The Science Behind Procrastination

Understanding the psychological and neurobiological factors to overcome procrastination and boost Your efficiency

A man study (image created via midjourney)

Procrastination and laziness are two distinct concepts often confused. While both involve a delay in completing tasks, procrastination is an active process, and the intention to delay tasks often induces feelings of guilt and shame during the process. On the other hand, laziness typically refers to the unwillingness to engage in the activity.

Am I procrastinating?

Here are some signs that you might keep an eye on.

  • An item has been sitting on the to-do list for a long time. For me, washing bed sheets and clearing tea stains on my mugs have been there for a few weeks, and I still put them off. 🙈

  • Go with the task that is easier to accomplish with little impact. As I prepared a presentation for the next week, I often decided to listen to some financial news that rarely makes any impact on my current life.

  • Always waiting for a moment that “I feel like…” to do something. For me, this could be doing lots of reading first and feeling inspired to start writing.

Does any of these sound familiar? You are certainly not alone. 95% of people procrastinate to a certain level.

But Why?

To be precise on the science part of this behavior, this can result from several factors.

1/Present Bias

We developed empathy gaps between the future self and the present self. When we plan and set goals, our future self sees the long-term benefits. However, it requires action from our present self, and it seems our future self overestimates the motivation of our present self on seeking long-term value. Our present self LOVES instant gratification. So these empathy gaps make that fancy goal plans unachievable because the emotional state of the present self is missing. And this is also known as Cognitive Dissonance.

Too many psychological terms, huh? Ok, put it simply, how often do you accomplish your new year's resolution? Remember how motivated you are and picture yourself in good shape at the beginning of the year. But in the end, you go to the drive-thru and order fast food for dinner after a long workday. You deserve it, huh? 😏 Or, you know the importance to save for retirement, but you just can’t help but buy that fancy coffee machine. I think you get the idea.

2/Imposter syndrome

You are the expert type of imposter. You don’t feel like you have enough knowledge or skill to complete the task. Hence, you procrastinate as a defense mechanism due to your fear of making mistakes.

3/ Poor organization

You are a dreamer, and you have ideas. However, you don’t know how or what to do to bring it to life. Lack of the ability to break down larger goals is the reason that makes your task challenging and overwhelming. And this could lead to a tendency to delay tasks.

4/ Active Procrastinator

You consider yourself to thrive under pressure, so you have formed a habit of waiting until the last minute, so the sense of urgency motivates you to complete the task. However, be careful to become an annoying colleague. No one would benefit from your annoying working habits.

5/ Overdoer

You know what and how to do and you are confident accomplishing it. But you are finding the right moment or “enough time” to start the work because you need distraction-free to complete the task. Well, this could be a valid reason, but life is chaos. The best moment to start is yesterday, and the second best moment is now!

Enough about the WHY. Let’s see how to overcome procrastination.

Ways to Stop Procrastination

1/Temptation bundling

Temptation bundling is a concept from Katy Milkman, an American economist. She developed the practice to make your task desirable. Things you put off might be tasks you find daunting or dull, so to make them enjoyable, pair them with the activity that you enjoy. For example, I only listen to my favorite podcast when I do chores. If multitasking is not an option, maybe only get your favorite drinks after writing a post. And this can help your present self get the instant gratification you need and work towards the long-term goal that your future self would value.

If you are struggling with imposter syndrome, break big goals into achievable ones, focus on doing instead of finishing, and use visual cues like a to-do list to reward you for each small task you complete. And this can keep you motivated because the released dopamine reinforces the behavior of taking action.

3/ Learn to set clear goals and task management

This method is for disorganized people. If you have no idea what to do to reach your vision, set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals to gain clarity and direction.

  • Specific: complete a professional certification program.

  • Measurable: a total of 200 hours of study and coursework.

  • Achievable: allocate at least 10 hours per week to study.

  • Relevant: obtaining the certification will get a higher chance of a promotion.

  • Time-bound: 6 months period for completion.

After setting achievable tasks, we still only have 24 hours a day, so learning to prioritize what matters most is crucial. Here we could learn Eisenhower's matrix. And this involves categorizing your task into four quadrants, and we prioritize the tasks in the “DO” quadrant.

But what if too many tasks that need to “DO”? Here I will incorporate another strategy I use for my task management. I rated the task effort and looked for the low-hanging fruit first. Those are motivational triggers, with little effort but equipped with a huge impact. When accomplished, the dopamine release energizes me for a more difficult task.

4/ Time-boxing for your peak hours and Pomodoro technique

These are general tricks to get things rolling. Knowing when are your peak hours of productivity and schedule focus time during that period. Since these are your most motivated hours, it would be easier to start a task. Apart from that, the Pomodoro technique can help reduce the anxiety of getting started.

What now?

I hope you find useful information here. Procrastination is a behavior deeply rooted in psychology and neurobiology. By understanding the science behind procrastination, we can adopt practical strategies to overcome procrastination. Of course, forming a new habit takes persistence, but stop fighting alone. Share your story and keep each other accountable. What do you say? 😉

Useful tool

To echo this week’s issue, I recommend Toggl Track. It helps track time spent for your project. You can also block the time on the calendar so you can schedule ahead. It have a visual cue to help you feel satisfied with progress made. It also provide simple Pomodora timer. And it’s free! This is the tool that I used a lot back in the days working at consulting firm. Recommend to people who want more insights on productive work.

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