“The Real Science of Procrastination: How to Overcome It and Move Beyond the Myth of Laziness”


Technology is advancing fast and faster every day. Smart phones have turned us into cyborgs. We can do anything and everything with the small device in our hand and then document it all on social media. As a result, it’s easier now more than ever to fall into the trap of procrastination. While commonly mistaken for laziness, procrastination is a complex behavior with a ton causes. I’ve never been lazy, one of the best traits I picked up from my parents is the importance of working hard. However, I used to procrastinate terribly, and it would cause me a ton of anxiety. Not because I was worried I wouldn’t get the task done last minute (actually I was very confident I would). The anxiety came from thinking I was being lazy every time I procrastinated.

Understanding Procrastination: It’s Not Just Laziness

People often think putting things off is just being lazy. But there’s a difference. Procrastination is when you want to do something but delay doing it, while laziness is simply not wanting to do anything at all. Understanding this difference helps us figure out why we sometimes drag our feet.:

  1. Fear of Failure: Often, being scared of messing up or not living up to expectations prevents people from starting or completing tasks. This is a psychological hurdle many face. The subconscious reasoning goes: “If I don’t start, I can’t fail.” Recognizing this can be the first step towards confronting and overcoming such fears.
  2. Perfectionism: For some, the drive for perfection can be paralyzing. The desire for flawless execution can lead to indecision or avoidance. Progress, not perfection, should be the goal.
  3. Lack of Motivation: Boring tasks with little or no reward get tossed to the backburner.
  4. Decisional Procrastination: The weight of making a decision can lead to avoidance, especially if outcomes are uncertain. Where all my overthinkers at?!
  5. Task Aversion: Certain tasks might seem too tedious, difficult, or unpleasant, fostering a reluctance to tackle them.
  6. Lack of Self-discipline: Discipline is like a muscle, and like any muscle, it can be strengthened over time. Building self-discipline often involves setting clear boundaries, creating consistent routines, and reinforcing positive behaviors.
  7. Overwhelm: The feeling of being overwhelmed, not knowing where to begin, can lead to a standstill. Shoutout to every parent ever.
  8. Fear of Success: The potential implications of success, like more responsibility, can ironically deter some individuals. I was surprised at this one, but apparently is VERY common.
  9. Impaired Executive Function: For those with ADHD or related conditions, initiating and completing tasks can be notably challenging.
  10. Unclear Goals: Without a understanding of a task’s purpose or priority, its execution can easily be postponed.

hese different reasons show that putting things off isn’t just about being lazy. It’s more about dealing with all sorts of personal and outside challenges.

Mel Robbins’ 5-Second Rule

There is a saying that time kills all great ideas, suggesting that as time passes, the likelihood of acting on a good idea or intention diminishes. The more we wait the harder it is to start. That’s why I LOVE Mel Robbins’ 5-second rule. This fantastic and genius method is all about acting on an impulse or idea within a fleeting 5-second window. By mentally counting down—5-4-3-2-1—and jumping into action, you accomplish several things:

  • Interrupt Habitual Patterns: It’s easy to fall into routines of delay and avoidance. The 5-second rule jolts us out of these patterns.
  • Bypass Overthinking: Acting right away helps sidestep the doubts and excuses
  • Engage the Prefrontal Cortex: This area, responsible for decision-making and goal-oriented behaviors, gets activated, pushing us towards action.

Some examples: Contemplating a going for a walk? Count down and get to steppin. Need to make a crucial call? Count and dial. The power of this rule lies in its simplicity and immediacy, helping you transition from intention to action immediately.

Mastering The Art of Focus: Techniques and Tools

Overcoming procrastination is half the battle. The other half is about mastering the art of focus to make every moment of our dedicated time count. Along with tricks like the 5-second rule, there are many other ways to help you stay focused and stop putting things off:

  1. The Pomodoro Technique: This method is all about working in short bursts. You work hard for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break. It’s like doing quick runs instead of a long jog, making big tasks feel less scary.
  2. Breaking Tasks Down: Chunking mammoth tasks into smaller, more digestible pieces makes them less daunting. Each mini-achievement fuels motivation to continue.  Instead of aiming to ‘write a book’, you could aim to ‘write 200 words every day’. The 200 words is specific, achievable, and less overwhelming. By celebrating small wins along the way, the momentum keeps building.
  3. Eliminate Distractions: Throw your phone out the window. Just kidding but either put it in another room or silence notifications. Single-tasking allows the brain to channel all it’s energy into the task at hand.
  4. Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices keep us from thinking about the past or future, meaning they help us stay in the present. Studies have shown they increase our focus and awareness.
  5. Task Prioritization with the Eisenhower Box: This tool is like a VIP list for your tasks. It helps you figure out which ones need the red-carpet treatment right now, and which ones can wait in line a bit longer. It’s a simple matrix that separates tasks based on their urgency and importance.

The journey to overcoming procrastination and enhancing focus is not easy. However, having a deep understanding of its causes and some effective strategies in place, you got it in the bag!

Neuroscience – The Brain’s Role in Procrastination

The more I research things that I have struggled with throughout my life, the more I am taken down the road of neuroscience. Our brain has a big say in why we put things off.

The Brain’s Duel: Within our brain, two key areas often engage in a silent tug-of-war influencing our actions: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is responsible for our immediate emotions, moods, and instincts. It often drives immediate gratification and steers us away from discomfort. In contrast, the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for decision-making, planning, and self-control. Procrastination often happens when the limbic system’s desire for immediate pleasure overrides the prefrontal cortex’s rationale for long-term gain.

Activation via the 5-Second Rule: As previously discussed, the 5-second rule activates the prefrontal cortex. By deliberately choosing to count down and act, you are giving your rational, decision-making center the upper hand, sidelining the more impulsive limbic system. It’s like hitting a reset button in your brain, switching from delay to action.

The Role of Dopamine: Dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked with pleasure, motivation, and reward, plays a vital role. Tasks that we perceive as rewarding or enjoyable release dopamine, making us more likely to engage in them. On the flip side, tasks that don’t stimulate dopamine release can be seen as less enticing, leading to avoidance. By finding ways to make tasks more engaging or rewarding (like associating them with small rewards), we can stimulate dopamine production and increase the likelihood of task engagement.

Stress and the Amygdala: When faced with tasks that seem daunting, the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with fear and emotional responses, can activate stress pathways. Chronic stress can, in turn, impair the prefrontal cortex’s function, reinforcing procrastination patterns. Managing stress through relaxation techniques, mindfulness, or reframing tasks can be essential in breaking this cycle.

Consistency and Habit Formation

A singular action, while commendable, isn’t enough. True mastery over procrastination lies in fostering consistency and cultivating habits that align with our goals. Here’s how you can achieve that:

  1. Routines are Gold: Establishing and sticking to routines can automate positive behaviors. Over time, actions like studying at a specific time or writing daily become second nature, making it easier to get started.
  2. Visual Triggers: Place visual reminders around your workspace. Whether it’s a motivational quote, a goal board, (although, neuroscientist Andrew Huberman says this is useless UNLESS you write them out every day) or simply a to-do list, these cues can serve as constant nudges, pulling you back to the task.
  3. Accountability Partners: Sharing your goals with your partner, a friend, or colleague can create a sense of responsibility. Regular check-ins can keep you on track and provide encouragement.
  4. Reward Mechanisms: Humans are hardwired to respond to rewards. Introduce small incentives for task completion—be it a treat, a short break, or an episode of your favorite show. These can make the journey more enjoyable.
  5. Self-compassion: It’s crucial to understand that we are all human, and there will be days when we falter. Instead of self-blame, practice self-compassion. Recognizing and forgiving one’s lapses can recharge and motivate for the days ahead.

Actionable Tips for Immediate Application

Theories and understanding are foundational, but practical, actionable strategies can be the bridge to real change:

  1. Set Clear Deadlines: Even if they’re self-imposed, deadlines create a sense of urgency and commitment.
  2. Physical Movement: Sometimes, just standing up, stretching, or taking a brief walk can get rid of feelings of disinterest and fatigue.
  3. Start Small: Commit to just 5 minutes of a task. Often, starting is the hardest part. Once engaged, it’s easier to continue.
  4. Self-Reflection: Dedicate a few minutes each day to reflect on your actions, understanding what worked, what didn’t, and refining your strategies accordingly.

Incorporating these steps into daily routines can incrementally and steadily lead to a shift from procrastination to proactive action. Each step taken is a step closer to goals, dreams, and aspirations.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s concept of a “growth mindset” can be a potent weapon against procrastination. Individuals with a growth mindset believe that abilities and intelligence can be developed over time. They see challenges as opportunities, embrace failures as learning experiences, and are resilient in the face of setbacks.

By cultivating a growth mindset, tasks aren’t seen as fixed challenges where means we’re not good enough. Instead, each task becomes an opportunity for growth, learning, and development. Embracing this mindset can shift the narrative from “I might fail” to “I will learn,” making it more exciting to start a task.

Visualize and Affirm

Visualization is a powerful tool. By vividly imagining the process of engaging in a task, and more importantly, the satisfaction and rewards of completing it, we can create a positive feedback loop. This loop can make starting less daunting and give us a clear sense of purpose and drive.

Affirmations can further cement this. Positive self-talk and affirmations like “I am capable,” “Each step brings me closer to my goals,” or “I am in control of my actions” can act as catalysts, shifting mindsets from avoidance to action.

Stay Accountable

Lastly, accountability can be a game-changer. Whether it’s through a mentor, a peer group, or even digital platforms, having someone or something to answer to creates an external commitment. This commitment can often be the nudge needed to move from intention to action.

In essence, overcoming procrastination is a holistic venture. It’s about understanding ourselves, leveraging strategies, and continually refining our approach.

Conclusion: Embracing the Journey Beyond Procrastination

Putting things off isn’t being lazy. It’s a deep dive into the habits of our minds, the nitty-gritty of how our brains tick, and the many layers of human behavior. We’re talking about neural pathways, cognitive processes, and the core of what makes us, us.

Procrastination is universal. Everyone, and I mean everyone, battles with it now and then. But here’s the cool part: it’s not about those moments of delay, it’s about what we do next. With tools like the Pomodoro Technique, knowing how the brain works, and good ol’ mindfulness, we’ve got ourselves a toolkit ready to tackle those “I’ll do it later” moments.

Remember all the strategies we chatted about? They’re not just one-off fixes. Think of them as stepping stones on our personal growth journey. The aim? Morphing from daydreamers into action-takers. And while we’re at it, let’s get one thing clear: this journey of beating procrastination is an ongoing gig. Challenges will pop up, but so will chances to learn and grow. So, what’s the takeaway? It’s not just about moving fast; it’s about moving with intention. Whether you’re harnessing the 5-second rule or zenning out with mindfulness, remember the direction is what counts.