The science behind procrastination and how to overcome it!

28 May 2021

The saying goes, 'when the going gets tough, the tough get going'. Normally however, when things get tough, we just procrastinate. Natalia gives us her 5 tips to stop this unhelpful habit.


Everyone puts things off every now and again, but for some procrastination can be an everyday battle! Have you ever been guilty of not starting an essay until the night before? Do you want to find out why people procrastinate? And most importantly, are you ready to learn how you can overcome it?

What is procrastination?

It is the routine, habitual responses your brain falls into when you try to do something hard or unpleasant. Procrastination makes you focus solely on making the present moment feel better.

Why do we procrastinate?

Learning a new thing or doing something you would rather not do can be stressful. This can cause anxiety and actually activates the area associated with pain in your brain. Your brain then looks for a way to stop that negative feeling by switching your attention to something else more pleasant.

Although this may seem innocent enough, the long-term effect of procrastination can be dangerous! Putting your studies off leads to studying becoming even more painful. Moreover, procrastination is a habit that affects many areas of your life, so if you improve in this area, many positive changes will unfold.

What's the solution?

OK, there isn't one simple solution that can help you overcome procrastination. However, here are 5 tips (which I've personally used myself to challenge my own procrastination) that should steer you in the right direction:

1. Work on what triggers your habitual responses

Seeing procrastination is a habitual stress response to doing something unpleasant, it is important you look into what triggers this response and adjust accordingly. Is it the location? Is it the time? For example, for a lot of people, it's the ease with which they can access distractions on their phone or computer, and so you should consider eliminating those distractions as much as possible.

2. Put some rewards in place

Habits exist because they reward us. They are powerful because they create neurological cravings. As a result, it helps to add a new reward (e.g. "I will watch a movie guilt-free once I've studied for 4 hours today") if you want to overcome your previous cravings (e.g. "I don't want to do this essay - I'm going to go on Reddit instead"). Only once your brain starts expecting a reward will the important rewiring take place that will allow you to create new habits. If you do end up procrastinating, you should not reward yourself, however this doesn't mean you should beat yourself up about it. It has been shown that self-forgiveness regarding procrastination will help you get going without delay next time around, and so helps you overcome your habit!

3. Try weekly/daily lists

Researchers showed that writing the list of things you did not accomplish at the end of the day helps you accomplish them the next day and also allows you to unwind more successfully. If you don’t write them down, they will take the valuable slots of memory and can cause you to worry and ruminate. So why not ease up on your brain? Create a list of goals at the end of the day. Then, plan your next work day in such a way that you work on the most important and most disliked tasks first (but also have a backup plan, just in case you procrastinate). Don't forget to be reflective about what kind of lists or planning tactics worked and which ones didn't, and update your notes until you have a personalised guide on how you work best!

4. Focus on the process

Having said that, don't get too caught up with goals, as that can also be detrimental. Instead, you should focus as much as you can on the process. You should realise that it’s perfectly normal to start a learning session with a negative feeling, even if you like the subject. It’s how you handle those feelings that matters. For some, it may be especially beneficial to focus on the process, not the product, as it is the product that triggers the pain causing you to procrastinate.

5. The trick is just to start

This may seem like one of those things that is easier said than done, but it can honestly be a game changer! Researchers have discovered that not long after people start working out (something that they found unpleasant beforehand), their neuro-discomfort disappears and the participants start to find the workout to be intrinsically motivating. So next time you have an essay to write, just do the simplest of steps to get you going, such as creating a word document with the title and jotting down a few ideas about the topic.

Now with a little willpower, a plan, and rewards, you can change your habits! Always remember that habits can be changed and it is never too late to self-improve. For more study tips, check out our other articles.

By Natalia Mladentseva, UCL alumna