The science behind procrastination: Why we put things off and how to stop

Procrastination is a common problem, but there are ways to overcome it. Here we explore the science behind procrastination, what causes it, and the science-backed methods to overcome it.
Tejasri Gururaj
Man standing in a field of alarm clocks holding an umbrella
The clock is ticking, but why don't you care


Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve wanted to get something done but ended up putting it off until the last possible minute? Do you find yourself constantly delaying tasks until the last minute? Don't worry; you're not alone!

The practice of unnecessarily and voluntarily delaying or postponing duties or actions is known as procrastination. This often leads to missed deadlines, reduced quality of work, and increased stress and anxiety. Despite these downsides, many people struggle with procrastination on a regular basis.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a growing interest in understanding the science behind procrastination and how it affects everyday human behavior. Many scientists and researchers have conducted studies exploring the psychological, biological, and environmental factors that contribute to procrastination. By gaining a better understanding of how procrastination works, researchers hope to develop effective strategies for helping individuals overcome it.

The science behind procrastination: Why we put things off and how to stop
Do it now, or later?

Here we delve into the science behind procrastination, providing a comprehensive overview of its causes and effects. We will explore many different causes of procrastination, from brain chemistry to distractions. We'll also examine the kinds of detrimental consequences procrastination may have on our mental and physical well-being.

Finally, we will discuss ways to overcome procrastination with therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and lifestyle changes. By providing an in-depth exploration of the science behind procrastination, this article aims to help you better understand a phenomenon that almost every person has dealt with at some point in their life.

Causes of procrastination

According to the Association for Psychological Science, true procrastination can be defined as a failure of self-regulation, in which individuals delay tasks despite knowing they will suffer for their inaction. But what causes this self-defeating behavior? 

There is, in fact, a biological reason behind it. Scientifically speaking, procrastination occurs when the person faces an activity they deem unpleasant, resulting in a conflict between the limbic system (which processes and regulates memory and emotion and also contains the pleasure center) and the prefrontal cortex (which is the internal planner). The limbic system, which directs us to opt for immediate gratification, often wins, leading to procrastination of tasks we see as unpleasant, while the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making, requires conscious effort to overcome procrastination.

The science behind procrastination: Why we put things off and how to stop
The limbic system is responsible for processing and regulation memory and emotion.

Professor Laura A. Rabin and her team at the University of Brooklyn were some of the first to study this. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions such as planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behavior, as well as working memory, attention control, problem-solving, etc. Rabin and her team found that the performance of executive functions such as initiation, planning, organizing, and task monitoring were "significant predictors of academic procrastination in addition to increased age and lower conscientiousness."

Other studies have found a potential link between dopamine and procrastination. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation, reward, and impulse control. While it is true that dopamine levels can increase impulsivity in some situations, they can also increase motivation and help people focus on their goals. However, the results are not conclusive.

A few other studies have indicated that genetics may also play a role in procrastination. However, the findings from these studies are not strong enough to establish a definitive connection between the two. However, these studies do suggest a link between procrastination and psychological states such as mood and emotions.

Mood and emotions have a significant influence on procrastination. This has been backed up by a number of studies, one of the first of which was conducted by Fuschia Sirois and Timothy Pychyl. In a second study by Dianne M. Tice and colleagues, it was reported that temptation wins over self-control if and only if it leads to an improvement in present emotions.

The science behind procrastination: Why we put things off and how to stop
Perfectionism and fear of failure may also contribute to procrastination

Other factors, such as fear of failure, perfectionism, and avoidance, can also lead to procrastination. A study by Lital Yosopov from the University of Western Ontario found that the fear of failing can make a person think that failing at one task means they are not good enough at anything. This, combined with the desire to be perfect, can cause a person to delay starting or completing tasks.

Anxiety can also cause procrastination, as individuals may feel overwhelmed or anxious about a task and avoid it altogether. This has also been shown in a study by Joseph R. Ferrari and Dianne M. Tice, where chronic procrastinators spent less time on identifiably important tasks but had no problem spending time on an identical task that was labeled as fun.

