Brain Science Explains The Most Productive Ways To Procrastinate

Research on the brain’s decision-making systems reveals the five most productive ways to waste time.

Brain Science Explains The Most Productive Ways To Procrastinate
[Photo: Flickr user kizzzbeth]

Sit down to work on a specific task and you may find your mind veering off on a different track, spiraling down into the black hole of procrastination.


“We all experience motivational breakdowns, like eating ice cream in front of the television while exercise and writing were originally on the menu,” writes Piers Steel, psychologist and author of the book The Procrastination Equation in Psychology Today. “There are a couple of misfiring neural regions that are reliably responsible for your procrastination.”

Our brains contain two different decision-making systems:

  1. System One is the limbic system, which is mainly associated with our emotional lives.
  2. System Two is the prefrontal cortex, also known as our executive function, which is associated with planning, decision-making and longer-term thinking.

“Every time you decide to work, the payoff gets evaluated twice: once by the limbic system and a second time by the prefrontal cortex,” according to Steel. In other words, it’s a battle of impulse against rationality.

But while the term “productive procrastination” used by Steel, is a contentious one amongst scholars in the field, some of whom strongly believe there can be nothing productive about procrastination. But there’s no question that of the many ways we can waste time, some are far better for us than others.

Here are five of the best ways to procrastinate when it comes to helping clear and replenish your mind for better focus down the line.


Take A Structured Approach To Procrastination

How many times have you opened your web browser to check the weather only to find yourself 45 minutes later down an Internet rabbit hole? “The died-in-the-wool procrastinator doesn’t do anything on their list. They are watching Youtube videos of cats,” says Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada and author of the book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.

It may seem that the best way to truly focus on a task or project is to minimize the number of commitments you have. The less you have to do, the easier it will be to focus right? John Perry, a Stanford philosopher and author of The Art of Procrastination, says that’s entirely wrong. He suggests using a different approach, one he calls “structured procrastination,” which encourages doing tasks farther down on your to-do list as an effective way to avoid those that are higher up. Have only a few really important tasks on your list and you’ll be more likely to avoid them by wasting time doing nothing. “This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being,” Perry writes. Instead, keeping a list of all the things you need to do will help keep your procrastination more structured.

Unclutter Your Workspace

A messy workspace can make for a cluttered mind. Research out of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute has shown that physical clutter can inhibit your mind’s ability to focus. If you’re looking for a way to procrastinate, take some time to clear off your workspace. “Take everything off the desk except what you need to do,” says Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of the book Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. “The goal is to get rid of distractions and noise.”

Hang Out With People Who Get Stuff Done

We all have those few friends whose laser focus and productivity are a mystery to us. How in the world do they pull it off? It wouldn’t hurt to ask. Ferrari suggests spending time with people who are adept at managing their time well. “Surround yourself with people who like to get things done,” he says.

There’s scientific research to back this up. Psychologist Albert Bandura’s seminal research on human behavior has found that modeling is an effective way to change one’s negative behaviors. “Learn by watching others,” says Ferrari. “If we see a model who is successful and they are rewarded, we are more likely to follow that model.”

Post What You’re Planning To Do On Social Media

Getting sucked for hours into Facebook is about the last thing you want when you’ve got something to get done and you’re feeling the tug of distraction. “Define breaks clearly,” Pychyl says. “You have to make sure you are not walking into a bottomless pit.”


That said, if you are careful to limit your use, social media might be an effective way to build accountability around your actions. “If you publicly post something you want to do, you are more likely to live up to it because now you’ve got people who are going to follow-up,” says Ferrari. “You are held accountable.”

Move Around For 20 Minutes

Twenty minutes of physical activity can go a long way in terms of replenishing you. “It’s tempting to just sit down and watch television,” says Pychyl. “Screen time isn’t restorative. In fact, it can become quite compulsive.” Instead do something that will actually bring you energy. Studies have shown that 20 minutes of exercise or physical activity like yoga have measurable effects on the body’s executive function and cognitive performance.

“When you really want to take a break, you need to find those projects and places that restore you,” says Pychyl.


About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction