The Neuroscience of Procrastination

Scientific studies and extensive research in the field of neuroscience have enlightened us with intriguing information about procrastination. This common but potentially debilitating habit is deeply rooted in our brain’s wiring. Procrastination can be viewed as a battle between two neural systems in our brain—the prefrontal cortex, the responsible planning centre, and the limbic system, the pleasure-seeking immediate gratification component. Our limbic system often triumphs over the prefrontal cortex due to its more automatic and instinctive operations. When you understand the neural dynamics, you empower yourself to overcome procrastination by making conscious decisions that favour long-term rewards over instant gratification.

A Research study involving some 250+ people found that there were instances where those who procrastinate have a larger volume amygdala.  The amygdala is involved in assessing risk and threat and those who were nervous about the negative consequences of taking action may hesitate more.

So with the temptation of instant gratification at play and also hesitating because of a fear of making a wrong choice, it’s no wonder we procrastinate.  However, we can be thankful for the gift of neuroplasticity. This simply means we therefore have the potential to change our brain wiring which will help us to overcome procrastination and form new habits.

Forming Habits To Overcome Procrastination

Overcoming procrastination often means rewiring your brain, and this is where the magic of forming new habits comes in. Habits are routines of behaviour that are performed regularly and tend to occur subconsciously. The creation of these automatic routines can be a game-changer in the battle against procrastination. Key habit formation strategies include setting clear and attainable goals, creating a conducive environment, and integrating consistency and repetition into your schedule. Successful people like Elon Musk and Richard Branson have shared how integral habit formation was to their success. Even a simple habit like setting your priorities for the next day every night before bed can significantly reduce procrastination and boost productivity.

So to help here are some simple habits you can consider to help rewire your brain and overcome procrastination.

1. Goal Setting

Creating clear, achievable goals allows your brain to focus on the task at hand and visualize success. This triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation.

2. Breaking Down Tasks

Chunking large tasks into smaller ones helps the brain process information more efficiently, reducing the fear and overwhelm that can lead to procrastination.

3. Consistent Sleep Schedule

Regular sleep patterns improve the brain’s executive functions like planning, attention, and impulse control, reducing the likelihood of procrastination.

4. Meditation

Regular meditation can strengthen your prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for planning and self-control—helping you resist the urge to procrastinate.

5. Physical Exercise

Regular physical exercise boosts the brain’s serotonin levels, enhancing mood and overall brain function, which can increase focus and reduce procrastination.

6. Time Boxing

Assigning specific time slots for tasks trains your brain to focus on one task at a time, improving productivity and minimizing procrastination.

7. Mindful Eating

A healthy diet can enhance brain function, particularly in areas related to impulse control and decision-making, helping you resist procrastination.

8. Visualization

Visualizing your success can stimulate the brain’s reward system, providing the motivation needed to start and complete tasks.

9. Positive Affirmations

Positive self-talk strengthens neural pathways associated with confidence and self-efficacy, reducing procrastination driven by self-doubt or fear of failure.

10. Using Productivity Tools

Regular use of productivity tools like calendars and to-do lists can reinforce your brain’s organizational and planning abilities, reducing procrastination.

11. Regular Breaks

Taking short breaks refreshes the brain, reducing mental fatigue and maintaining consistent productivity levels.

12. Elimination of Distractions

Training your brain to focus in a distraction-free environment can strengthen neural pathways responsible for sustained attention and discipline.

13. Rewarding Progress

Offering yourself rewards can stimulate your brain’s reward system, providing immediate gratification that can motivate you to start tasks sooner.

14. Mindful Procrastination

Acknowledging and understanding why you’re procrastinating can increase self-awareness, leading to better decision-making processes and reduced procrastination in the future.

15. Practice Gratitude

Regularly expressing gratitude can shift your brain’s focus from stress and negativity to positive achievements, boosting motivation and reducing procrastination.

Turning Your Procrastination Into A Call For Action

Procrastination doesn’t have to be your enemy. It can serve as a powerful tool to recognize what truly matters to you and where your motivation lies. The trick is to leverage procrastination as a call to action. When you notice yourself procrastinating, instead of beating yourself up, take it as an opportunity to reassess your goals, refine your plans, and ignite your motivation. Tim Ferriss, the renowned author and entrepreneur, embraced procrastination as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth, leading to groundbreaking results. His procrastination led him to ask himself what he truly wanted to achieve, transforming a potential roadblock into a stepping-stone towards success. Remember, every instance of procrastination can be a powerful trigger for action if you choose to see it that way.

Some Tips To Overcome Procrastination From Linkedin Members

Some years ago some of the magazine asked Linkedin Members for their tips on how to overcome procrastination.  This is what they said.

Len Cavallaro

As a lifelong procrastinator, I sometimes find it difficult to focus until the last minute. Leaving just enough time to get it done works – until it doesn’t. It doesn’t work when other things bubble up and usurp that small window of time you have allotted.  The solution? I have been able to change my definition of “the last minute” to allow for the likely (inevitable?) disruptions. I find I’m able to attain the focus I need while avoiding the stress that comes from slipping into crisis mode.  

