The Science Behind Causes of Procrastination

You’ve waited too long. Maybe you’re serving scraps for dinner because the pantry is empty. Or your inbox is too full, and your to-do list is too long.

You’re not quite sure how things got this far. Maybe it was the night spent binge-watching Netflix. Or the nap to make up for lack of sleep. Or was it a fear of failure or a need for perfection?

But you’ve managed to push off to-dos to the last minute. You’re a chronic procrastinator.

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What Is Procrastination?

Procrastination is a plague to which we are all susceptible.

Procrastination is avoiding work or tasks by focusing on more enjoyable activities.

We may fall into the trap of blaming ourselves for procrastination. We may think we’re at fault due to a lack of self-motivation, lazy habits, or incompetence.

But in reality, procrastination is chemical. There’s a science to why we prefer relaxing activities to required ones.

Procrastination can also signal that you should evaluate your priorities or are approaching burnout.

This is a battle between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, which are as follows:

  • The limbic system is a set of brain structures containing the pleasure center.
  • The prefrontal cortex controls planning and decision-making but never develops to become as strong as the limbic system.

When the limbic system wins out, we procrastinate.

Types of Procrastinators

There are a few different “types” of procrastinators, each of whom deal with different causes of procrastination:

  • Avoidant procrastinators typically fear either failure or praise.
  • Indecisive procrastinators put off tasks because they can’t decide how to move forward, usually out of fear of choosing wrong.
  • Overbooked procrastinators have too much to do to get to the bottom of their to-do lists. A lack of priorities, indecision, and an inability to delegate mean that tasks don’t get done.
  • Perfectionists might put off finishing a task due to their high standards. Work may never get “finished” if they can’t do it perfectly, causing anxiety and shame.
  • Thrill seekers enjoy the rush of racing to meet deadlines, so they hold off on working to feel that rush.

What to Do When You’re Procrastinating

If you’ve been struggling with an extended period of procrastination, you may find it hard to get things moving again. Here are some tips on how to break that blockage:

  • Break up your to-dos by category — home, kids, hobbies, and work. Decide which type is your highest priority and focus on that list. Highlight the top one or two tasks on that list that you need to do right away.
  • Expand that task into several bite-sized pieces. Do one of these at a time until you’ve finished the task. Move on to the next task and handle it in the same way.
  • Keep going through your items until you’ve got a steady rhythm and feel like you’ve gained control over your tasks.
  • Take 10 minutes and brain-dump your to-dos into a list. Put everything you can think of that you (or someone else) need to do on the page. This will help clear your head so you can focus. Don’t worry if it’s messy or incomplete — you can always add to or refine it later.

How to Overcome Procrastination

Overcoming procrastination is difficult but possible.

Finding your procrastination style and what’s driving that can help. Whether it’s a desire for an adrenaline rush or a fear of failure, naming and facing these causes of procrastination can help.

If you feel overwhelmed by your to-do list and like you’re close to burnout, delegate or offload tasks to others.

The most effective method is taking preventative measures. Schedule and complete tasks ahead of time. Try putting the time you need to do a given job on your calendar.

If overburdened, look at the time you have to do the work and schedule the most important tasks into that time.

Break a task down into bite-sized chunks. You can manage a project one bit at a time and then cross it off when you’ve done it. Work on it a little bit each night, and you’ll have less to do when your deadline rolls around.

Don’t focus on a perfect, finished product but on getting a head start. Use your next work session to refine it.

So get out there and start; you’ll thank yourself later. If you’re still struggling with procrastination, consider seeing a counselor. They might help you figure out what’s standing in your way.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.