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Every time we swear, “I’m never doing this again!” But then, sure enough, we find ourselves in the exact same position over and over.
We all know procrastination is a bad habit, and yet we regularly find ourselves pulling all-nighters before important deadlines.
Procrastination comes in all kinds of forms, and anxiety, stress, and frustration are all common side effects. Over time, procrastination behaviors can significantly affect your mental health, your relationships, and your overall well-being.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to not procrastinate? Believe it or not, there are several principles in psychology research that can help you stop procrastination in its tracks!
The Psychology of Procrastination
Procrastination is not a personal failing. It is a natural part of how our brains work. The limbic system is a very primitive part of the brain responsible for our base emotions and reactions.
Simply put, when we’re faced with something that our brain perceives as negative (because it will take effort, will prevent us from doing something more pleasurable, or cause us temporary harm), our limbic system says, “No way, let’s do something else.” And so, we often turn to more enjoyable pastimes until the immediate consequence of our procrastination kicks our brain into “fight or flight” mode, allowing us to accomplish our task in a rush of adrenaline.
But our limbic system’s reaction doesn’t mean we’re doomed to procrastinate forever. We also have the prefrontal cortex area of our brain, which is dedicated to more complex brain functions like reasoning and planning. With the right strategies, you can easily use these higher-level thinking skills to overpower your instinct to procrastinate.
These simple brain rules for beating procrastination are based in neuroscience. And they can help you complete even your most dreaded tasks with time to spare!
Brain Rule #1: The Zeigarnik Effect
“You’re more likely to remember unfinished tasks.”
If you find that you’re having difficulty motivating yourself to even think about a task, this effect can help you out. Research has shown that people are far more motivated to work on tasks that are incomplete compared to tasks that they haven’t started yet.
Giving your brain a little bit of information lets it work on the problem or project in the background as you go about your life, and makes it far more likely that you’ll be drawn back to the task well before your deadline.
Try It Out
- Set a timer for as little as five minutes. Do as much as you possibly can on the task in that short time frame, and then walk away. Chances are, your brain will have trouble letting go of the task, and you’ll soon be back to see it through!
- When juggling multiple deadlines, try to avoid multi-tasking or task switching. Because your brain has difficulty letting go of unfinished pieces, it is hard for it to fully switch gears and focus on a new task.
- When working on a big project, try walking away from in it in the middle of a step, paragraph, or thought process. When you come back to it, it will be easier to jump in where you left off.
Brain Rule #2: The Yerkes-Dodson Law
“The right amount of stress paired with the right level of challenge lets your brain work most effectively.”
Stress and the brain have a complicated relationship. Too little stress, and the brain is complacent (a state called “disengagement”). Too much stress, and the brain is flooded by stress hormones that cause it to seize up (a state called “frazzle”). However, at the ideal level of brain engagement you produce just enough stress hormones to keep yourself focused and attentive without becoming overwhelmed.
Psychologists refer to this ideal mental state as “flow“, which people often experience when participating in a task they love, such as playing a musical instrument. Imaging studies suggest that when people operate in a state of flow, even their brain activity is more efficient.
Often procrastinators avoid a project because it doesn’t challenge them enough, resulting in disengagement. But then, as their deadline approaches they quickly reach a state of frazzle and are unable to complete the task effectively. Try modifying either the task you need to complete or your individual stress responses.
Try It Out
- Modify tasks to make them more difficult (i.e. how quickly can you complete it?) or easier (i.e. can you break it into pieces?) as needed.
- Modify your stress reactions by beginning a mindfulness meditation practice using an app on your smartphone. Research shows that mindfulness can modify your brain’s circuits to improve your ability to stay calm (and effective) in stressful situations.
Brain Rule #3: Parkinson’s Law
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
This brain rule is very present in popular culture, thanks in part to 4 Hour Work Week. You hardly need the research for this brain rule (although it exists) because nearly everyone has experienced this phenomenon! Tasks that should take hours are suddenly accomplished in thirty minutes when a pressing deadline appears. Meanwhile, sorting out your sock drawer can somehow take the entire afternoon.
While this brain rule can sometimes help a procrastinator out (many an essay has been written the night before it’s due), but can also seriously take away from your quality of life. Having a project hang over your head for days, weeks, or even months can really affect your mood over time. It’s much better for your mind and body to accomplish your tasks in an appropriate amount of time — no more, and no less.
