How to Stop Procrastinating: There Is a Science to It

How to Stop Procrastinating. There is a Science to It.

In a 2017 study of procrastination in nursing students, researchers sought solutions to curb the behavior of decisional procrastination in academics. They discovered that social capital — feelings of hope, resiliency, optimism and self-efficacy — played a role in minimizing procrastination. In other words, the procrastination habits of the study participants were not merely a result of negligence or lack of discipline; the way they felt influenced how and when they approached a task.  

The question of why people procrastinate is a perennial issue for students and nursing professionals alike. While everyone may procrastinate on occasion, nearly 20% of people engage in chronic procrastination. The causes may vary, and understanding what is affecting an individual’s ability to prioritize and balance school assignments, work duties, and their personal life  can make a significant difference in how they approach these tasks. When this is achieved, and strategies are implemented, individuals can rebalance their priorities and enjoy greater well-being.

Why Do People Procrastinate?

The act of procrastination is sometimes falsely associated with laziness. However, social and behavioral science suggest the reason people put off important tasks is much more complicated. Several studies have explored different theories on why people procrastinate. 

One school of thought ties the behavior to emotional regulation, according to an article on procrastination from The New York Times. When a looming task causes negative emotions, an individual may avoid it to temporarily alleviate their stress and regulate their mood.

These negative feelings can include:

self-doubt or fear they will be unable to complete the task or do it well, e.g., a challenging school or work assignment 

stress over doing something related to a larger issue, e.g., opening the mail to review monthly bills

disinterest in a task that is not enjoyable, e.g., filing taxes 

Some researchers think procrastination is related to the concept of present bias, also known as hyperbolic discounting, a type of cognitive bias where an individual chooses smaller, immediate rewards over larger, delayed rewards. 

One study of the evolutionary origin of procrastination suggested impulsivity is tied to genetics and brain chemistry, which can also affect a person’s tendency to procrastinate. Historically, the prioritization of short-term goals was important for survival. For example, when looking for a food source, impulsive behavior was beneficial and quickly rewarded. 

In modern life, there is a greater need to balance short- and long-term goals. When struggling to focus on an important task, such as studying for an exam, it may be tempting to pursue an unrelated short- term goal that provides instant gratification, which is signaled by the release of dopamine in the brain. This may look like checking social media, where the reward is viewing content and information, or even a seemingly productive task like reorganizing your desk space.

Four Misconceptions About Procrastination

Misconception 1

People who procrastinate are lazy.


There are a variety of factors that contribute to a person delaying an important task. Often, people who procrastinate do so as an avoidance tactic based on negative feelings, such as self doubt, anxiety, or boredom.

Misconception 2

For some, putting tasks off to the last minute is beneficial because they work better under pressure.


While many individuals may be able to function under the stress of a tight deadline, it does not mean it is their best work. Research has shown no correlation between delaying tasks and the quality of performance.

Misconception 3

Delaying a task is always bad behavior.


There is a difference between delay and procrastination. Someone may purposefully choose to schedule a meeting later in the week so they have more time to prepare. Completing a task may also be delayed due to inevitable circumstances, such as when a personal issue arises and requires stepping away from school or work responsibilities.

Misconception 4

As long as deadlines are met, there is no harm in procrastination.


No one is immune to procrastination. However, there is a difference between engaging in this behavior on occasion and chronic procrastination. When done on a regular basis, the stress caused by procrastination can cause mental and physical health issues.


Mental and Physical Health Effects of Chronic Procrastination

While procrastination may sometimes lead to a negative outcome, such as receiving a low grade on a rushed assignment, the behavior of waiting until a deadline is near often results in a person completing their dreaded task. Research suggests that when a person procrastinates but still meets their goal, the result may reinforce this behavior.  

However, the stress that may be caused due to procrastination sends higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline to the brain. Engaging in procrastination regularly, and in turn increasing the level of stress hormones, can have lasting negative health effects. For example, research has linked chronic procrastination and cardiovascular disease

12 Health Issues Linked to Chronic Stress 

There are also a number of health conditions that can be affected by high levels of stress: 

  • anxiety
  • cardiovascular disease
  • chronic fatigue
  • depression
  • gastrointestinal disorders
  • immune disorders
  • increased risk for hypertension, heart attack, and stroke
  • metabolic disorders
  • migraines and tension-type headaches
  • muscle tension
  • panic attacks
  • psychological distress


How to Stop Procrastination

While some individuals may feel like procrastinating is hardwired into their brain, it is a behavior pattern that can be changed. The following strategies are examples of how people who procrastinate can break the cycle. 

Three Strategies for Addressing Procrastination 

The Pomodoro Technique 

The Pomodoro technique is a strategy that uses a timer to create a sense of urgency when working on a task or project. 

  1. Using a preferred timing device, set a timer to work for 25 minutes. 
  2. Proceed to work on the selected task for the duration of the set time. 
  3. When the timer goes off, take a short 5-10 minute break. 
  4. Start the timer again and continue the process for three intervals.
  5. After the third 25-minute work session, take a slightly longer break (20-30 minutes) and then begin the process again. 

Break Large Tasks into Smaller Chunks

To complete a goal with a delayed reward, breaking work down into smaller tasks can reframe one large project as several short-term goals, making it easier to feel a sense of accomplishment. 

  1. Take a moment to look at a task or project, and identify smaller components within it that can serve as short-term goals. 
  2. Establish a cadence or timeline for completing each of these short-term goals. 
  3. Start the process of working through each short-term goal, and remember to celebrate each small success. 

Practice Self-Compassion 

When self-doubt is the root of procrastination, address those emotions and how they affect one’s ability to be productive. 

  1. Reflect on the emotion or feeling related to the task at hand, e.g., “I am not capable of writing a quality research paper.” 
  2. Once that feeling is identified, use facts and rational reasons that disprove it. For example,
    “I was accepted to my program by merit.” “I have completed research papers before.” 
  3. If negative thoughts resurface, continue to reinforce the act of reframing them through the lens of rational, factual information.


Please note that this article is for informational purposes only. Individuals should consult their health care provider before following any of the information provided.

Citation for this content: Nursing@Georgetown, the online MSN program from the School of Nursing & Health Studies