The Neuroscience of Procrastination 

2Why do we struggle with procrastination? It can be frustrating at times to lose focus, especially when you have something important to complete. But what is the neuroscience behind procrastination? What is happening inside our brains when our attention wavers and we find ourselves doing something other than the task we need to do? Read on to find out more about what procrastination is and why as humans we sometimes find it difficult to focus on one task at a time.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is when you avoid work or a task you need to complete to do a more satisfying activity. An example of procrastination is scrolling on your social media instead of revising or watching television instead of completing an important work task. We all procrastinate. There are also different types of procrastinators, these include the avoiders, the indecisive, and the thrill-seekers, which do you resonate with the most? The indecisive procrastinators put off tasks to avoid the blame for a sub-par end product, the avoiders procrastinate because they fear being judged for unsuccessful or even successful work and the thrill-seekers enjoy the rush of adrenaline they get when they are closer to the deadline, so they wait until the last minute to complete the task.

The science behind procrastination

Procrastination isn’t just laziness, a lot is going on in our brains when we lose focus. There is an ongoing battle between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. To put it simply, the limbic system is one of the oldest and most dominant parts of the brain that is in control of your automatic responses and the prefrontal cortex is a newer, less developed part of the brain that is in charge of your emotions, personality and making decisions. It’s two completely different systems fighting each other and because the limbic system is much stronger, procrastination occurs more easily. The human brain loves to receive instant rewards and when we distract ourselves from a task that we don’t want to do and do something that we enjoy, we go for the dose of dopamine at the moment and worry about the consequences of losing focus later.

Did you know that there are structural differences between the brains of procrastinators and non-procrastinators? There have been studies that have tried to answer the question of whether we are born this way. Does the way our brain develops affect our ability to concentrate as individuals? The results of this particular study were not conclusive, as many scientists got in the nature vs nurture debate. 46% of participants in the study were procrastinators due to specific gene variants, however, this isn’t taking our environment into account which can also affect our brain’s development.  

Researchers in Germany also tried to find out if the different structures of the brain were the reason that some people procrastinate more than others. They found out that the brains of the procrastinators had a larger amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and is known for how our body reacts in fight or flight mode. The evidence suggested that those who procrastinate tend to react to situations with an emotional response, they don’t want to feel the negative emotions of the experience, so their response is to avoid the task.

Another factor is how our brains perceive the future. Research by a social psychologist at UCLA revealed due to evidence during an MRI that when we think of our future self, the same parts of the brain light up when we think about our present self. This means that we want to feel good in the present moment, just as much as we want to feel good in the future. It is human nature to seek pleasure, which is why we might distract ourselves with more enjoyable activities rather than completed the mundane tasks that we need to complete.

Overcoming procrastination

Can we overcome procrastination? It can be difficult when your instinct is to distract yourself but the best way to overcome procrastination is to give your prefrontal cortex a little help to fight against the lazy limbic system. Due to the neuroplasticity of our brains, we can overcome procrastination by following these few tricks:

  • Create smaller chunks – make the tasks feel more manageable by breaking them up into smaller tasks, do one at a time and then take a break
  • Do the worst task first – you will feel more productive if you put the most dreaded task or the one that will take the longest at the top of your priority list
  • Give yourself a reward – when you have completed a task, reward yourself, this way you are still allowing yourself to procrastinate but only when you have finished a specific task
  • Change your goal – look at your current goal and ask yourself if it is currently realistic, if it isn’t, consider changing it to a more manageable goal

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, remember that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can regain your focus, you can change the way your brain works and you can get all your tasks done and achieve your goals. Be strict with yourself, be organized, and find the perfect balance between studying and spending time doing what you love to do. It’s entirely possible and StudyStream will be there to help you and motivate you when you need it. Check out our focus rooms to find your focus and stay accountable to your goals to achieve success. 

Written by: Emma-Jane Barlow
Company: StudyStream
Type of content: Article
Wordcount: 928 words
Date: 2022
Other: Written in American English