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The Neuroscience of Procrastination, Habits, and the Flow State

Everyday our minds are bombarded with a swirl of information, visual, and auditory stimuli. It can be difficult to concentrate on the tasks at hand, whether it’s your work at the office or your latest creative project. But there are good habits you can build up that help you concentrate with ease, and even enter that desirable mode known as “the flow state,” in which you feel entirely immersed in whatever you may be doing in the present moment, beyond the point of distraction.

Today we’d like to examine the brain’s chemical processes to understand why we procrastinate, become distracted, and lose focus. We’ll also explore the neuroscience of what happens when we’re able to break unhealthy habits, build healthy ones, and find freedom in the flow state. 

Procrastination and the Brain

Procrastination is the action of delaying or postponing something despite knowing the negative consequences. It’s a common barrier to concentration, but it’s more than incompetence or laziness. In fact, it’s biologically rooted in an eternal battle taking place in our brain between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

The limbic system is also known as the paleomammalian brain because it’s one of the oldest mental systems. One of the most important aspects is the amygdala, which dominates many of our behavioral and emotional responses. However, its processes often occur involuntarily and governs pleasure seeking, instant gratification, and the survival response, so if you feel your fight-or-flight instinct, that’s your limbic system activating.

Your limbic system is linked in a struggle with the prefrontal cortex, which is a newer and less developed part of the brain. Here, the brain makes logical analyses, plans for the future, and expresses your personality. It also governs self-control.

Due to the strength of the limbic system, it often dominates the prefrontal cortex, leading to procrastination. The brain craves dopamine, a feel-good chemical that results from doing or seeing something that feels good in the moment, and therefore when trying to decide between watching Netflix or doing laundry, it’s far easier to grant your brain the dopamine reward of watching a fun show.

Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination

Overcoming procrastination doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, the brain will still release dopamine once you finish a task, and it’s important to allow yourself to relish that moment. Creating a list of your goals, introducing time management techniques, and setting mindfulness practices can be incredibly effective. 

First, write out a list of everything you need and would like to get done. Consider the priority of each task, and the time it will take to complete it. Is there a way you can break up a large task into smaller, doable chunks? So instead of seeing your writing assignment as one giant task, consider that you can create smaller goals like gathering sources, building an outline, beginning a first draft, finishing that draft, then doing a round of edits. You may find your goals easier to achieve, especially if you break up a large task over a few days. 

Speaking of time management techniques, it may be helpful to give yourself timed breaks that make it easier to maintain your productive inertia. This could look like making yourself a smoothie after 45 minutes of work, no matter where you are in your task, so you can still grant yourself a dopamine reward.

Lastly, mindfulness practices can strengthen self-regulation. Meditation, for example, has been demonstrated to thicken the prefrontal cortex through gyrification, the creation of more folds, which increases the ability to process, think, and self-inhibit. The prefrontal cortex increases its projection to the amygdala to down regulate its activity, so you’re less likely to follow your impulses. Other mindfulness practices that may help self-regulation include being present on a walk, doing exercise, cooking a meal, knitting, or journaling. 

Building Habits and the Brain

Habits are regularly repeated behaviors that tend to occur subconsciously. However, to regain control of a habit, it may be helpful to reframe them as a neural pathway in the brain. Neural pathways are composed of neurons that are connected by dendrites. The more times you perform a behavior, the more dendrites are created to strengthen that connection.

According to Psychologist Deann Ware, Ph.D, brain cells communicate with each other through “neuronal firing,” and when we continually perform a habit, these messages transmit faster, which eventually help these habits become automatic due to a well-traveled neural pathway. However, as we participate in new activities, we can train the brain to form new neural pathways. 

Habit Loops

Repetition is key to form a habit, and it may be helpful to tap into all five senses that help a habit stick. This can look like visualizing a goal and connecting it to all five senses; what would it look or feel like to master playing the guitar? Or do a handstand? This may help the most difficult aspect of achieving a task: starting it.

You can create a habit loop that consists of a cue, routine, and reward. In order to trigger a habit, there must be a cue, a strong response to external stimuli. For example, upon hearing the bell ring in school, you got up and moved to your next class. When you begin to perform an action in response to various cues, you form a routine. After work each day, your routine may be to call a friend on the drive home. Finally, the reward of dopamine encourages you to repeat that behavior from positive reinforcement that strengthens a neural pathway. 

Unfortunately, this is just as likely to lead to the creation of bad habits as much as good ones. When we don’t want to begin a project, we can get our dopamine hit from watching funny videos. The brain doesn’t differentiate whether it’s “good” or “bad;” it only stores that signal. The purpose is to decrease stress by creating healthy routines, but when our emotions fall out of balance, we can fall into detrimental cycles. 

