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Neuroscience Behind Procrastination

Article by Danica Piyck

Are you someone who has experienced procrastination? Procrastination (derived from the Latin root prō+crāstinus, meaning ‘of tomorrow’) refers to the act of delaying or avoiding tasks until the very last moment or delayal of tasks past their deadline. Individuals typically find themselves procrastinating on school work, especially around midterm and exam season when deadlines are most prominent.

Have you ever wondered why this phenomenon occurs? Why do we procrastinate? What happens in the human brain to induce procrastination? Let’s delve into the reasons why procrastination occurs and the ways in which we can potentially prevent procrastination in the near future.

Psychologists believe procrastination to be a product of a multitude of variables, including fear of failure, depression, guilt, state anxiety, evening proneness, rebelliousness, indecision, irrational cognitions, public self-consciousness, perfectionism, parental criticism and parental performance expectations. Research suggests that task characteristics (i.e., unclear instructions, the timing of rewards and punishment, and task aversiveness), personality facets (i.e., the five-factor model, motivation, and cognition), and environmental factors (i.e., temptation, incentives, and accountability) are the main determinants of procrastination. Researchers further suggest that a person with procrastination is prone to poor performance, with lower exam scores, slower job promotions, and poorer overall health. Anxiety resulting from fear of failure or fear of success affects the beginning of a project, whereby perfectionism often affects the completion of a task. Furthermore, it is believed that individuals who procrastinate have a diffuse sense of self-identity than those who complete tasks on-time.

When individuals are faced with a task that provokes boredom, disinterest, frustration, or fear, the physiological aspects of procrastination occur in the brain. Scientists believe procrastination to be a result of a continuous battle that occurs between two vital parts of the brain: The limbic system (a brain structure responsible for as vast number of automatic functions, including behavior, emotion, & motivation; once activated, it can modulate reinforcing behaviors and lead to autonomic or endocrine responses) and the prefrontal cortex (a brain structure most commonly involved in processes that distinguish humans from animals, including self-awareness, complex planning, problem solving, learning and memory, executive functions, personality expression, decision making, and social behavior).

Some steps you can take to combat procrastination this school year or in other aspects of your life include incorporating the following suggestions into your daily routine:

  • Set Clear Goals – Define what you want to achieve and break it down into smaller, manageable tasks. Having a clear sense of purpose can prompt motivation.

  • Create a To-Do List – Make a list of tasks you need to complete and prioritize them. Having a structured plan encourages organization and focus.

  • Use Time Management Techniques – Techniques like the Pomodoro Technique (work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break) can help you stay on track and maintain concentration. Sometimes, procrastination happens because a task feels overwhelming; breaking it into smaller, more manageable steps can make it less daunting. Be selective about taking on new commitments; overcommitting can lead to stress and procrastination.

  • Eliminate Distractions – Identify common distractions in your environment (social media is a common one) and take steps to minimize them. This might mean turning off notifications, finding a quiet workspace, or using website blockers to limit access to distracting websites.

  • Set Deadlines – Establish realistic deadlines for your tasks, even if they are self-imposed. Having a sense of urgency tends to reduce procrastination.

  • Use the Two-Minute Rule – If a task can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. This prevents small tasks from piling up and becoming overwhelming.

  • Practice Self-Discipline – Develop self-discipline by building good habits; start with small changes and gradually work your way up to more challenging tasks.

  • Reward Yourself – Offer yourself small rewards after completing tasks or making progress on your goals. Positive reinforcement can reinforce productive behavior.

  • Seek Accountability – Share your goals with a friend, family member, or colleague who can hold you accountable for your progress.

  • Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, can help you stay focused and reduce anxiety, which can contribute to procrastination. Understand why you're procrastinating. Are you avoiding a task due to fear, boredom, or lack of interest? Identifying the root cause can help you address it.

This article is only a brief introduction to the neuroscience behind procrastination. Further research on the topic is highly encouraged; please take a look at the following articles to further expand your knowledge on procrastination:

If interested, a Longitudinal Study of Procrastination, Performance, Stress, and Health research report can be found here:

Read more about the limbic system and prefrontal cortex:

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