Academic Minute Podcast

Alicia Walf, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – Stress and Procrastination

Are you stressed because you’re procrastinating or procrastinating because you’re stressed?

Alicia Walf, senior lecturer in cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, examines this question.

Alicia Walf is a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute whose research interests are fueled by the broad question: Why are there individual differences in stress? This question led to studying hormones’ actions for growth and plasticity in the brain and body. She has since refined her pursuit to include consideration of body, brain, and mind relationships as they relate to memory, perception, social cognition and emotions. Dr. Walf has taken a cross-species and cross-discipline approach in her work. Dr. Walf’s studies of effects and mechanisms of stress and well-being often occur in the “wild,” such as in architectural built environments, artistic installations, interactions with technology, contemplative practices, conference rooms, and classrooms.

Stress and Procrastination


Stress is a necessary part of life. The physiological and psychological function of stress is to refocus our attention on challenges and dangers so that we can deal with them.

But for many people, feeling stressed leads to procrastination, which then leads to feeling badly about not getting things done, which stresses us out even more.

That’s because at a basic neuroscientific level, we have a bias toward the present. We prefer the immediate reward of feeling good when the brain releases the neurochemical, dopamine. Humans have a hard time considering consequences of inaction in the present.

Some people actually procrastinate in order to get that burst of dopamine, giving us energy that motivates us to a quick completion of the task.

Unfortunately, although avoiding the task may make you feel good in the short-term, this is misguided because it begets longer-term negative consequences. This is the crux of procrastination. Our bias toward the here and now tends to produce avoidance of thinking about the long-term until it is too late.

Feeling stressed makes us focus our attention on what is causing the stress and our reactions to it, rather than the task that may be at hand. Even when we are not in immediate danger from what is causing the stress, we can fall into a pattern of overthinking and focusing on the wrong task.

To reduce procrastination, it may be helpful to learn to deliberately refocus attention on what is important by using mindfulness techniques. The science in mindfulness supports a benefit related to the connections between limbic and higher cortical brain structures.

In the end, anything that people can do to refocus and reduce stress may be a useful approach to conquer procrastination.


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