Neurocognitive basis of procrastination: the need for more startlines than deadlines
By Michael Cole
Research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience has provided evidence that goals are maintained by sustained goal representations in prefrontal cortex (Miller & Cohen, 2001). Such goal representations contain details regarding the final goal state, in addition to various means to attain that goal. Goal representations are thought to be formed by co-activation of existing goal-relevant representations during goal creation (O’Reilly & Frank, 2006). Deadlines are goal-relevant representation that are often co-active with the decision to create a goal. It is therefore likely that deadlines are often embedded within a goal representation inappropriately, biasing goal-related actions to be carried out close to the emphasized time of the deadline (rather than spread out over the allotted time before the deadline). This would push the human brain’s control system toward procrastination. A possible work-around to this problem may be to set “startlines”, emphasizing when serious progress toward a goal (or subgoal) should have begun. Final deadlines will likely remain important in many domains, but one or more salient startlines may be useful for encouraging more on-time and higher quality goal-directed output.