Wired to Wait: The Neuroscience of Procrastination

Published 2 months ago • 5 min read

Hey folks,

It's a busy week here at the HQ, with three speaking engagements over the next three days. Toss in the Easter holiday weekend, family visiting from out of town, and a six-week-old baby at home (note: the BEST use of my time), I simply didn't have the bandwidth to create my usual longer-form newsletter. But I did take some time to explore a a topic that feels rather front of mind as I roll into this busy week - procrastination.

Procrastination is a universal experience, whether it be a work assignment, a household chore, or as was my case, an entire undergraduate education. And although it does tend to improve with age and the increased self-regulation that comes along with it, procrastination never fully disappears from the human experience.

So to better understand this phenomenon, I decided to look at the mechanisms behind it so I could find ways to keep it at bay.

Happy reading,


Procrastination - the act of delaying or postponing something - is rooted in a cognitive bias that tells us, “that’s a future me problem”. In it, we risk falling prey to poor performance, late deliverables, underestimation, overconfidence, and task overload - all of which can lead to bigger problems like increased stress and missed opportunities. But far from being a mere lapse in time management or a character flaw, procrastination is actually a psychological puzzle with deep neuroscientific roots. In fact, science suggests procrastination is more default than disorder, and that we are, in essence, wired to wait.

The Neuroscience of Procrastination

Our brains are evolutionarily designed to seek reward and avoid pain, with procrastination serving as a natural shield against task-related anxiety. While the Prefrontal Cortex helps us to prioritize tasks, foresee the consequences of actions, and manage time effectively, the amygdala - our emotional processor - acts as a counterbalance, deeming an unfinished task as a looming threat and triggering a fight-or-flight response that leads us to seek refuge in delay. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex - a region involved in error detection, conflict resolution, and anticipation of effortful tasks - is central to the emotional response to anticipated efforts, which can influence the decision to engage in a task now or delay it for later. While the striatum - involved in the processing of rewards - can bias actions towards activities that are more immediately rewarding.

Modulating our procrastination behaviors is a cascade of neurochemicals that inform our innate responses to this perceived threat and anxiety.


Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure, plays a key role in procrastination by influencing motivation and reward-seeking behavior. When faced with a task, the brain weighs the immediate pleasure of procrastination (like browsing the internet) against the delayed reward of task completion (like cleaning the bathroom). If the immediate option is deemed more rewarding, dopamine's hedonic influence will bias toward procrastination.


Serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation, well-being, and satisfaction, also plays a role in procrastination. Low serotonin levels can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety, which might increase procrastination as individuals might avoid tasks that seem overwhelming or stress-inducing. Conversely, optimal serotonin levels can enhance mood, promote feelings of calmness, and improve focus, reducing the tendency to procrastinate by making it easier to engage in tasks and sustain effort.


Oxytocin, often dubbed the love hormone, is associated with social bonding, trust, and relaxation. Its role in procrastination is less direct compared to dopamine and serotonin. However, oxytocin can influence procrastination by mitigating stress levels and social connections. Higher oxytocin levels that result from positive social interactions reduce stress and promote feelings of calmness and well-being. This reduction in stress can decrease the likelihood of procrastination, as individuals may feel more emotionally-equipped to tackle tasks.


Endorphins, known as the body's natural painkillers, also play a role in procrastination. They are released during activities like exercise, laughter, and engaging in enjoyable tasks, leading to feelings of euphoria and a reduction in pain and stress. This positive emotional state can counteract the negative feelings associated with daunting tasks, reducing the urge to procrastinate.


Adrenaline is a hormone and neurotransmitter associated with the body's fight-or-flight response that plays a central role in how we react to stress and perceived threats. In the context of procrastination, adrenaline has a dual role. On one hand, the rush of adrenaline in response to an imminent deadline can provide a burst of energy and focus, propelling one to complete tasks at the last minute. On the other hand, chronic reliance on adrenaline-fueled, deadline-driven productivity can lead to stress, burnout, and an unhealthy cycle of procrastination followed by intense bursts of activity, making it a less sustainable strategy over the long term.

Fighting Procrastination with Brainpower

Now that we know the mechanisms behind procrastination, how can we use this information from keeping it at bay? Below are a set of habits and lifestyle interventions we can implement to target the key neurochemical culprits driving our emotions and behaviors that lead to procrastination events.

Optimize Dopamine Levels for Reward Motivation

  • Task Chunking: Break down large tasks into smaller, achievable one to create frequent reward moments. Treat yourself to a snack or a break for completion.
  • Little Wins: Celebrate small wins to reinforce the pleasure of completing tasks, enhancing dopamine's reward effect.
  • Make Work Fun: Engage in enjoyable, work-related activities to boost dopamine and make work feel more rewarding.

Increase Serotonin for Mood and Focus

  • Move: Incorporate physical activity, which is known to increase serotonin levels, before work to improve mood and focus.
  • Fuel Your Mood: Ensure a diet rich in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, for mood stabilization. Sources include eggs, cheese, poultry, and nuts.
  • Breathe: Practice mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress, which can help maintain healthy serotonin levels.

Utilize Oxytocin for Stress Reduction and Social Support

  • Teamwork: Engage in enjoyable collaborative tasks to boost oxytocin through social connection.
  • Touch: Physical gestures like handshakes, hugs, or pats on the back in a comfortable setting can boost oxytocin and create feelings of calmness and well-being.
  • Accountability: Set a deadline and let other people know the intention so they can help hold you accountable for task completion. This shared experience will consider the social implications of delat.

Enhance Endorphins to Combat Stress and Pain

  • Laugh: Engage in humor or watch some comedy before taking on a task, as laughter is known to release endorphins.
  • Exercise: Moderately strenuous physical activity can release endorphins, creating positive feelings and reducing the perception of pain of a task.
  • Music: Put on some inspiring or energetic music to boost endorphins and get you into a positive emotional state.

Regulate Adrenaline for Focus and Energy

  • Timing: Create timed work sprints to establish healthy urgency and leverage adrenaline's ability to improve focus and energy.
  • Goals: Set challenging yet achievable deadlines to stimulate a mild, productive adrenaline response.
  • Visualize: Define the worst-case scenario of not completing the task to spike adrenaline and give you additional motivation and focus.

General Support for Neurotransmitter Balance

  • Recover: Prioritize sleep, as it is crucial for the regulation of neurotransmitters.
  • Nutrition: Encourage a balanced diet that supports neurotransmitter production, particularly foods (or supplements) rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Stay Active: Movement, exercise, and sports training to improve mood, motivation, and focus, while reducing stress.

These are just a few of the strategies I use to spark my motivation to take on unpleasant tasks. All it takes is a basic understanding of a few neurological mechanisms to transform the simplest science of the brain into the elegant art of productivity and progress.

One more thing…

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