6 Science-Backed Strategies to Overcome Procrastination

Imagine this – you have a report or assignment due soon. And you know that if you start early, you’ll have more time to brainstorm, research and produce great results.

If you start now, you might even have time to get your work reviewed by your teacher, colleagues, or supervisors.

You’d have time to review and revise everything and turn in the best work you can, confident in the output.

And yet, despite knowing all this, you keep putting it off. You promise yourself that you’ll get it done tomorrow, and tomorrow never comes.

Suddenly, there’s just a day to go before the deadline, and you have no more wiggle room to put off working.

In that state of stress, you throw yourself into your work, and somehow, manage to complete everything just in time.

And perhaps the results aren’t even all that bad!

Does this sound familiar to you?

Well – while most people aren’t strangers to procrastination, it’s too easy to turn this into a habit.

You might perpetually find yourself unable to get started on projects and assignments, only to panic last minute. You might be constantly completing things in a rush of stress close to a deadline.

And while sometimes you might get excellent results regardless, this isn’t always a given.

If anything, it’s an unhealthy habit to fall into in the long run. Not only are you damaging your productivity and your opportunities to grow and succeed, but also your mental and physical health.

Over time this type of acute, short-term stress can develop into chronic stress, which can mean chaos for your well-being.

So, what can you do to overcome procrastination?

Why Do People Procrastinate?

6 Science-Backed Strategies to Overcome ProcrastinationBefore getting into what you can do to break out of the cycle, you need to understand why you procrastinate.

Think about the type of zone you’re in when you’re working on something very close to the deadline.

You’re intensely focused, all your attention narrowed down to the task at hand. You’re not thinking about anything except what you’re working on. You are laser-focused, in a way you typically struggle to be.

Even if you’re tired, or haven’t slept all night, or have a ton to do, you’re powering through until you get to the finish line.

In other words, you’re in a state of stress.

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Your epinephrine (or adrenaline) levels have risen, making you want to move and do something.

You’re also experiencing higher levels of acetylcholine, which sharpens your focus and narrows it down to what you need to do.

While these brain chemicals are doing their thing, as you make even a little progress, you experience a dopamine spike.

Dopamine is your motivation molecule. You might be experiencing pulses of dopamine that motivate you to avoid the pain of missing your deadline. The progress you’re making can also amp up dopamine as you anticipate the reward of completing tasks and meeting deadlines.

In fact, a lack of motivation because of lower dopamine levels might be one of the reasons you procrastinate!

When you are experiencing a certain degree of stress, you’re under the best conditions for alertness, focus, learning and productivity.

If you find that you need the deadline pressure to get you going for learning or work, this is why.

You might be procrastinating to try and induce this state of stress to create the right chemical conditions for productivity.

But, as you know, this is not healthy.

Procrastinating frequently can slow down or prevent you from accomplishing your goals. You might always be playing catch-up instead of keeping up and getting ahead.

Table of Contents

1. Use Super Oxygenated Breathing

2. Wake Up Early in the Morning

3. Get a Caffeine Boost

4. Take a Cold Shower

5. Give Yourself Enough Room to Make Mistakes

6. Schedule Your Dopamine

6 Science-Backed Strategies to Overcome Procrastination

So, what can you do to avoid procrastinating, but still access the chemical conditions that make you your most focused and productive?

Here are a couple of science-backed strategies to overcome procrastination!

1. Use Super Oxygenated Breathing

6 Science-Backed Strategies to Overcome ProcrastinationBreathing is a central mechanism in your stress response, and it’s the mechanism that you have conscious control over.

You might have read about how you can use deep, slow breathing and physiological sighs to reduce stress.

You can also do the opposite to induce a mild state of stress.

Before proceeding, a word of caution. If you are prone to anxiety or panic attacks, please do not try super oxygenated breathing.

Since this method can trigger an anxiety response, it might aggravate any condition you struggle with.

So, here’s how it works. When you inhale, your lungs expand as they draw in more air, pushing your diaphragm down. Your ribcage expands outward.

