Many people procrastinate, some of us chronically, but why do we do that? Is there a way to counteract procrastination, and does this habit ever bring benefits? In this Special Feature, we explore the science of procrastination: What happens in the brain, what happens in the mind, and can we change it?

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What happens in the brain when we procrastinate? Medical News Today asked the experts. Image credit: Mik122/Getty Images.

Everyone procrastinates at some point in their lives. Whether it relates to paying a bill, making a doctor’s appointment, completing a school project, or meeting a work deadline, it is sometimes easier to put off important tasks we may not fully enjoy and would rather accomplish some other time.

While for most people the act of procrastination may only happen every so often, for others it becomes a constant occurrence. An estimated 20% of adults in the United States are chronic procrastinators, even though research shows that high levels of procrastination in the workplace can have negative effects on employment duration and income.

And studies suggest that 75% of college students are habitual procrastinators, leading to issues including stress, anxiety, and sleeping problems.

Why do more people procrastinate than others? Is procrastination a mental health condition? And does procrastinating offer any positives or is it just a negative habit we need to kick?

Medical News Today spoke to a variety of experts to answer these questions and more about the delay tactic we are all familiar with.

According to Sharon Greene, LCSW, who specializes in treating anxiety and depression for children, adolescents, and adults at Providence Saint John’s Child & Family Development Center in Santa Monica, CA, procrastination results from a struggle between a person’s limbic system and prefrontal cortex of the brain.

“Your limbic system is an older part of the brain that is automatic and seeks out pleasure and/ or avoids things that cause distress,” she explained to Medical News Today. “Your prefrontal cortex is a newer part of the brain that helps with planning, decision-making, and long-term goals. We all suffer at times from procrastination due to these fighting structures in our brains.”

Dr. Bill Hudenko, a licensed psychologist, researcher, and professor who holds a joint appointment as a faculty member at Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, and global head of mental health at digital care platform, K Health, cited a study showing that people who often procrastinate have a larger amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for emotions, particularly negative ones.

“The authors also found that procrastinators have a less functional connection with the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex — a part of the brain that assimilates information and is implicated in decision-making,” he continued. “While intriguing, this study highlights that procrastination is not so cut-and-dry and does not occur in just one region of the brain.”

A study by researchers from the Paris Brain Institute published in September 2022 found evidence suggesting the anterior cingulate cortex is where the decision to procrastinate is made. They also developed an algorithm to predict a person’s tendency to procrastinate or not.

And Dr. Alex Wills, a board-certified psychiatrist and author of Give a F*ck, Actually, said other issues a person may be facing can impact how procrastination affects the brain.

“In the case of anxiety disorders, a person may become paralyzed with much activity in the amygdala — fear, despair, perfectionism, or ‘paralysis by analysis’,” he detailed. “With depression, processing information may become too slow when patients feel helpless or indecisive.”

“[And] in the case of ADHD, there may be a neurological lack of cognitive focus due to a lack of dopamine sent to the prefrontal cortex in which the person may subjectively simply become innocently unaware of a looming deadline — until it’s too late,” Dr. Wills added.

Dr. Hudenko said procrastination itself is not a mental health condition. However, it can be problematic behavior if it becomes routine and causes distress.

“If someone is procrastinating due to an anxiety disorder, that anxiety can lead to other negative outcomes,” he explained. “Treating the underlying anxiety that affects procrastination could help someone who is avoiding necessary tasks and may also improve other aspects of their life.”

And Dr. Wills stated procrastination is often thought of as a symptom commonly found in various disorders:

“Under the anxiety spectrum, it is often found in OCPD [obsessive-compulsive personality disorder], OCD, hoarding, or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] due to fears related to past trauma. In ADHD, which I consider more of a neurological or ‘wiring’ condition, procrastination may be a result of an inability to prioritize, stay on task, or stay focused.”

“Procrastination may also be an indicator of addictive tendencies — the high of ‘saving the day’ from calamity by finishing an important task just before the deadline,” Dr. Wills continued. “Whether someone does it all the time or not may be an indicator of one of these underlying mental health conditions.”

Generally speaking, most people consider procrastination a negative habit. However, are there any positives to it?

Dr. Hudenko said there are many cases when procrastination can be beneficial, even when the person does not intend for it to be.

“Everyone can relate to procrastinating on a task because it is low impact or low value, which shows good judgment about time management and task prioritization,” he explained.

“Procrastination can also help people prioritize engaging in aspects of their life that bring joy. Perhaps it’s ultimately better for your mental health if you go play that game of tennis instead of getting that project done on your list. Furthermore, you might come back to that project with more energy and new insights because you stepped away to do something else!”

– Dr. Bill Hudenko

“Lastly, some people work better under pressure and perform best when they have a strict deadline, even if they didn’t intend to wait until the last minute,” Dr. Hudenko added.

And Dr. Wills said viewing procrastination as a “negative” or a “symptom” of other mental health diagnoses may be shortsighted.

“In my book, Give a F*ck, Actually, I celebrate the so-called ‘negative’ emotions and ask how these emotions may be trying to help,” he said. “We can ask, ‘What is procrastination teaching me about my emotional reality?'”

For those who wish to stop procrastinating, Greene suggested “rolling the tape” when thet notice themselves starting to.

“Basically visually imagining in your mind what it will feel like doing the task last minute including the stress, exhaustion, and the possibility of not completing it in time or handing in a subpar product,” she explained. “For some people, this negative visualization can be enough to help them start the task.”

Also, Green said giving oneself a reward after completing each step can be helpful.

“Some people also benefit from enlisting others to hold them accountable to complete each small step,” she added.

Setting deadlines can be a helpful tool against procrastination when set correctly. A study from November 2021 conducted by Dr. Stephen Knowles, professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Otago in New Zealand and his team found people were more likely to complete a task with a 1-week deadline or no deadline compared to being given a 1-month deadline.

“Previous research shows that for tasks that benefit you — e.g. redeeming a voucher for a restaurant — that the longer the deadline, the lower the response rate — meaning no deadline leads to the lowest response,” Dr. Knowles told MNT.

“Our research focused on a task that benefited others — e.g. completing a survey or making a charitable donation. We suspect that in our context giving people a deadline of a month gave them permission to take their time, whereas having no deadline made it seem more urgent,” he added.

Based on his findings, Dr. Knowles suggested people who tend to procrastinate should set shorter deadlines rather than longer ones.

“If you are setting a deadline for someone else, you should either keep it short or not mention a deadline at all,” he said.

And Dr. Hudenko said if the root of the procrastination is because an activity may take too much time, try the “chunking” method:

“Try to split things up into manageable chunks and do them over time. For example, instead of cleaning your whole house, which can feel overwhelming, just commit to cleaning the sink today and the floors tomorrow. Oftentimes when you get started on a subtask, it also makes it much easier to complete the whole thing because you prove to yourself that the task you put off isn’t really as bad as you made it out to be in your head.”