Try It Out
- Give yourself a realistic amount of time to work on a project — no more, no less. Schedule in other activities to keep yourself motivated and productive. Self-imposed social commitments are a great way to ensure that you get your work done on time!
- Don’t waste time on unimportant distracting tasks. Instead, try working in quick, repeated, and focused bursts using the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break).
- Put pressure on yourself! If you give yourself two years to write your first novel, it will take you that long. Why not aim for six months (or even one month) and see what happens?
Brain Rule #4: The Premack Principle
“Preferred behaviors can be used as rewards for less preferred behaviors.”
Neuroscience 101? Our brains really like rewards. Whether the rewards are big or small, physical or virtual, incidental or intentional, our brains cannot get enough. And if we know a reward is coming? Research shows we’re likely to do just about anything that’s asked of us.
While this rule may seem like common sense, it’s validating to know that your love for rewards isn’t silly. It’s biological. Thankfully, almost anything can count as a reward for your brain when you’re doing something you don’t want to do.
Getting a snack? Reward. Bathroom break? Reward. Stretching? Reward. Five minutes scrolling on Twitter? Reward. It’s easy to work simple rewards like these into your workday without disrupting anyone else or spending a lot of money.
Try It Out
- Plan the rewards you will give yourself for each step of your task before you begin. Follow through on your promises to yourself, or else your brain won’t make the link between your work and the rewards!
- If you are really struggling to find motivation, consider “temptation bundling [Broken URL Removed].” Link something you really don’t want to do (like a report) to something you love (trying out a new coffee shop). Chances are, the positive activity will act as a bribe and convince your brain that your less preferred activity isn’t that bad after all.
- Another way to flip this rule? Research recommends making a preferred activity less interesting. Using annoying self-control tools to limit your access to certain websites or apps can make goofing off way less attractive to your brain. If your favorite distractions become frustrating, it’s much easier to focus on your work!
Brain Rule #5: Ego Depletion
“You have a limited amount of mental resources dedicated to self-control and willpower.”
While this brain rule may sound like common sense, many people don’t realize that it’s true! Every time you force yourself to do something that you do not want to, you use up mental energy.
Research has shown that the more you use your willpower to overcome your instinct to procrastinate on a certain project, the less willpower you have left over for other tasks. (Note: This theory has recently been contested and is now an ongoing debate in psychology!)
Unfortunately, you will always have to use some willpower to get yourself to get over that procrastination hurdle. Thankfully, there are some ways to prioritize your willpower strategically!
Try It Out
- Break your tasks into smaller pieces. The less threatening a task appears to your brain, the less willpower it will take to make yourself begin. For example, set a goal to “empty the dishwasher” instead of “clean the whole kitchen.” Then, once you’ve completed the non-threatening task, move on to a second small goal.
- Do your most dreaded task first. If you complete other, less stressful tasks first it’s possible that you will run out of your willpower stockpile, making it almost impossible to accomplish the task you really want to put off.
- Turn unappealing tasks into habits. As they become a habit, they require less willpower as time goes on. For example, most days you likely don’t use much willpower to go to work in the morning — you just do it. (Bonus: Once a task becomes a habit, you’ll have more willpower left to use on something else!)
No One’s Perfect
While these brain rules are great, just knowing about them isn’t enough to make a change in your habits.
Case in point? Me.
Instead of writing this article in the morning (Rule #5), I completely avoided it all day (Rule #1). Instead, I did all sorts of other preferred activities: convincing my sister to go for a walk, baking cookies, reading a book, watching a movie, and getting completely caught up on social media (Rule #4). Sure enough, it’s now the middle of the night when I’m typing this conclusion (Rule #3), and I had to take some deep breaths to get myself calmed down enough to concentrate (Rule #2).
Interestingly, research indicates that one of the most important things for habitual procrastinators (like myself) to do, is to forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past. When you don’t feel guilty about procrastinating, and recognize that it’s just a biological default (not a personal failing), you can start to break its guilt-induced cycle.
It’s great that you know some science-based ways to avoid procrastination, but now it’s time to put them into practice. Try one (or more!) of the strategies and see if you can overpower your limbic system once and for all! And if you’re not successful, be confident in the knowledge that sometimes procrastination can actually change the world.
Are you procrastinating while reading this article? Or have you found another secret to preventing procrastination forever?
Image Credits: Ollyy/Shutterstock