Meg Bertini

I tend to have two or three main areas I’m working on at a time, so tend to feel as long as I’m doing something in one of these areas, I’m not procrastinating. As long as things balance out by the end of the week, I feel like I did ok overall. I guess put another way, I use what I have to do in one area to procrastinate when I don’t feel like doing something in another! 

David Matts

Think of procrastination as a cause of stress. It’s always there. It’s something we have to do and will wait till we do it. Procrastination is patient and waits for everyone and it’s a perfect way of keeping our potential history in the future. Without history, there is no future. Life is a gift so if you like to receive it, stop procrastinating, and put your task to history so you can up wrap your next gift. And remember, if you live thinking you’re going to slide into home at death and yell out “WOW, WHAT A RIDE” then obviously you have no room for procrastination. My advice, take the High Road and don’t look back!  

Carol S. Dougherty

I like to think of it as prioritization I put more priority on some things than others.

Robert Huggan

Commitment to 1st two on my Things to-do list is key for me. Review the list before starting any other work, and break down the big projects. 

Jonathan H Sutton

I use the “Stay Focused” APP on Google Chrome and my Smartphone. It blocks distracting websites and apps or can even cut off all access to anything that is not approved for a specified amount of time. 

Paul Kaerger

I block my access to Linked In to stop myself from procrastinating… bother, failed again! I work best when I have a specific goal to achieve.

Kim Wright

How can I arrange my time to do what is most valuable and important to me?  Do I need more information before I can move this forward?  I’ve arranged my life to do the things I love and to minimize the things I don’t. I say “No” often, so my plate doesn’t fill with activities that are not important. 

Monica Bignelli

I take the “lesser of evils” route, which sounds negative but works for me. In other words, I get around to the unpleasant tasks on my list when an even more undesirable task comes along. Also, I’m not beyond rewarding myself when I accomplish a tough “to-do” item; likewise, depriving myself of pleasure when I procrastinate.

Amy Bladen Shatto PhD

You can remind folks that taking breaks makes people more productive (the managing energy body of literature) so we can get in the habit of taking breaks with rewards we plan for ourselves and we get the benefit of nurturing our bodies and minds at the same time.  

Edwin Bozie

Well…you choose. At any point in time, there be three choices you can make, Act sensibly, Act foolishly or just laze around. In any case, you can’t do anything about it unless you choose to avoid it…or then again…you could just choose to face the consequences of procrastination. At least you’ll not be going off half-cocked

Dr Mimi Hull

I often suggest making your “To Do List” before you leave the office and placing it on your desk so you see it as you arrive. Put the item you are most likely to put off, first. Then do it. You will feel accomplished and inspired to complete your list. At home, make your list the night before. You will sleep better! 

Robert Purse

Meetings, always a good opportunity for procrastination, should have a clear agenda (Issued well in advance) and a clearly defined objective/purpose.

Karen Karis

For me, it works best to have an accountability partner. Someone that’s asking the question: when do you think it will be ready? That gets me going. 

Jakki Bendell

I set the alarm on the cooker for 90 minutes. I’ll work intensely until the alarm goes off, and then I have to go downstairs to turn it off (and have a cup of tea, whatever). I’ll either have worked up enough steam to finish the project, or I’ll have a break and switch to a more enjoyable task for 90 minutes. 

Katie Thorpe

How about relabeling it “thinking/planning time”? 

Bernie Nagle

Quite often when I lay something aside, I see it much differently when I return to it. Often I realize it was never intended to be completed in the first place; it was a passing fancy, an ego exercise, retaliation, or a pander. So, indeed, the act of procrastination often provides the space to rise to a higher self, re-prioritize, and get on with things that are important and meaningful.

Nigel Linacre

My favourite technique for small stuff is David Allen’s two-minute rule: if it’s a task that can be done now and will take less than two minutes just do it. This works well in the mornings, but less well in the afternoons. For the big stuff, I try to get still and ask what the universe wants and see what comes up. This helps me regain the plot, even intermittently. 

Anna Marie Carter

Whenever you’re faced with a project that has a “due by date” be sure to frequently check in with yourself by asking: “What’s the best use of my time right now?”… if you are not working on or spending time doing something more important than what you’re procrastinating on — shift gears, and get back on track. Simply distinguishing between what’s important, urgent or necessary right NOW, goes a long way in keeping you from being derailed by procrastination. 

Jeff Goettl

You must first know where you want to go. If you don’t know where you want to go or what you want to achieve, you can still be very busy. You may eliminate your procrastination but you may be working on things that will not move you toward your goals, and as a result, you could end up being very busy wasting time. 

Paul LaRue

I always keep my list of goals in front of me & refer to it throughout the day. Keeps me moving in the right direction, not forgetting what’s important.  

Mark Chapman

I try hard to make the first task of each day the one I least want to do – then it’s out of the way and makes room for other (hopefully more enjoyable) tasks. It doesn’t always work though! I have to say, I find opening my email the worst procrastination of all – as soon as I look at my inbox, it steals an hour or two from what I planned to do. 

So there you have it a comprehensive breakdown of why we procrastinate and some habits and tips on how to overcome procrastination.  Here’s to meeting your deadlines!