Procrastination: Why It's So Hard To Break The Habit

Anyone who has a teenager in the house is familiar with the perils of procrastination. “I’ll do it later” is a common refrain in both kitchens and cubicles across the globe. Many of us have self-recriminations about our tendency to put things off that sound like, “Why am I so lazy and undisciplined?”

But what if procrastination isn’t just laziness or a character flaw?

What if it’s a learned habit?

We asked Doug Williamson, MD and chief medical officer at Lundbeck, a company specializing in treatments for brain disease, for his perspective on the topic. Here’s what he had to say:

 Shani Harmon and Renee Cullinan: Doug, why do we find it so hard to stop procrastinating?

Doug Williamson: Imagine a task you must do today which you are really dreading. Now imagine putting it off until tomorrow. Feel that surge of relief and pleasure?

Research shows that in habitual behavior there is a surge of dopamine-related pleasure in the reward system of the brain when an individual even thinks about the habitual act.

It’s often assumed that procrastination results from a desire to defer something unpleasant, but what if it’s really got more to do with the feeling of satisfaction you get from the act of postponement?

Harmon and Cullinan: I feel that same sense of relief every time a social engagement gets cancelled. Apparently, I am as addicted to cancelling plans as I am to making them! How does that translate to procrastination?

Williamson: What if your sense of relief was actually driven by the satisfaction you get when you decide to postpone a task, instead of simply an aversion to the task itself? If seeking out this dopamine reward from procrastination has become a habit for us, then it will always feel better to put something off than to do it, and this pattern would have nothing to do with the task and everything to do with chemicals in your brain.

Harmon and Cullinan: How can you tell if procrastination has become a habit?

Williamson: One sign is situations where making real progress on the thing you’re putting off would actually take less time and/or effort than rescheduling it. Another indicator is that you procrastinate on both big and small tasks, no matter the risk of failure. That’s often a sign that your urge to procrastinate is driven more by habit than by circumstance.

Harmon and Cullinan: What’s the treatment? How do you break the habit?

Williamson: Substitution is the best way to trick your brain. Reward yourself for making progress on tasks—no matter how large or small, and making progress will become your new habit.

We’ve seen many highly productive people employ work practices that include making to do lists that include already complete items just to have the sense of satisfaction that comes with crossing them off. It makes sense given that our brains are reward-seeking machines.

So the cure for the procrastination habit is substituting one payoff for another. For teenagers, an allowance might be enough of a payoff to combat the reward of postponing an undesired task. For professionals, a paycheck is rarely sufficient—we need something stronger.

Next time you’re inclined to postpone something important, try one of these strategies:

  • Set a 25 minute timer and work steadily until it goes off—a strategy known as the Pomodoro Technique
  • Make a list of the first three things you could do to advance the big task and do just those to see how it feels
  • Head to the library or a coffee shop or somewhere with less distractions and see if the new setting provides renewed inspiration

Experimenting with these and other techniques to advance work when you feel stuck is the best way to avoid the lure of procrastination and start to build new, sustainable work habits. Find ways to celebrate those small wins along the way and watch your accomplishments pile up!