Understanding procrastination now!

ProcrastinationIn a recent article I suggested that you reflect on the ‘big rocks’ in your life or business and on how to ensure you schedule your priorities by putting them in ‘The Jar’ first.

At a personal level, these might be a project that YOU want to accomplish: time with your loved ones, faith issues, your education, your finances, a cause, or teaching or mentoring others. For many business owners it might be a goal or key driver for your business.

The point was to put the BIG ROCKS in the jar first or you’ll never get them in at all. The ‘pebbles’, ‘sand’ and ‘water’ will always get in the way of achieving what matters most in your life or business

So why is it that though we know what the ‘big rocks’ are, and we want to achieve them so badly, that we procrastinate?

In this article I would like to explore the psychology and neuroscience that provides clues as to why we procrastinate. A future article will focus on key strategies to overcome it so that you can achieve your desired #1 ‘big rock’.

The Procrastination Cycle

Most of us have been in the procrastination cycle in our lives at one time or another (e.g. putting off cleaning the stove, repairing a leaky roof, seeing a doctor or dentist, submitting a job report or academic assignment or broaching a stressful issue with a partner) and no matter how much we wish or try not to be, we remain ‘stuck’.


we use activities and substances to avoid positive action

Our life seems to spiral downwards. Often we end up using ‘treats’ such as alcohol and chocolate or activities including work or shopping to try to overcome the mood which keeps us stuck in the cycle. We wait until we “feel like it” and use activities and substances to avoid positive action.

The Cost of Procrastination

However, procrastination always comes at a cost. What is it costing your business in terms of relationships with customers, lost deals, promotions, trade, cashflow, or self-worth? What about relationships that have floundered?

Maybe you have wanted to break or strengthen a relationship for some time, but you hope it will just happen by magic or the issue/s will go away. Maybe, like many, you have put off making a hard decision because you dislike conflict.


procrastination has been linked to higher stress levels

Clearly procrastination is a major negative force on us achieving growth in our lives and business and preventing us from setting and keeping goals. Health, happiness, finances and dreams are impacted when we take no action on our heart’s desires and the things that matter most. Our self-worth takes a battering also.

Have you gone down in your own estimation because you haven’t done what you wanted to do? In general, procrastination has been linked to higher stress levels, worse health, lower well-being and lower salaries.

Despite our best intentions, we fail to accomplish tasks and the gap between those intentions and actions widen. We know what we ought to do but we still just don’t do it.

The Psychology of Procrastination

Procrastination is largely about avoidance. By not starting or acting on our goals we avoid the fear of failure, the fear of success and all the uncomfortable or negative feelings that go with these.

In order not to fail at a task and experience the disillusionment and rejection that we think might follow, we don’t perform it at all. Some procrastinators would rather have other people think that they lack effort rather than ability.


in order not to fail at a task we don’t perform it at all

From a neurological perspective, when an activity is particularly challenging or overwhelming, the amygdala or emotional part of our brain activates a ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ’freeze’ or ‘flop’ response to protect us from perceived danger – in this case, negative feelings. So, we seek short term gratification and pleasure which dopamine provides as a temporary relief to the stress of the situation.

That is why in the face of overwhelm and feeling bad about our inaction, we look for rewards or short-term gratification to make us feel better about ourselves. We indulge ourselves in ‘me time’ rewarding ourselves with substances such as alcohol and chocolate or we become workaholics or shopaholics. These negative substances and activities suck all the energy out of us and we remain stuck and unmotivated through inaction.

The frustration is that neither avoidance nor ‘me time’ delivers the result we want. We end up trading small failures with big failures long term. We settle for short term gain rather than run the risk of perceived long-term pain.

The Neuroscience of Procrastination

It is helpful to understand procrastination from a neuroscientific perspective. This requires an elementary understanding of the brain and the interaction especially between the limbic system (Mid brain) and the prefrontal cortex (Neocortex or ‘smart’ brain).

