Are you staying up too late to squeeze in some leisure activities after a long day, leaving you tired and behind the next day? Are you cleaning the bathroom instead of responding to work emails? Odds are you aren’t alone. COVID-19 has spawned a global mental health crisis, and that’s feeding one of our more harmful human tendencies: procrastination.
People don’t necessarily procrastinate because they are lazy. Procrastination has roots in our evolutionary development, with two key parts of the brain vying for control.
“Procrastination is an emotion-focused coping strategy,” says Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. “It is not a time-management problem; it is an emotion-management problem.”
And while the arrival of vaccines has offered hope as the devastating pandemic drags on, one year since the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic, lockdowns and isolation will likely continue for months in the United States as we build herd immunity. That leaves many people grappling with fear and frustration that often allow procrastination to win the battle in our brains.
“Procrastination can be from a combination of mental and physical health issues,” says Nitin Desai, a physician based in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “The pandemic has caused increased stress, anxiety, and depression, leading to more individuals [suffering from] those underlying conditions, leading to more procrastination.”
Here’s a breakdown of the science behind procrastination, how the pandemic has driven a rise in different forms of the behavior, and some of the strategies we can use to get our brains back on track.
Experts who study procrastination define it as the voluntary delay of an intended act despite the fact that you can expect to be worse off in the long run by putting off the task. We know the task doesn’t go away, but sometimes we let our emotions get the best of us. Our “present self” calls the shots, and our “future self” suffers because of it.
Neuroscientists have found that procrastination is a battle between an ancient part of the brain called the limbic system and a relatively younger part known as the prefrontal cortex.
The limbic system is sometimes known as the paleomammalian brain, because its components play roles in our most fundamental survival adaptations, controlling basic behaviors such as the “fight or flight” response, as well as emotion and pleasure-seeking. The limbic system is most often linked to impulsive behavior and a desire for instant gratification.
The prefrontal cortex evolved more recently; scientists estimate between 19 million to 15 million years ago. It’s responsible for more complex behaviors such as planning for the future—something that likely benefited our ancestors when it came time to coordinate hunts to take down larger prey and build civilizations.
However, when strong emotions such as anxiety and fear become overwhelming, the impulsive limbic system can still win out. And that’s when we put off more daunting tasks for the temporary relief offered by binge-watching a new Netflix show or trying out the latest viral TikTok recipe.
Before the pandemic, chronic procrastinators faced a host of ill effects, from bad grades in school to health risks due to missed doctor visits and skipped workouts. And while some experts argue that procrastination can have benefits to creativity, Pychyl cautions against confusing deliberate and thoughtful delays with the self-regulatory failure of procrastination.
“Everyone always wants to turn a vice into a virtue,” Pychyl says.
Revenge on bedtime
In the early days of the pandemic, we struggled with what experts have dubbed quarantine fatigue, the exhaustion of adjusting to the restrictions associated with the virus. And as the pandemic has dragged on, more people found themselves vulnerable to the stress and uncertainty that drives procrastination.
“Our need to socially distance and stay at home has derailed our ability to do those things which make it easier for us to stay on task,” such as maintaining a regular schedule and carving out separate spaces for specific goals, says Julianna Miner, an adjunct professor of global and community health at George Mason University in Virginia, and author of Raising a Screen-Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age.
If people are indeed procrastinating more, Miner blames the rise in remote work and learning, which creates challenges in differentiating between workspaces and spaces for relaxation, as well as an inability to clearly break up our time between work and relaxation. “The lack of structure is really detrimental to people who struggle with procrastination,” she says.
Robin Hornstein, a licensed psychologist and certified health coach based in Philadelphia, agrees. “Those now working from home are missing the markers of work that keep the day flowing,” she says. “We are experiencing prolonged stress, and we fall into habits for safety and soothing. That can lead to procrastination.”
In particular, the pandemic seems to have driven an increase in what’s called “bedtime procrastination,” a term coined in a 2014 study by health researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In this type of procrastination, people put off going to sleep to engage in leisure time. Chinese social media users renamed it “revenge bedtime procrastination” in 2020—referring to people taking revenge on the work day by staying up to have fun—and the highly relatable term went viral on Twitter.
A 2019 study in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience suggested that women in particular are prone to bedtime procrastination—a problem that may now be exacerbated by the extra demands on women’s time in particular during the pandemic. Chronically engaging in this behavior can have serious consequences when lack of sleep creates both physical and mental health issues.
“Productive procrastination” is another pandemic-fueled buzz term. This is when people avoid one task to complete another, such as putting off a big work project to scrub the grout in the bathroom. While it may not seem as harmful because you are completing a task and achieving some level of productivity, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The big report still needs to get done, and putting it off just adds to stress levels.
Carleton University’s Pychyl believes that “productive procrastination” is not just an oxymoron, but another example of humans trying to turn a vice into a virtue.
Next small steps
While procrastination can be a tough tendency to fight, experts say there are things we can do to avoid falling into its mental trap.
Research shows that mindfulness and self-compassion can help with procrastination, perhaps because these practices are about overcoming negative emotions. In a 2018 study in the journal Mindfulness, scientists found that people who were able to acknowledge their mistakes or other personal failings and then forgive themselves for it were less likely to procrastinate. Similarly, a 2020 study in the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology found that people who practiced even brief mindfulness exercises were more likely to stay on task.
On a more practical level, Pychyl urges people not to overburden themselves with an entire project, but rather to figure out a next step with as low a threshold as possible. When you focus on taking even one small step, you trick your brain by looking at an action, not the associated emotion.
George Mason’s Miner advises people struggling with procrastination to figure out what has helped them be productive in the past. For her, she says, "creating a layer of accountability helps.” That’s why many colleges have set up procrastination accountability groups for students.
"For those who cannot work alone, try an online accountability partner site like Focus Mate,” adds Hornstein, the Philadelphia psychologist. “Make a coworker your accountability partner and celebrate each other's successes, and ask for help remediating things that have lagged behind."
Hornstein also encourages people to hold themselves accountable by organizing and prioritizing to-do lists—and building in a reward system for tasks completed. Past research has shown that the promise of even relatively small rewards, like a short walk outside or a tasty treat, can motivate people to focus on their work.
However, multiple experts caution that if you are really struggling with procrastination, it could be due to more serious mental health issues: "Procrastination could be a symptom or a maladaptive behavior from an underlying medical condition like anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, or depression,” says Desai, the Fayetteville physician. “A good medical evaluation with psychological testing may be the first step.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify Robin Hornstein's affiliation.