This gives your heart a bit more space, letting it expand in volume. And as a result, your blood pumps slower.

Think about it like this. When you hook a wide pipe to a faucet versus a thin, narrow pipe, which one pumps water faster? The wide pipe, right?

The same happens when your heart has more space to move when your diaphragm shifts down.

This, in turn, sends a signal to your brain letting it know that your heart has slowed down. And as a result, your brain fires back signals to your heart to make it speed up again.

So, when you inhale more deeply or more vigorously than you exhale, you cause your heart to speed up.

This also triggers the release of adrenaline. It makes your body react and grow alert and prepared to move or take action.

Breathing quickly and shallowly several times can put you in a very alert and focused state of mind. But once again, be mindful that this might also trigger an anxiety attack if you are prone to anxiety.

2. Wake Up Early in the Morning

6 Science-Backed Strategies to Overcome ProcrastinationThis might sound like a no-brainer, but there’s more to waking up than getting an early start on your day.

When the retinal cells in your eyes detect the specific quality and strength of early morning light, they signal for the release of cortisol.

You might have heard of this referred to as the stress hormone. And indeed, high levels of cortisol, especially in the evening, correlates to stress, and not the productive kind.

However, when your eyes detect early morning light, the cortisol release this stimulates is much healthier.

In fact, it triggers a response throughout the rest of your body, letting all your different biological systems know it’s time to wake up, focus and be alert.

This includes the release of adrenaline. It also sets the timer on your sleep hormone, melatonin, to release several hours later, in the evening.

The more often you wake up and get this early morning light exposure, the more the connection between your eyes and circadian clock (which regulates your wakefulness-sleep cycles) will grow to anticipate the light.

As a result, you’ll naturally start waking up earlier, and the pulses of cortisol will automatically trigger wakefulness!

3. Get a Caffeine Boost

6 Science-Backed Strategies to Overcome ProcrastinationPartway through the day, you might start getting a little sleepy.

This happens because of the build-up of the molecule adenosine. When you’ve just woken up from sleep, your adenosine levels are low.

The longer you stay awake, the more your adenosine levels build up. And the drowsier and more tired you’re likely to feel.

This is where caffeine comes in. Caffeine basically blocks adenosine from doing its job, by binding to your adenosine receptors.

As a result, it helps wake you up and feel more alert. Because caffeine can also boost your dopamine levels by up to 30%, it can give you a short-term boost in motivation and focus!

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It’s important to time your caffeine intake properly, though.

You might be in the habit of brewing yourself a cup of coffee or tea as soon as you wake up. But this is counter-intuitive, since as you know your adenosine levels are already low when you wake up.

Instead, have your first cup about two or so hours after you’ve woken up. This can then give you a boost that carries you past the midday slump you might otherwise experience.

This slump might actually happen because of a caffeine crash if you’re used to caffeinating right after waking up.

When the caffeine leaves your system, all the adenosine that had been building up binds with its receptors. This is why you might suddenly feel extremely sleepy and tired halfway through the day!

It’s also important to avoid caffeine late in the day too. Although different people have different tolerance levels, the caffeine in a cup of black coffee can stay in your system for up to 10 hours.

If your drink a second or more cups later in the day, this can interfere with your sleep.

Not only does this damage learning and memory, but also makes it harder for you to wake up early. And you know that early morning light is vital for that start-of-the-day cortisol.

4. Take a Cold Shower

6 Science-Backed Strategies to Overcome ProcrastinationHave you ever accidentally turned the shower on before switching to the hot water?

That icy cold blast almost feels electric, right? A very effective wake up call, and not just because of the shock from the temperature.

Contact with cold water, whether from a cold shower or jumping into an unheated swimming pool, is also a stressor.

Not only does it stimulate the release of adrenaline – creating a low-level degree of stress – it also helps boost your dopamine levels.

If you’ve ever come back from a swim in a cool water feeling incredibly alert and in a good mood, this is why!

Cold water also gets you breathing more deeply. Because your body is trying to preserve heat and maintain its core temperature, your blood vessels shrink away from your skin’s surface.

