The Neuroscience Behind Procrastination (And How To Easily Overcome It)

Procrastination is a big problem for many of us.

We say we'll work on our goals, hit the gym, or learn some new skills, only to end up watching Netflix instead.

I used to be a chronic procrastinator too. 

I'd set big goals and make ambitious plans, but not much was getting done on a day-to-day basis.

Most people think that procrastination is due to laziness, no motivation, or lack of self-discipline.

But as it turns out, procrastination finds its roots in neurobiology.

It's the result of a constant battle in our brain between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

The Prefrontal Cortex: The Long-Term Thinking Part Of The Brain

The prefrontal cortex is the logical and analytical part of the brain responsible for future planning, self-control, and decision-making.

As Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a leading expert in the field of procrastination research, says:

"The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that governs our ability to regulate behavior, including resisting the temptation of immediate gratification in favor of long-term benefits."

In short, the prefrontal cortex helps to keep our impulses in check and understands the importance of delaying gratification to create a better future.

If you want to stop procrastinating, it's essential to keep this part of the brain in optimal condition (more about that later).

The Limbic System: The Impulsive Part Of The Brain

The limbic system is the emotional and impulsive part of our brain. 

This is often called our 'reptile' brain, as it's a much older part of the brain (from an evolutionary perspective).

As Dr. Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, says:

"The limbic system reacts to immediate sensory information, such as pleasure and pain, without thinking about future consequences." 

In other words, the limbic system is more impulsive and prone to choosing instant gratification, even when it conflicts with our long-term goals. 

For example, when your long-term goal is to get in shape, but you end up binge-watching Netflix for hours, it's the result of your limbic system overriding your prefrontal cortex.

Why The Limbic System Often Beats The Prefrontal Cortex

From an evolutionary perspective, the prefrontal cortex is a newer and less developed part of the brain compared to the limbic system. 

As a result, the prefrontal cortex is 'weaker' than the limbic system. 

That's why, when we face a task that presents some degree of boredom, complexity, or fear, the limbic system often overrides the prefrontal cortex.

Despite our good intentions and long-term goals, we end up giving in to procrastination and immediate gratification more than we'd like.

As Dr. Timothy Pychyl wrote in his book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle:

"When there's a conflict between immediate gratification and a long-term goal, the limbic system often wins because it's older in an evolutionary sense and has a more direct influence on our behavior."

Instead of trying to motivate yourself or beat yourself up over a lack of discipline, it's more effective to practice specific habits that help the prefrontal cortex win the battle against our lazy, impulsive limbic system.

We'll go over five of these habits right now.

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Habit #1: Practice Task-Chunking

The easier a task or project is, the less the limbic system will protest against it.

That's why task-chunking is highly effective:

Divide a big, overwhelming task or project into multiple bite-sized tasks so that it becomes easier to tackle.

For example, whenever I'm writing a new article, I chunk it into multiple sub-tasks:

  • Create blog outline
  • ​Write part 1 initial draft
  • ​Write part 2 initial draft
  • ​Add scientific studies
  • ​Write headline
  • ​Format blogpost
  • ​Proofread & edit blogpost

Instead of having one big, intimidating task in front of you (which the limbic system doesn't like), chunk it into multiple bite-sized tasks that can easily be completed one at a time.

Habit #2: Do Hard Tasks Early In The Day

One of my foundational productivity rules is to complete my most important, most challenging task of the day before I work on anything else.

Research shows that as the day progresses, we get exponentially worse at self-control, focusing, and processing information.

The later it gets, the more our energy depletes, and decision-making fatigue kicks in, which puts our limbic system in the driver's seat.

In other words, tackle your hardest tasks early in the day to avoid procrastinating on them.

Habit #3: Optimize Your Energy

Studies show that people who are sleep-deprived experience reduced cognitive performance and suffer an overall 29% productivity loss the next day.

That's because, when you're fatigued, the limbic system is in full control of your decision-making process, which usually triggers procrastination.

Since the prefrontal cortex is a relatively newer and weaker part of the brain, it requires more energy to stay in control. 

That's why it's essential to prioritize healthy habits, such as:

  • ​Sleep 7–8 hours per night
  • ​Exercise at least 4x per week
  • ​Move more throughout the day (stretch regularly, take walks, avoid sitting for hours in a row)
  • ​Eat foods high in nutritional value
  • ​Stay sufficiently hydrated

In my experience, productivity is at least 80% biology. 

By prioritizing my health, being productive requires a lot less mental effort  -  and motivation seems to be a natural byproduct of feeling energized. 

In short, prioritize your health and energy to help your prefrontal cortex stay in control of the decision-making process.

Habit #4: Minimize Distractions

When distractions are within easy reach, the limbic system senses a quick and fun escape from our tasks or goals.

In most cases, working on our goals is more challenging, energy-intensive, and less stimulating than most distractions, which is why our brain gravitates towards distractions.

Many of today's digital distractions have been purposefully designed to hijack our brain's reward pathways (specifically the dopamine system), which makes them so addictive.

In fact, there's a financial incentive to get you hooked on these digital distractions. For example, the more time you spend on a social media platform, the more money they make through advertising revenue. 

In essence, your attention is their business model. 

That's why you need to remove high-dopamine distractions from your (work)environment if you want to keep the prefrontal cortex in the driver's seat and prevent procrastination.

Habit #5: Meditation

I've noticed that after a few weeks of consistent meditation (10 minutes per day), I automatically start making better decisions.

I procrastinate less, spend less time on low-quality distractions, and overall make healthier and more productive choices.

But that's no coincidence. 

Research by Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, has found that meditation has a positive effect on the brain. 

"We found that the more hours a person had been practicing meditation, the more profound the changes were in the brain," she stated.

Lazar's study specifically found that frequent meditators had increased grey matter in their prefrontal cortex.

In simplified terms, the more grey matter in someone's brain (or a specific region of the brain), the more effective their brain (or brain region) is.

Furthermore, research has found that frequent meditation decreases activity in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. 

In other words, meditation helps to build a better-working prefrontal cortex and keep our limbic system under control, which puts us in a much better position to overcome procrastination.

Use Neuroscience To Beat Procrastination

All in all, practice habits and productivity techniques that support your prefrontal cortex, so it's more likely to overrule the impulsive and short-term oriented limbic system.

Instead of blaming yourself because you're not disciplined enough or you lack motivation, it's more productive to use neuroscience to your advantage to beat procrastination.

About The Author

Jari Roomer is the founder of Personal Growth Lab.

It's his mission to optimize human performance through science-based tools and routines.

His work has been featured in Foundr Magazine, The Huffington Post, and Forbes.

Follow Jari on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Medium, for more science-based peak performance tips.

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Hi, I'm Jari Roomer

Founder Personal Growth Lab

At PGL, we share science-based tools and routines to optimize your health, cognitive performance, and productivity.

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