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The Science Of Procrastination

Do you ever find tasks pilling up on you? Between our jobs, personal and social lives we are constantly presented with new responsibilities, and as they stack up, it can be tempting to hide away from it all. You are not a bad person for procrastinating. Procrastination is a frustrating and anxiety-inducing experience that many of us have experienced because our brains are wired to prevent us from facing our responsibilities. Procrastination is part of the human experience and despite feeling like a product of our fast-paced modern lifestyle has been recognised and written about by people for thousands of years. Understanding why our brains lead us to procrastination is a great first step towards a more proactive and productive lifestyle. In this week’s blog, I’d like to examine the psychology and science behind procrastination and what we can do to avoid it.

What is procrastination

Simply put, procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing tasks or actions that one should be focusing on, often leading to a last-minute rush to complete them. Often we choose to avoid these tasks or responsibilities because they are difficult, unpleasant or just plain boring. We procrastinate for various reasons, including fear of failure, lack of motivation, perfectionism, or simply because we find more immediate gratification in other activities. However, procrastination can lead to stress, reduced productivity, missed opportunities, and ultimately, lower-quality work. However, the reasons for procrastination are not just simple choices we make to avoid tasks but also involves a complex interplay of various chemical and psychological processes in the brain.

The neuroscience of procrastination

Behind the simple decision to ignore a task and save it till later a series of interactions occur between various parts of your brain and chemicals called neurotransmitters. One of the most important parts of our brain in this process is our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions like planning and self-control. Meanwhile, the limbic system, which governs emotions and reward processing, responds to immediate gratification, pulling our attention away from important tasks. When we procrastinate this is partly due to our limbic system overriding our prefrontal cortex causing us to act more impulsively. Simultaneously, dopamine, one of the key neurotransmitters in mental health we examined in our last blog post can help to reinforce this behaviour by reinforcing the allure of tasks offering instant rewards while overshadowing those with delayed benefits. 

The psychology of procrastination

Understanding the neuroscience behind procrastination helps us to understand the “how” behind procrastination but doesn’t offer us much insight into “why” we procrastinate. Our perception of time and the importance of our tasks plays an important role in our choice to procrastinate or not. Temporal motivation theory (TMT) can help us understand the reasons we choose to procrastinate rather than act immediately. TMT stipulates that our motivation is decided by two key factors: the timing of the task’s deadline and the perceived value or reward associated with completing it. According to TMT, when a task has a distant deadline or its perceived value is low, individuals are more likely to procrastinate because the immediate rewards of delaying the task outweigh its future benefits. 

This phenomenon is often referred to as hyperbolic discounting, where we prioritise short-term gratification over long-term goals. Moreover, TMT suggests that as the deadline approaches or the task becomes more rewarding, our motivation to act increases, prompting us to overcome procrastination and engage in the task. By understanding the dynamics of time and value in motivation, individuals can employ strategies to manipulate these factors, such as breaking tasks into smaller, more manageable parts known as the Pomodoro technique. 

The effects of procrastination

Procrastination doesn’t just result in delayed tasks; it can have far-reaching consequences on one’s mental and physical well-being. Chronic procrastination often leads to increased stress levels as deadlines loom closer and tasks pile up, causing us to feel anxious. Furthermore, procrastination can erode self-esteem and confidence as individuals berate themselves for not meeting expectations. This negative cycle can perpetuate feelings of inadequacy and fuel further procrastination. In terms of physical health, stress caused by procrastination can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to fatigue and reduced immune function. So it is vital we develop coping mechanisms to stop ourselves from procrastinating before we fall into a trap of ill health and negative self-reflection.

Overcoming procrastination

Overcoming procrastination requires a proactive approach that addresses both the underlying causes and the behavioural patterns that perpetuate it. Here are some tips and tricks to help you break free from the procrastination cycle.

  1. Set Clear Goals: Start by setting specific, achievable goals and breaking them down into smaller, manageable tasks. Prioritise your tasks based on importance and urgency to stay focused on what truly matters.
  2. Create a Structured Routine: Establishing a daily or weekly routine can provide a sense of structure and accountability, making it easier to resist the temptation to procrastinate. Allocate specific time slots for work, breaks, and leisure activities to maintain a balanced lifestyle.
  3. Use Time Management Techniques: Explore techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique (working in short bursts with frequent breaks) or time blocking (allocating specific periods for different tasks) to improve focus and productivity.
  4. Avoid Perfectionism: Challenge perfectionistic tendencies by setting realistic expectations. Practice self-compassion and celebrate progress rather than fixating on perfection.
  5. Manage Distractions: Identify and minimise distractions in your environment, whether it’s turning off notifications, decluttering your workspace, or using website blockers to limit access to distracting websites or apps.
  6. Self-Regulation: Strengthen your self-regulation skills by building habits of self-discipline and impulse control. Practice mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing, to stay present and focused on the task at hand.
  7. Break Tasks into Smaller Steps: Overcome the overwhelm of large tasks by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable steps.
  8. Implementation Intentions: Create specific plans for when and where you will complete tasks by using implementation intentions. For example, “When I finish breakfast, I will start working on my presentation.”
  9. Accountability and Support: Share your goals and progress with a trusted friend, family member, or colleague who can provide accountability and support. 
  10. Self-Reflection: Regularly reflect on your procrastination patterns and the strategies that work best for you. Adjust your approach as needed and celebrate your successes, no matter how small.

By implementing these strategies and cultivating a proactive mindset, you can overcome procrastination and create a more fulfilling and productive life. Remember that progress takes time and effort, so be patient and persistent in your journey toward wellness and productivity.

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1 thought on “The Science Of Procrastination

  1. Hi there Ethica,
    I just want to say thank you so much for putting out this excellent, informative blog about ‘Procrastination’.
    I was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis more than 10 years ago. Whilst I have been lucky that it has not been really aggressive, the symptoms of loss of balance, neuropathic pain, fatigue and others affect my every hour. I have remained positive throughout. However I have turned from some one who was full of the joys and energy of living and very organised with everything I do to actually for the most part just looking at what I need to do in my home , family and and work life and just perusing about it. I then just go and sit down and read a book or watch sport on television and reminisce about when I could participate in such activities. Even though I still write myself ‘To Do’ lists they now inevitably rarely get completed and in fact become a source of frustration and self criticism and then I just write another (longer) list. In fact my recent go to opening comment when I communicate with friends is to apologise for the time it has taken me to reply or initiate contact and then explain that procrastination is now a major symptom of my MS. This is the same with official letters as well but I can only really bluff it (my reason for a slow reply) in that regard. So to read your blog and actually print it out for my regular referral to has really helped and shone a little ray of light through my mind to realise that I am actually not going mad and It is not unusual for this mind set to occur. Just one other thing as I am writing. I am 57 years old so since I was a young teenager Ian Botham has been my Icon of a sports star who has just done amazing things with his life. So to see that he is an ambassador for your brand and products is, to my way of thinking, an absolutely 100+% good recommendation and kudos! Thank you so much, Julian Marshall

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