Like the example of the pipe you read about earlier, the narrower blood vessels cause your blood to flow faster. Your heart works faster to get it coursing through your body and keep you warm. Along with your deep breathing, this sends a ton of oxygen-rich blood to your brain.

As a result, this helps your brain create connections between its brain cells faster. In turn, this lets you learn and process information faster and with greater clarity and efficiency.

5. Give Yourself Enough Room to Make Mistakes

6 Science-Backed Strategies to Overcome ProcrastinationIf you start work on your deadlines early, you of course have more time to work on your reports and assignments.

But that’s not all. By starting early you’re actually allowing yourself time to access neuroplasticity. This is your brain’s ability to expand, grow and change with new information and experiences.

By accessing neuroplasticity, you create the perfect conditions for your brain to engage in new learning.

And one of the best ways this happens is to make errors while learning!

Here’s the science behind this.

When you’re doing the same thing over and over again, you might become so good at it you’re barely thinking about it. But this doesn’t lead to plasticity, since you’re not doing anything new.

On the other hand, say you’re learning something new, and are making mistakes. Your nervous system, which includes your brain, detects a gap between what you intend to do and what you’re doing.

Errors alert your brain that something is wrong. As a result, your nervous system works to figure out the margins of this error, and starts trying to fix it.

When you’re trying to learn something new, like hitting a baseball for the first time, you might keep making mistakes.

Naturally, this might make you feel frustrated and stressed, right?

By now, you probably know where this is going.

Instead of giving up because you feel frustrated with your mistakes, keep going.

The stress of getting something wrong to the point of frustration triggers epinephrine. You’ll find it easier to switch into that high-focus, high-alertness state the more you practice.

Meanwhile, if you can consciously process your frustration as a good thing – as in, you learn to enjoy the process of slowly getting better at something – you also release dopamine.

In fact, the smallest improvement in your practice can release dopamine. And this helps boost your motivation, mood, focus and alertness!

As a result, you’re not only giving yourself enough time to iron out errors before your deadline. You’re also creating the ideal chemical conditions for plasticity.

This means that you’re not just doing routine work. You’re actually developing your ability to learn and expanding your potential!

6. Schedule Your Dopamine

6 Science-Backed Strategies to Overcome ProcrastinationYou’ll find a lot of information and advice on how to boost your dopamine.

But what many sources often leave out is that for every spike in dopamine, there is a corresponding spike in chemicals causing pain.

For example, say you are anticipating ordering from a new pizza joint your friend recommended.

Just this anticipation alone leads to an initial spike in dopamine. It motivates you to look up the number or website or app of this pizza joint and place your order.

When you actually tuck into your first slice of pizza, your dopamine spikes even more, as you experience the reward you anticipated.

However, along with this spike you also experience a degree of pain. This comes in the form of the craving you experience for the next slice.

Rather than feeling content with what you have, dopamine constantly makes you want more of what you experienced pleasure from.

And as you pursue more of it, to settle your cravings and address the pain, the dopamine you release falls.

On the other hand, the pain you experience increases.

This is why dopamine is often linked to addictive behaviors and lifestyles, like gambling or excessive drinking and substance use.

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What Does This Mean for Long-Term Goals?

You would experience some spikes of dopamine by celebrating every milestone on the way to achieving a goal.

But as you now know, the more you experience a dopamine spike, the level of dopamine you release will decrease. And the corresponding pain response will increase.

Knowing how your dopamine mechanism works, however, helps you use this system to your advantage by timing your dopamine release.

Rather than trying to motivate yourself by celebrating every task you complete, reward yourself for every other task.

Make sure that these rewards are not in a predictable pattern.

This allows you to make each dopamine spike last longer and keeps you from burning out your dopaminergic pathways.

You’re therefore able to sustain a steady level of motivation towards your goals, without feeling tempted to give up partway!

With these 6 science-backed strategies to overcome procrastination, you don’t have to rely on deadline pressure to get work done.

You can count on neuroscience-proven tools to keep you focused and motivated instead!

Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.

Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™. 

Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!

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