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5 Ways Backed By Neuroscience to Tackle Procrastination

5 Ways Backed By Neuroscience to Tackle Procrastination

AJ Keller
By AJ Keller on July 21, 2023

We’ve all put the “pro” in procrastination at some point.

You’ve probably even saved some articles on procrastination to read for later, and then just put it off indefinitely…

(Don’t worry, we won’t judge.)

Quite the opposite, actually.

You might think you achieve nothing when you procrastinate, but what if I told you that you achieve a very clear goal every time?

What if we told you that procrastination represents a small, consistent win?

And what is that, you might ask?

Alleviating discomfort.

That’s right. Procrastination is a form of avoidance, and the thing about avoidant behaviors is that they actually work.

That’s why procrastination is so insidious – it works to keep the negative feelings associated with your plans at bay. 

And every time you indulge in it, you feel better in the present (even if you feel awful long-term).

The thing is, most people think that procrastination is due to laziness, no motivation, or lack of self-discipline.

But as it turns out, procrastination finds its roots in neurobiology.

It’s the result of a constant battle in our brain between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. 

We’ve broken down the science to make it simple:

The prefrontal cortex serves as the brain's logical and analytical hub, playing a crucial role in future planning, self-control, and decision-making. Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a renowned expert in procrastination research, expands on this in his work "Still Procrastinating" – explaining that the prefrontal cortex governs our capacity to regulate behavior. This includes the ability to resist the allure of immediate gratification in favor of long-term benefits.

In essence, the prefrontal cortex acts as a guardian of our impulses and recognizes the significance of postponing instant rewards to build a better future. To overcome procrastination, we need to maintain the optimal condition in this region of the brain. 

Work piling up due to procrastination

Now, let's talk about the Limbic System: 

The limbic system is the emotional and impulsive component of our brain, often referred to as the 'reptile' brain due to its ancient evolutionary origin. 

As stated by Dr. Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, in his work ‘Solving The Procrastination Puzzle’ – “The limbic system reacts to immediate sensory information, such as pleasure and pain, without thinking about future consequences.” 

In simpler terms, this part of the brain tends to act impulsively and lean towards instant gratification, even if it contradicts our long-term objectives.

To give you an example:

Suppose your ultimate objective is to get in shape, but instead, you find yourself binge-watching Netflix for hours. In this scenario, it's the limbic system taking charge and overriding your prefrontal cortex.

How to Help Our Prefrontal Cortex Prevail

Instead of stressing about how to cultivate willpower or beating yourself up for not being disciplined enough, the key is to develop certain habits that help your brain's organized side (prefrontal cortex) win over the impulsive part (limbic system). 

So, let's check out these 5 actionable and science-backed habits to beat procrastination.

Number 1 is “Task-Chunking”: The limbic system tends to protest less against easy tasks or projects. That's where task-chunking comes in handy. Break down a big, overwhelming task into bite-sized pieces, making it much more manageable. 

The idea is to make the cost of action feel smaller. 

For instance, when I write a new article, I chunk it like this:

  • Think of interesting concept

  • Create blog outline

  • Write headline

  • Write intro paragraph 

  • Write subsequent paragraphs

  • Write conclusion

  • Add scientific studies

  • Format article

  • Proofread & edit article

By doing this, you avoid the intimidating feeling of one massive task and can complete each part step-by-step with ease. 

Plus, it allows you to really focus on the smaller parts of a project so that the overall picture is more detailed and better.

Number 2 on the list is: Tackle the tough stuff in the morning!

My golden rule for staying productive is to knock out the most crucial and challenging task of the day right from the start.

Research backs this up too. Thanks to our natural circadian rhythm, as the day goes on and the sun goes down, so does our self-control, focus, and information processing abilities. They decline rapidly.

It's like our energy levels drop, and decision-making becomes tougher, giving the limbic system the upper hand.

So, to avoid putting off important tasks, dive into the hardest ones early in the day when you're at your best!

Plus, when you complete a difficult task first, you’ll feel more resilient, capable, and it’ll set you up for success.

Number 3 is all about maximizing your energy levels:

Research proves that lack of sleep leads to a whopping 29% drop in productivity the next day, with cognitive performance taking a hit. When you're tired, the limbic system takes charge, often pushing you into procrastination mode. Since the prefrontal cortex is the newer and weaker part of the brain, it needs more energy to stay on top.

To keep your brain in peak condition, make these healthy habits a priority:

  • Get 7–8 hours of sleep every night

  • Exercise at least 4 times a week

  • Stay active throughout the day (stretch, take walks, avoid sitting too long)

  • Eat nutritious brain foods

  • Stay well-hydrated

From my own experience, about 80% of productivity comes down to biology. When I take care of my health, being productive becomes much easier, and motivation becomes a natural side effect of feeling energized.

In a nutshell, prioritize your health and energy to give your prefrontal cortex the upper hand in decision-making!

The added benefit is that these healthy habits will positively affect every other aspect of your life and health.

And depending on your current lifestyle, if these changes seem too overwhelming – start small! Simply set out to wake up an hour earlier. Once you’ve mastered the small steps, you can try more.

Let's talk about habit number 4: Kick those distractions to the curb!

Distractions are like a quick and fun escape for our brain, and the limbic system loves it

Our goals, on the other hand, often require more effort, focus, and just aren't as exciting – in fact sometimes, they’re plain boring!

Today's digital distractions are designed to hijack our brain's reward system, especially that pesky dopamine pathway, making them super addictive.

The companies behind these distractions have a financial interest in keeping us hooked. After all, the more time we spend on their platforms, the more money they make from advertising.

In short, our attention is their money-making strategy.

But here at Neurosity, our business model is designed to do the opposite: we want you to focus and get into a flow state of heightened concentration.

The Crown is perfect for helping you to avoid distractions. I use it everyday during work and it helps me get through my entire daily to-do list. 

In essence, The Crown allows me to keep the prefrontal cortex in control.

And finally let's talk about habit number 5: Meditation…

I've noticed that when I consistently meditate for just 10 minutes a day, I start making better decisions automatically. I procrastinate less, spend less time on distractions, and overall, I make healthier and more productive choices.

And there’s some promising research to explain why.

Research by Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, shows that meditation has a positive impact on the brain. She found that the more someone meditates, the more significant the changes in their brain. In particular, frequent meditators had increased gray matter in their prefrontal cortex.

In simpler terms, more gray matter means a more effective brain (or brain region).

Other research has found that regular meditation reduces activity in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. This means meditation helps to improve the functioning of the prefrontal cortex and keeps the limbic system in check, giving us a real advantage in overcoming procrastination.

So, adding some meditation to your routine can help you build a better brain and beat procrastination.

The best part about it is that it’s low commitment and cost. All you have to do is block out 10 minutes and get in the groove. The benefits are enormous. 

So there you have it…

While procrastination remains an enduring challenge for humankind, there are things you can do today, tomorrow and for the rest of your life that can help you stay in control. 

Chunk those tasks, tackle the tough stuff in the morning, amp up your energy with healthy habits, ditch those distractions, and give meditation a shot. 

It's like a secret weapon to level up your brain! With these neuroscience-backed strategies, you'll be the master of your productivity game.


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