The Neuroscience of Procrastination

The limbic system, sometimes referred to as the ‘emotional brain’, is the reactive part of usthat initiates a ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ‘freeze’ or ‘flop’ response. Its primary function is to keep us safe. For example, the amygdala (part of the limbic system) is like an early warning mechanism with the motto ‘safety first’. It immediately puts a safety plan into effect before consulting the executive brain (the neocortex). This explains why we jump instinctively to get away from a snake like object only to find it to be a hose in the grass once the pre-frontal cortex comes ‘on line’ again.

The neocortex is our ‘smart brain’ or the executive part of our system that is responsible for all high-order conscious activity such as language, abstract thought, creativity and imagination. It also houses much of our biographical and automatic memories (along with the hippocampus and other parts of the brain).


the clash between these two systems lies at the basis of procrastination

It is the super-fast reacting limbic system, (the older and more primitive part of the brain) that regulates cravings and desires and is concerned about immediate pleasure – not really caring about the future. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex, (the more evolutionary recent decision-making centre located behind our forehead) uses a lot of energy, tires quickly, requires training to work more effectively, and is not as strong as the limbic system.

It is the clash between these two systems that lies at the basis of procrastination. Living in modern times where our personal safety is not constantly on the line, the ability of the pre-frontal cortex to make rational decisions, to organize and to inhibit inappropriate behaviour is needed. In the past, it was the instinctual nature of the limbic system that promoted survival through immediate action without preoccupation for future consequences. Keeping us safe was the goal.

According to Piers Steel, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources, University of Calgary, procrastination happens when the primitive, pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding limbic system acts too quickly for the rational pre-frontal cortex to catch up. In this way, procrastination is described as the art of making intentions that get overridden, even if this is disadvantageous.


can’t distinguish between an attacking bear and an unread email

In other words, according to Steel, when your brain wants to procrastinate on something important for you to do or achieve, it is trying to avoid a perceived threat. The amygdala, the fear centre of the limbic system, is not familiar with the modern world, and can’t distinguish between an attacking bear and an unread email.

As a result, it activates pretty much the same response in both cases, triggering the release of stress hormones necessary to cope with a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ situation.

In addition, since the brain would very much prefer to be flooded with the pleasure hormone Dopamine, instead of having to deal with stress neurotransmitters, it pushes us towards abandoning the stressful task in favour of a more rewarding one.

Man sleeping

the instinctual part of the brain tries to keep you in bed

Furthermore, procrastinating saves energy. All jobs that are not evolutionarily essential like eating or having sex, can be put off, thereby saving energy in case we experience threatening situations. So, while your modern, logical and goal-oriented prefrontal cortex understands that going for a run every morning can help you achieve long-term better health, the instinctual part of the brain tries to keep you in bed, so you can conserve energy. One never knows what threats the day may bring!

To put it in the words of another psychology professor Timothy A. Pychyl, from Carleton University in Ottawa, “the second we stop actively controlling our urges with logical reasoning, our limbic system takes over and happily “discounts future rewards in favour of immediate gratification”.


What I hope has been helpful to this point, is using the developing field of neuroscience to help you understand why we procrastinate. It is evident that procrastination has been part of the human condition for thousands of years. Aristotle and Socrates used the word akrasia to refer to procrastination – akrasia meaning “the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will”.

In 44 B.C., Cicero condemned procrastination as “hateful”. In the book of Romans in the New Testament, St Paul wrote “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7.15 New International Version)


procrastination has been with us for thousands of years

This human problem has survived all the way to the 21st century and is now further complicated by the wide range of distractions available 24/7, many of which are often just one click away.

Recognising that procrastination has been with us for thousands of years and that there is a perfectly logical reason for it, means we don’t need to beat ourselves up about being a procrastinator. However, we can implement strategies to calm or regulate the amygdala and keep the pre-frontal cortex on line, so we can take desired, intentional and meaningful action.

Many books and articles have been written on this topic. Strategies abound including daily exercise, meditation, mindfulness, eating healthily, having meaningful, emotional and achievable goals and so on.

In a future article I will share strategies to overcome procrastination that have worked for my clients and me.

Sorry to make you wait! Stay tuned.