Gradually Changing Your Habits

It’s time to create some new neural pathways. If you have bad habits you’d like to break, write them down, and consider one or two you’d like to change. Try to identify the cause of that habit; perhaps stress leads you to doom scroll on social media, or boredom causes you to snack more than you’d like. If possible, remove the cause. For example, you can replace tempting prepackaged snacks with raw produce that can only be used when it’s time to cook. 

Just because you’ve removed a source doesn’t mean a feeling of stress or boredom disappears. Now you have the opportunity to ease those feelings with a positive habit. Instead of reaching for your phone when stressed, you can engage in a vigorous workout to release pent-up feelings. You can place your phone in another room to remove that distraction until the workout is complete. It’s common to slip up and fall back into a bad habit, but using compassionate self-talk can encourage you to try the new habit again. 

It can help to reward yourself for engaging in good habits. By creating a habit tracker, you can see the result of your progress by checking off every daily habit and motivating yourself to keep up your progress. The key is creating a list of easily achievable habits that can be completed in under two minutes. Instead of aiming for an hour of exercise, challenge yourself to complete one minute, or even one push up! By repeating these small habits frequently, those new neural pathways will have you making your bed without thinking about it.

Flow State and the Brain

The “flow state,” a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the mental state in which a person is entirely focused on a single activity, and not thinking about themselves nor their performance. Oftentimes, dancers, chess players, musicians, and artists can enter a flow state, but anyone is capable of entering a flow state while doing what they feel passionately about, from gardening to writing. 

During a flow state, many changes happen in the brain. Dopamine once again plays a starring role, and people in a state of flow have higher levels of dopamine, which also suppresses bodily sensations such as hunger and tiredness. It’s unclear whether activating the dopamine system enables flow, or the other way around; it’s likely they create a cycle. 

Researchers propose two theories for flow’s effects on the brain. The transient hypofrontality hypothesis suggests lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, and our executive function momentarily declines, which prevents self-conscious behavior. On the other hand, the synchronization theory of flow proposes that communication improves between different regions of the brain. Because a person usually has better control and coordination, it suggests higher levels of activity in the frontal cortex and therefore higher executive functioning.

How to Enter and Sustain the Flow State

Entering the flow state can sometimes occur unintentionally, but there are few strategies to induce it. It’s best to set aside a large chunk of time, set your goals for the sessions, create an optimal environment for concentration, and engage in deep work techniques that may lead you there. 

Distractions can make it more difficult to enter a flow state, whether you’re distracted by social media or your email. Minimizing interruptions is easy with tools like Freedom, which blocks apps from functioning or sending notifications to your phone or computer for a set period of time. By creating customized sessions that allow you to choose which apps and sites are blocked for as much time as you’d like, you can focus on work tasks, creative projects, and everything else in between. 

Deep work is another term for a state of distraction-free concentration in which the brain operates optimally. It was coined by computer science professor Cal Newport, who wrote the book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” The theory suggests that to be truly productive, we must work uninterrupted without distractions for long periods of time each day. You could begin with an hour or two and work your way up. There are four philosophies that dictate deep work. 

  • Rhythmic philosophy: This method sets 1-4 hours aside at the same time each day for deep focus. Consistency is key to this strategy, so it’s important to try to stick to your schedule. Time blocking is another management technique that may effectively complement this philosophy.
  • Journalistic philosophy: This is the most flexible approach, allowing you to fit deep work wherever you can in an ever-changing schedule. If you have at least 90 minutes between meetings, for instance, you could schedule time for deep work. 
  • Monastic philosophy: This is the most intense method of deep work, and encourages you to spend all your work hours on a high level of focus. This has the potential to eliminate all shallow work and reject all distractions that arise. 
  • Bimodal philosophy: You’ll be able to divide your time with long stretches of time, such as a full day, that is set aside for deep work, while the rest of your time can be set for shallow work. This is considered a more flexible version of the monastic philosophy, and allows you to spend a day or a week working deeply and then return to other obligations. 

It may be best to experiment with the different philosophies before settling on a method that works for you. Mindfulness practices also help in improving the flow state, according to a study that found athletes improved their performance after mindfulness techniques. 

Overcome Procrastination to Improve Concentration

The next time you feel the procrastination calling your name, remember your limbic system is trying to convince you to find that easy dopamine rush. Allow your prefrontal cortex to take the front seat, and understand that the satisfaction of achieving your goals will result in a more satisfying rush. With the help of mindfulness techniques that strengthen your prefrontal cortex and the ability to organize your tasks into doable chunks, you’ll still be able to reap the dopamine benefits at will. 

The creation of good habits will form new neural pathways in the brain that make it easier to engage in desired behaviors over time. By forming good habits around work and creative projects, you may find it easier to submerge yourself in deep work that can help you enter and sustain a flow state, where your concentration is deeply focused and your dopamine levels remain high. 

Oftentimes the best thing we can do is eliminate distractions that keep us from building good habits and entering that flow state. With the help of tools like Freedom, you’ll find it easier than ever to literally block your distractions and find your own workflow. 

Written by author Lorena Bally