Learn the science behind why you procrastinate—and can't seem to stop—plus simple tricks for kicking the habit for good. 

By Amy Spencer and Maggie Seaver
August 27, 2019
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Procrastination is a frustrating, anxiety-inducing internal monologue we pretty much all experience in some form—which is where things start to get interesting. You're not a terrible person, bad employee, or going insane: Procrastination is so relatable and universal because the human brain is actually wired for it. 

The Biology Behind Procrastination

Science explains procrastination as the fight sparked between two parts of the brain when it’s faced with an unpleasant activity or assignment: It's a battle of the limbic system (the unconscious zone that includes the pleasure center) and the prefrontal cortex (a much more recently evolved part of the brain that's basically your internal "planner"). When the limbic system wins, which is often, the result is putting off for tomorrow what could (and should) be done today—which offers temporary relief from that unpleasant feeling of needing and, for whatever reason, not wanting to do something.

Here’s a bit more scientific backup, so you can stop blaming yourself (or your parents or your astrological sign) and start chalking up procrastination to biology. The limbic system, one of the oldest and most dominant portions of the brain, is on automatic. It tells you to, say, pull your hand away from a flame—and also to flee from unpleasant tasks. It's set up to perform your basic survival instincts. In other words, it directs you to opt for "immediate mood repair," explains Timothy A. Pychyl, PhD, a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, and the author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle ($30; amazon.com).

The prefrontal cortex is a newer and weaker portion of the brain that allows you to integrate information and make decisions. "This is the part of the brain that really separates humans from animals, who are just controlled by stimulus," Pychyl says. The prefrontal cortex, located immediately behind the forehead (where we tap when we’re trying to think), gets the job done. But there’s nothing automatic about its function: You have to kick it into gear ("I have to sit down and write this book report!"). The moment you’re not consciously engaged in a task, your limbic system takes over, and you give in to what feels good, which is anything but that book report—you procrastinate.

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How to Break the Habit of Procrastination Using Mindfulness

While understanding these mind games helps demystify our habit of perpetually postponing things, it doesn’t cure the habit. It turns out, one of the best solutions for procrastination is outsmarting it. You can retrain your brain to react differently to an unpleasant assignment or task. How? Mindfulness. But don't be put off by this buzzword—mindfulness is something you can start practicing anywhere, any time, simply by letting your self become fully aware of what's going on, both around you and within you at a given moment. This act of simply becoming aware of and curious about the sensations you experience as the result of X or Y trigger (e.g. I'm hungry; I don't want to send this email; being near this person makes me nervous), is the key to curbing anxiety and breaking negative habit loops—like procrastination.

"Our minds learn through rewards-based learning. Paradoxically, [mindfulness] taps right into the reward-based process to help us step out of it," says Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, the director of research and innovation at Brown University Mindfulness Center, founder of Mind Sciences, and the author of The Craving Mind ($10; amazon.com). "The standard habit loop is: trigger, behavior, reward. It’s set up for survival: You see food, eat food, your stomach sends a dopamine signal to the brain to what you ate and where you found it. But that same thing drives anxiety and worry—and also procrastination. It’s set up as a habit loop." It just works the other way around.

For example, the project or task you need to do is the trigger. The behavior is to avoid it, because it feels better. The reward is the relief you feel from not doing it—which obviously doesn't last. "Because the trigger is unpleasant, the avoidance behavior makes that unpleasantness go away temporarily with this brief relief that then furthers the procrastination cycle," Dr. Brewer says.

"There's a lot of science showing that mindfulness specifically targets these habit loops," he adds. "It helps people do two things: First, it helps us see how unrewarding the old habit is." In other words, simply start to recognize how terrible, anxious, and overwhelmed procrastination makes you feel. Don't judge or chide yourself, simply start becoming aware of it and acknowledge it. You'll begin to recognize how unhealthy and unpleasant it is to make yourself feel that way.

The second thing it does is offer up a better alternative to the previously subpar reward. Tap into the attitudinal quality of mindfulness, which is curiosity. Being curious and engaged with your reactions, emotions, and physical sensations is more rewarding than being disengaged. "We can actually train ourselves to substitute curiosity for procrastination," Dr. Brewer says. "Mindfulness lets us see the [positive] results actually getting our work done."

Dr. Brewer's actionable advice? Just try, one time, doing your work early (or on time, if that's all you can muster—no judgment), without letting it hang over your head. Here's what'll likely happen: "You do the work, you turn off your phone, you get totally engaged in mono-tasking instead of multitasking," he says. "Then just notice what it feels like when you get it done—it feels great. Use mindfulness to help our brain get that information, both when we’re procrastinating and when we’re being productive."

Next time you're putting off a looming assignment, tap into how it makes you feel (anxious, clammy, annoyed, bored?). Then, and just hear us out, try getting it done and noticing the difference in how this better, more sustainable reward makes you feel (accomplished, proud, mentally lighter). And it probably won't be long before you get addicted to this new, positive habit loop.

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