In addition to these potential causes, environmental factors may also contribute to procrastination. Long deadlines, too much flexibility when studying or working, temptations, and distractions are some of the factors that encourage procrastination in academic environments, according to a study by Frode Svartdal and his team.

According to these studies, procrastination is a multi-faceted issue with many causes. Because of its prevalence in the population, it is a very significant subject of research.

Effects of procrastination

The science behind procrastination: Why we put things off and how to stop
Procrastination has been shown to exacerbate mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

Procrastination can have a severe impact on productivity as well as on mental and physical health, with many studies finding increased stress, anxiety, lower sleep quality, and other negative consequences.

Several studies have found a link between procrastination and mental health. A study by Fred Johansson and team found that procrastination in Swedish university students was associated with depression, anxiety, and overall increased stress. Several previous studies have also reported this link. A study in 2016 led by Manfred E. Beutel found that in addition to anxiety and depression, procrastination also led to reduced satisfaction across areas like work and income.

Several researchers have also linked procrastination to poor physical health. A study by Sirois et al. found that procrastinators had less frequent medical and dental check-ups, indicating they may also have increased health problems. According to another study by Sirois, procrastination is linked to poor management of heart disease and hypertension. This means it's not just mental health that takes a hit when you procrastinate; your physical health does too. 

If this wasn't enough, procrastination has also been shown to affect productivity, although the evidence for this is mixed. A study by Qun G. Jiao and colleagues found that the graduate students who procrastinated the most due to task aversiveness tended to have the lowest performance on term papers, assignments, and administrative tasks. Procrastination can also result in missed deadlines, poor quality, and dissatisfaction with work. It may also lead to poor interpersonal relationships, which can further contribute to negative mental health.

Overcoming procrastination

The science behind procrastination: Why we put things off and how to stop
Studies show CBT can help deal with chronic procrastination.

So the big question now is, how do we overcome procrastination? Is it simply a matter of managing time better or being more disciplined? Well, apparently, it's neither.

According to studies, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in helping people overcome procrastination. CBT is a form of psychological treatment that focuses on changing negative patterns of thought and behavior. It involves identifying and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs and developing coping skills and strategies to overcome them.

Alexander Rozental and colleagues conducted a study on university students and found that CBT was an effective treatment for severe procrastinators. Additionally, they found that a group therapy format showed better results for some and allowed them to sustain the benefits of CBT over time. 

Rozental's findings were supported by a metanalysis conducted by Wendelien van Eerde and Katrin B. Klingsieck. They found that CBT was successful in reducing procrastination more than other forms of interventions, and the duration of the intervention did not matter.

But what if you don't suffer from chronic procrastination but only occasionally procrastinate? How can you attain your goals without procrastinating? 

The phrase "work smarter, not harder" applies here. There are a few strategies you can try which can help with procrastination in day-to-day life. 

  • Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable pieces can make them seem less overwhelming and easier to tackle. 

  • Setting realistic goals can also help prevent feelings of failure or inadequacy. 

  • Avoiding distractions, such as social media or television, can help maintain focus and productivity.

Although these may seem like small changes, they can certainly help you boost your productivity. 

As mentioned earlier, low dopamine levels in the brain can also be responsible for procrastination. Therefore, incorporating lifestyle changes, such as exercising and improving sleep habits can help increase dopamine levels and help you better manage procrastination. 


Procrastination is a common phenomenon that can have a negative impact on our productivity, mental health, and physical well-being. It may be described as a conflict between the pleasure center and the planning center in our brain and may be affected by contributing factors such as genetics, mood, fear of failure, perfectionism, and avoidance. Environmental variables, including extended deadlines, distractions, and temptations, can also contribute to procrastination.

To overcome chronic procrastination, you can try getting professional help in the form of CBT, which has been demonstrated to help. For help with more mild forms of day-to-day procrastination, lifestyle changes can help you achieve your goals more effectively. Although procrastination can be difficult to deal with, with the right set of resources, it can be overcome. 

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board