it exists. Labelling your feeling also works in the same way. This may get you moving forward.
  • Wait 10 minutes before you giving into checking your email, going onto social media, or giving into that craving, and notice the sensations you're feeling. Psychologists call this "surfing the urge" and, together with accepting your sensations, the urge may dissipate. At the very least, you'll be more mindful of why you procrastinate.

Yes, this does take some effort, but retraining your brain does require effort. And, in the long run, it's worth it. Waiting until you "feel like it" is a big lie. If you wait until you "feel like it", you sabotage your potential to do great things.

What have you tried that gets you moving forward? Please let me know by leaving a comment below.


Schlüter, C., Fraenz, C., Pinnow, M., Friedrich, P., Güntürkün, O., & Genç, E. (2018). The Structural and Functional Signature of Action Control. Psychological Science29 (10), 1620–1630. doi:10.1177/0956797618779380

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

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