Why Your Procrastination Habit Maybe Isn't Your Fault

A blog about business and economics.
April 21 2014 3:45 PM

Do Your Genes Make You Procrastinate?

107793036-participant-sits-with-a-laptop-computer-as-he-attends
What a fun way to "work."

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Procrastinators, in my experience, like nothing better than explaining away their procrastination: General busyness, fear of failure, and simple laziness are just a handful of the excuses and theories often tossed around. Now researchers from the University of Colorado–Boulder have added another option to the list: genetics.

According to a new paper published in Psychological Science, the traits that lead to both procrastination and impulsivity are "moderately heritable." For procrastination, that hereditability was measured at 46 percent; for impulsivity, 49 percent. In other words, nearly half of what makes you procrastinate and act impulsively might not be your fault.

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"The most interesting thing is that genetically they seem to be related, which suggests that they've sort of evolved together," said Daniel Gustavson, lead author on the paper. "We also learned that a lot of what makes people procrastinate and what makes them impulsive might be them specifically forgetting about their goals and not necessarily delaying as much."

To conduct the study, researchers analyzed responses to questionnaires from 663 same-sex twins. Respondents were, on average, about 23 years old and were considered representative of the general population in terms of cognitive ability. The questionnaires were designed to measure procrastination, impulsivity, and goal-management failures.

While the study shows that there is some degree of overlap between procrastination and impulsivity, the researchers stress that it's hard to identify causation. Is procrastination an evolutionary byproduct of impulsivity? Or do we act impulsively because we box ourselves into tight corners by procrastinating, and force quick decisions? Those questions still stand.

For now, procrastinators everywhere should take heart in gaining what could be the best excuse yet for their inordinate thumb-twiddling: blaming it on Mom and Dad. But even if the research supports this, it might not go over so well at home.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

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