Always Late? Blame Your DNA

Does scraping by on the skin of your teeth make you excited?

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I have worked with thousands of procrastinators who either have trouble getting started on a project or following through on it. Usually their behavior is a way of avoiding something they fear such as success, failure, ridicule or worry about the future. However, there is another kind of procrastinator who compulsively leaves things until the last minute. You may be amazed to find that this particular behavior is not caused by fear, but may actually be linked to a genetic problem.


That was the case with my client Stella, a successful and energetic woman who had many interests and obligations. Stella asked me to help her overcome her chronic stress. She complained that she had so many things to do and so many appointments and meetings to attend due to her community involvements, hobbies and job, that she was always behind. She felt frantic trying to accomplish her goals at the last minute.  

It was common for Stella to leave work and race across the city during rush hour to get to a board meeting or class. She felt pulled and pressured all the time. There were constant deadlines hanging over her. She barely made them by the skin of her teeth. In our counseling sessions, I tried to help Stella learn to organize her time better. She worked on becoming more realistic about what was achievable. She began to set priorities and let go of some of her commitments. Soon she noticed that she was making progress. 


Surprisingly, a few weeks later Stella reported that although she was less stressed she wasn't happy. She missed the "zing" she felt when she made it to a meeting at the last second or tried to beat red lights or freeway traffic on her way to a class. The thrill of the challenge was gone, and she wanted it back! She decided to stop trying to change, said goodbye and left my counseling. 

I have thought about Stella over the years and puzzled over her decision until I read an article about thrill seekers explaining that this kind of behavior may be related more to our biology than psychology. Apparently, some people need more stimulation than most of us in order to feel good. We call them T-type personalities.  Scientists who have studied this problem believe that cortisol, the hormone related to stress, may be a factor. Studies show that low cortisol levels are associated with sensation seeking in men. What stresses other people doesn't seem to stress them. These men tend to "up the ante" in order to feel excitement.

That was true of my other client Brad, a very successful business owner. Although Brad made lots of money, he often put himself into a state of high anxiety by spending so much that he almost didn't make enough to pay his employees. One month just before the paychecks were due, he treated himself to a brand new foreign sports car that cost a fortune, He was stressed and his marriage was falling apart because of this strange compulsion. Yet he always managed to keep his head above water.

It is possible that thrill seekers are born that way. Geneticists have discovered that there is actually a "novelty-seeking" gene that relates to the brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine motivates us to take action and can also drive our motor system. The release of dopamine drives us toward a goal, helps energize us and keeps us focused.  


In people hooked on excitement, lack of dopamine makes them edgy. Specialists who have studied sensation seeking discovered that for people with this type of brain chemistry, it is necessary to do more than the average person in order to stimulate their ability to feel excitement. That's why sensation-seekers need riskier and riskier thrills to get the same kick the rest of us.

Some of these people also resort to drinking, drugs, sex, gambling and antisocial behaviors. Maybe that's what Stella meant when she said she missed the rush she got when she was trying to juggle all her obligations. Some people get thrills from sky diving, gambling, travel or partying. Stella and Brad created their own kind of excitement to raise their cortisol level by creating a life where they were always in a last minute crunch.

I have observed that many people who procrastinate and leave things for the last minute are unconsciously creating situations that force them to stress themselves. Therefore, they have to exert prodigious amounts of energy to complete the task. They arrive at the theater as the curtain goes up, or get to the airport just before the plane takes off. I would be a mess if I had to experience that sort of pressure, but these folks seem to take it in their stride. In fact, it makes them feel good. They don't seem frazzled or worried. It is just their dopamine at work!   

Do you find yourself caught between the thrill of the last minute rush and the negative consequences that result? Consider whether you want to continue acting like this or if you want to do something about it. Since T-types have a biological tendency to raise their cortisol levels and their dopamine through risky activities, you can begin by becoming aware of your patterns. If your behavior hurts you more than helps you, perhaps you can look for new and different ways to add thrill to your life that do not affect you or others adversely.  


Stop criticizing yourself for being a last minute person. Like Stella, get used to the idea that you need more "thrill" than most people do and explain to your spouse, co-workers and friends that what annoys them about your behavior may be due to a glitch in your brain chemistry. It is your decision whether you want to control this tendency to be a last minute person, forget about it entirely or find a different way to include thrilling experiences in your life.

Some alternative activities that can fulfill your need for excitement are enjoying intense rock or rap music, watching horror movies or traveling to adventurous locales. Sensation seeking can also involve extreme sports such as skydiving, hang gliding, scuba diving, auto racing, rock climbing and whitewater rafting.

Take advantage of a FREE consult with Gloria to discuss the thrill seeker in your life.


Read Gloria's book, EFT For Procrastination to find out more about this widespread problem.

Download Gloria's FREE eBook Creating Happiness now.