Pain of procrastination a dubious claim

brainA recent blog article by Christopher Lane casts a light on the varied claims about what is happening in our brains based on fMRI scans. A recently published critique of neuroscientific research by Stanford scientist John Ioannidis and Denese Szucs (see References) found serious flaws in many of the reported studies based on fMRI scans.

My immediate reaction was to go back and check my notes from my recent course, a MOOC called “Learning How to Learn” and the content that referred to fMRI data and how the heightened activity in the pain centres of the brain when people procrastinated demonstrated why we are so quick to switch our attention to more pleasurable or easier tasks or thoughts. Would this mean that the strategies to overcome procrastination weren’t valid either?  Well, I was unable to track down the specific fMRI data that the professor referred to (and can’t ask as the course is over) but I reviewed the tips I learned that I wanted to share with other instructors – and they still seem to make intuitive sense – see what you think.

Even if the fMRI data about the responses is inaccurate, there does seem to be real “pain” felt by those of us who procrastinate too often; avoiding important tasks too often can undermine success, create stress, frustration and unhappiness, and can become a habit that is difficult, but not impossible to break. But we also know, from the more recent neuroscientific research, that our brains can adapt and change (referred to as “neuroplasticity”). So how do we change bad habits?

pomodoro timerIn the recent past, researchers found that regular short breaks could help student stay focused. A technique developed by Francesco Cirillo, called the “Pomodoro Technique” involves working in 25 min cycles with short breaks. The cycles were called “pomodoros” which means “tomato” in Italian (named for the tomato-shaped timer that Cirillo used as a student). After four pomodoros, you take a longer break and then start on a new task.

If you’d like to try the process, here’s a straightforward explanation by Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, from his website Mind Tools “How to Use the Pomodoro Technique.”

Note:  The technique incorporates what Iowa State University researchers have found about the importance of spacing practice  (see Spacing and Interleaving of Study and Practice  in References). Evidence presented in the paper documents the changes in learning observed when the intervals between practice sessions varied. It appears as though different intervals, rather than “massed practice”, can help us build more constructive habits.

Some other possible techniques (proposed by psychologists, researchers, time management experts):

  • “chunk” your tasks (makes tasks smaller and more manageable);
  • identify the value of your tasks, relative to other options;
  • recognize the “pain” of avoidance; (take time to look ahead to the true consequences of inaction);
  • limit distractions (put your digital devices away, turn off the TV or sound system, close a door, turn on an answering system, put a sign on the door);
  • plan for small rewards (set a target – “if I do this much, I can do _____ or I can have ____”)

Another theory, referenced in an August 2016 post in Open Culture, The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination and How to Overcome It from Piers Steel, Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Calgary (explained in a Youtube video – The Procrastination Equation) explains procrastination as arising from the fact that the primitive part of our brains, the limbic system, responds much faster to stimuli than our more rational pre-frontal cortex. This can result in a haze of distractions that prevent us from accomplishing tasks we find difficult or distasteful or just don’t feel like doing. His main recommendation to overcome procrastination:  mindfulness meditation.

For further learning, check out the references below or review the excellent article in Open Culture (cited below). Of course you may have to set a timer, or meditate to make sure you don’t just put if off until a better time 😉


Carpenter, S. J.,  (2014)  Spacing and Interleaving of Study and Practice, In Benassi, V.A., Overson, C.E., & Hakala, C.M. (Eds.), Applying Science of Learning in Education:  Infusing Psychological Science in Curriculum. American Psychological Association, retrieved from

Cirillo, Francesco, The Pomodoro Technique (his website based on the book by the same name)

Ioannidis, JPA, D. Szucs, (2016) Empirical assessment of published effect sizes and power in the recent cognitive neuroscience and psychology literature. Stanfordretrieved from

Jones, Josh, (2016, August 18). The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It, retrieved from

Lane, C. (blog post Sep 09, 2016) Neuroscience Research Faulted for Widespread Inaccuracies, Psychology Today, retrieved from

Sejnowski, Dr. Terence, Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, The Pomodoro Technique: Staying Focused Throughout the Day, retrieved from