The Genetics of Procrastination

The link between impulsiveness and procrastination sheds light on why you'll click this—especially if you have something better to do.

Look at this family, sharing genes and procrastinating together. Image: Alma Brown/Flickr

Yesterday, while catching up on my correspondence, I half-excused myself for taking three months to reply to a letter by blaming a procrastination streak exhibited in both my father and his father before him. As it was a letter to my cousin, I also tried to implicate my uncle, just to be safe.

I was really just trying to save face, so you can imagine my surprise to discover my lie had become the truth overnight, and was supported by a study in the journal Psychological Science. Turns out there is a genetic component to doing tomorrow what could be done today.

While the study won’t answer whether or not procrastination is transferred via the Y chromosome as I unwittingly postulated, the team of University of Colorado Boulder researchers managed to uncover procrastination’s link to impulsiveness.

"Everyone procrastinates at least sometimes, but we wanted to explore why some people procrastinate more than others and why procrastinators seem more likely to make rash actions and act without thinking," psychological scientist and study author Daniel Gustavson explained. "Answering why that's the case would give us some interesting insights into what procrastination is, why it occurs, and how to minimize it."

Presumably without wasting even a minute, the researchers got right down to business and started studying human twins. Identical twins—who share 100 percent of their genes—tend to show greater similarities in behavior than fraternal twins, who only share half of their genes like any other siblings.

After having 181 identical twin pairs and 166 fraternal twin pairs complete several surveys intended to uncover their tendencies toward impulsivity and procrastination, and their ability to set and maintain goals, researchers found that procrastination and impulsiveness are both at least moderately heritable. The results of the survey also suggest that the traits could not be separable at a genetic level.

Of course, genes are but a small part of your behavior, and one study that relies on self-reporting is far from the final word on the subject, so it's probably not a great idea to make your genes your go-to excuse just yet.

It’s interesting how, at least in the last few months, it seems like taking surveys is how people procrastinate—that is, unless everyone is really dutifully waiting until all their work is done before determining (and announcing) which Disney princess they are. But the idea of clicking over to be BuzzFed another generous helping of something inane is also a tidy example of the connection between procrastination and impulsiveness—following an impulse instead of following your plan.

Sometimes that means your cousin gets left in the lurch for a couple of months while you sort other things out. The flip side of the coin, though, is that I only finally sat down and wrote a reply on an impulse—while procrastinating from doing my taxes.