How To Overcome Procrastination – The Neuroscience Of It

Bored woman procrastinating instead of being productive

Overcoming procrastination is often the key to achieving the goals you have. Whether our goals are professional or personal, obstacles get in the way. External obligations such as social events and unforeseen additional work can drain your energy. So when left to deal with internal battles there’s not much left in you.

There are a lot of background mechanisms happening in your brain that you are not conscious of. You don’t feel anything every time a neuron fires. You can’t identify exactly what neurochemicals are being released when you become aware of a particular emotion. To put it short – you have little control over the neuroactivity inside your brain. But it has a huge impact on your productivity.

Becoming aware of these mechanisms is half the battle. Understanding the principles of neuroproductivity helps you become more productive. It will also teach you to be kinder to yourself when things don’t go as planned.

The three neurochemicals of the state of flow

There are three main neurochemicals that dominate the mind in the state of flow. It’s the zen-like meditative state where you have no mental obstacles stopping us from executing your plans and applying your skills to the max. These are dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine. 


Of the three, dopamine is the most known and also the most controversial one in the neuroscience of productivity. It’s a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in the reward system. Releasing dopamine sends your brain a message: “This feels good! Keep doing it more to feel good”. Activities such as playing video games, eating, and having sex increase dopamine levels in the central nervous system. 

When it comes to productivity, dopamine is a double-edged sword. It can increase or decrease your productivity depending on what exactly triggers the reward system. You will get a small hit of dopamine when you check the progress you have made after an hour of hard work. But you will also get a hit of dopamine when your phone notifies you of a new episode of your favorite series on the air. 

To make the most of the increased levels of dopamine, you need to design your reward system in a way that supports your productivity. This can mean putting your phone away and focusing on the task at hand. Or you may want to reward yourself for a job well done later.


The second neurochemical is noradrenaline or norepinephrine. It’s a neurotransmitter that’s involved in the fight-or-flight response. It makes you more alert and vigilant. The right amount of pressure can be beneficial in order to increase your productivity. It’s important to be able to avoid long-term stress. This is why many people report performing better working with shorter deadlines and higher expectations.


Acetylcholine is the third neurochemical of productivity. Of the three this is the most abundant in the nervous system. It’s involved in keeping basic unconscious mechanisms such as heart rate, digestion, or respiration going. Additionally, it also plays an important role in focus, learning, and memory. When your body is experiencing an acetylcholine deficiency, you’ll have trouble focusing and remembering things. Some diseases such as Alzheimer’s can cause damage to the cholinergic system – the system in the brain that produces acetylcholine. On the other hand, increased levels of acetylcholine are related to high levels of productivity and efficiency

Three kings of overcoming procrastination

It’s time to put this knowledge into practice and increase your own productivity. You should build your action plan around three concepts – fun, fear, and focus. Each of them is targeted to hack the related neurochemical in your body to work to your benefit and support your productivity

Fun and rewards

The concept of fun is all about finding the right balance between having fun without getting distracted. The best strategy is to ensure there’s some sort of reward in the process of working on your project. Sometimes, the reward is intrinsic: you genuinely enjoy what you’re working on. But sometimes, you need to work on something you don’t find as interesting. It’s a good idea in these cases to create extrinsic rewards you genuinely care about. For example, promise yourself to go see a movie you’re excited about after you’re done with the project.

Fear and pressure

Living in constant fear is not good for you. But just the right amount of pressure will increase your levels of noradrenaline and thus your productivity. Try to avoid creating that pressure by waiting until the last moment to start working. Instead, find ways to challenge yourself and step out of your comfort zone. Incorporate systems for accountability by telling others about your plans and goals to other people. This will trick your mind into feeling just the right amount of positive pressure and increase your productivity.

Increased focus

Fun and fear aspects are more about tricking your mind. Focus comes from giving your body what it needs to increase your levels of acetylcholine and thus your focus. Proven ways to increase your levels of acetylcholine include eating foods that are rich in choline, which is needed to synthesize acetylcholine. These are lean meats, and fatty fish like salmon, milk, yogurt, kidney beans, green beans, peas, and broccoli. Adding a gentle exercise before you start working can also increase your acetylcholine levels. So you may want to consider taking little walks to sharpen your focus. 

Keep in mind that your environment also has a great impact on your productivity. Learn about optimizing your environment for better focus

A final word about productivity and procrastination

All combined together, fun, fear, and focus will help you get in the flow. However, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s simply impossible to stay productive forever for extended periods. If that’s the case, consider taking a break. Staying busy for the sake of staying busy can give you the illusion of productivity. But as nothing really gets done it can lead to anxiety at work.

Check these articles for more research-based strategies to overcome procrastinating