Why do we procrastinate and how to stop procrastinating

By Somali K Chakrabarti

Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.  ~ Christopher Parker

Procrastination is too familiar a tendency that we all give in to at some point or the other. If you think of those several occasions when you waited till the last moment to do your work, it won’t take much for you to realize that procrastination is more of a behavioral problem than a time management issue. There would be instances when:

  • You managed to complete your assignment just at the nick of time.
  • You were so lost in surfing the net that you ended up doing a report past its deadline.
  • You did not pay up the bill till the last moment and then paid the fine for it.
  • You did not leave on time and turned up 15 minutes late for the urgent meeting.

Mostly you would be aware of what you should be doing and when, and yet you simply can’t get yourself to do certain tasks. As you postpone your work and leave it for the last second, many things that were not so pressing before, suddenly become urgent and call for your attention.


Why do people procrastinate?


Understanding the science of procrastination may help you to devise your own mechanism for fighting with procrastination.

The emotional reaction of our brain usually precedes reasoning.  When our brain perceives a pleasant experience, it produces a hormone called dopamine; similarly the moment it senses anxiety and stress, the hormone noradrenaline is secreted in response to stress.

The secretion of these hormones in the brain sets out an emotional response in a much shorter time than it takes the brain to think with logic and reason. This quick play of chemicals in the brain results in you putting off things that your brain does not perceive as immediately rewarding.

You may find a task so uninteresting or insipid that the mere thought of doing the task puts you off. Your brain does not perceive any immediate rewards associated with the work and it quickly devises a mechanism to escape from the mundane job.

You feel that you deserve to have some fun before you get started on the job. You overestimate your efficiency and the amount of time left to perform the task, while underestimating the time needed to complete the task. You assure yourself that you’ll be able to work more efficiently with the deadline approaching fast.

Alternately it may so happen that when you are required to do something out of your comfort zone, you get overwhelmed by the complexity or the ambiguity of the task, and so you delay it in favour of other simpler tasks, hoping to get someone to help you to do the task.

If the brain perceives the task as a noradrenaline -producing experience rather than a dopamine producing experience, it devises its escape mechanism to avoid the anxiety caused due to the possibility of an unpleasant negative outcome. You end up telling yourself that you’ll do a job tomorrow, with a clear mind, when you feel more settled or rested.


How to stop procrastinating?


Whatever be the reason, our brain always finds ways to rationalize our tendency to procrastinate; but what is important is to get over it. Training your brain to see the task in hand as a dopamine-producing experience rather than a noradrenaline -producing experience will increase your willingness to do the task. Here are a few ways to go on about it:

  • Break down work into small, specific, concrete tasks

Thinking of a task as a complex task makes you psychologically distant from the task and reduces your willingness to do it. However, breaking the task down into smaller, specific parts in a logical order makes it easier for the brain to comprehend the task. This prevents triggering of the quick negative emotional response and gives the logical brain a chance to think through the task.

  • Prioritize your tasks and get started

Identify the tasks that are urgent as well as important and just get started on them. If you wait for the right moment to get motivated for starting a work (especially if the work is undesirable), the more you delay starting, the more difficult you may find to get into the right frame of mind.  On the other hand, getting started is a better option as the feeling of completion will trigger more positive thinking than leaving it undone. You can improvise on the work as you progress.

  • Reward yourself

A positive reinforcement or reward for getting things done is considered to be a more effective way to reduce procrastination than a punishment for getting it done late. Meaningful rewards trigger dopamine in the brain. If you have trouble motivating yourself to do a job, consider rewarding yourself with something that you enjoy for every task you complete.

  • Adhere to deadlines (external deadlines are more effective)

Studies indicate that external deadlines are more effective when they are evenly spaced than setting a deadline that is set at the end of the task. People sometimes set self imposed deadlines to overcome their habit of procrastination. Self imposed deadlines improve performance but are not as much as evenly spaced externally imposed deadlines. Those who work in a self directed manner may be particularly prone to procrastination.

Knowing that the emotional response of the brain may be the reason behind procrastinating,  may help you to motivate yourself, train your brain and be creative in overcoming your tendency to procrastinate.

What are the ways you adopt to overcome procrastination?

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Dan Ariely, Klaus Wertenbrauch, Procrastination, Deadlines and Performance, Massachusets Institute of Technology and INSEAD, Fontainbleau France, Psychological Science.

Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley).

Eric Jaffe, Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination, Observer, Association for Psychological Science

10 thoughts on “Why do we procrastinate and how to stop procrastinating

  1. Procrastinate -the literal meaning of which is to delay or postpone action has its origin in the Latin word -the English equivalent being ‘defer till morning ‘.We know from our experience that the morning never comes so long one is not inclined to confront or deal with it . You have analyzed the habit in its psychological perspective and devised a strategy of stemming the habit of procrastination which sets in a vicious circle .Your excellent piece deserves to be read with all intents and purposes and translated into into aaction .

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I need all of my energy to cross a threshold before i can start something. Threshold becomes higher, if the work is new. Once I cross the threshold, things become easy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Two things come to mind immediately. What if chemicals in the brain still overcome/overpower the four remedies given by you.
    Laziness, is it related to lack of sleep and nutrition. Does healthy body convert to less of procrastination.
    What is the role of alcohol or excessive addiction to substances, like smoking in office.
    What is external deadlines, how to get it.


    1. You are quite right. If chemicals in the brain still overpower, a person would most likely need to improve sleep, nutrition, seek good company that inspires , uplifts, cheers and helps to restore balance or else visit a doctor for medication.


        1. Disease is probably a stretched term to use here. People do see doctors for general well being. That’s how it could be looked upon.
          External deadlines are the system imposed deadlines. Say if you are a student, the deadline for submission of assignment or for completion of a course. If you are a professional, it could be the agreed upon deadlines for submitting deliverables. The external deadlines have been found to be more effective than self imposed deadlines in most cases.


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