Procrastination is the avoidance or delaying of a task which you need or (at some level) want to do.
Everyone procrastinates, sometimes. Certainly most students are familiar with the experience, and the feelings that can go with it (frustration, despondency, self-criticism, stress) – in one study, 70% of students rated procrastination as a significant problem in their lives.
This leaflet draws on student responses to a series of workshops run by staff from the Academic Skills Centre and the Counselling Service at the University of Dundee, as well as on self-help books and leaflets. It looks at the key stages of noticing when you are procrastinating, understanding why it happens, and some strategies for challenging procrastination and moving forward with your studies (or any other aspect of your life).
Noticing when we procrastinate
The word ‘procrastination’ comes from the Latin words pro (forward/toward/in favour of) and cras (tomorrow). This is a bit misleading though. Sometimes we do procrastinate by saying ‘I will do it tomorrow’ (or next week, month, year…). But more often we convince ourselves that we are just about to start work/study - in five minutes time, or when we have finished off something else. We are very good at finding tasks that keep us busy, that may be interesting, entertaining or useful, but which disguise the fact that we are avoiding the task that really needs doing right now. (This is sometimes called ‘oven cleaning’ – the idea being that oven cleaning is such a horrible job that we only do it to avoid something else.)
Here are some examples of distractions frequently mentioned by students – do you recognise yourself in any of these?
- tidying the desk / cleaning the room
- organising files on the computer
- making (another) to-do list
- making (another) cup of coffee ‘before you start’
- answering emails / texts
- internet browsing
- checking Facebook / Twitter
- online games
- daydreaming / staring into space
Some of these are effective distractions because they feel like work, or getting ready to work – ‘I’m doing something’. Others are effective because we can tell ourselves we are not delaying anything – ‘It will only take 5 minutes’. Either way, the first step towards challenging procrastination is to notice when, and how, we are doing it. Identifying the ways you habitually distract yourself can help set up a mental reminder to stop, think, and do something different.
Understanding why we procrastinate
Procrastination is complicated– there are many reasons why people might avoid or put off work that they need to do. One writer (Steele 2011) suggests that these reasons break down into four main factors:
By ‘expectancy’ Steel means your assessment of the likelihood that you will complete the task successfully. Low expectations or fear of failure will tend to increase procrastination.
Students who are very critical of their own work, or perfectionists (who set themselves a very high bar for ‘success’); students who have received unexpectedly poor marks for recent coursework; or who are not sure what they need to do, or the requirements for success, are all more likely to procrastinate.
And it is not just about the individual task. An overload of tasks to complete at the same time can overwhelm us, making it seem impossible to get started on any of them.
How important or valuable the task seems to you. The more you care about or feel motivated by an activity, the more likely you are to get started, keep going, and complete it. Feeling bored by a task, or resentful at having to complete it, makes you more likely to put it off.
Some students may procrastinate to maintain a sense of their own autonomy and control; others because they dislike being alone and feel that isolation is being forced on them by the work. We may find it difficult to see what we will gain from completing the coursework/degree, or fear that success will set up expectations of us that we can’t meet in the future.
Time (and our awareness of it) plays a big part in procrastination. Long delays before a task needs to be completed make us less inclined to get started.
Sometimes we can have a distorted sense of the time available (for example we do not notice the deadline until it is very close, or we can underestimate the time that will be taken up by jobs, other classes etc.
If we lack time structure (clearly defined boundaries between ‘work’ hours and ‘leisure’, for example) it can be hard to focus or concentrate. We can spend many hours stuck in a grey area in between working and relaxing, where we are not really doing either.
This is our tendency to prefer immediate or short-term pleasures or distractions to longer-term rewards. It is suggested that some people are naturally more impulsive than others, and therefore more likely to procrastinate.
But there are also situations which make us all more likely to be impulsive (where the distractions are particularly immediate, and the longer-term rewards are particularly remote). And 21st century life is full of easy-access technologies to hook our impulsive tendencies (TV/internet/smartphones/social media/gaming…) – we are ‘drowning in distractions’.
Taking these four factors into account, Steele suggests that writing university coursework is a ‘perfect storm’ for procrastination:
- Studying is designed to be hard, to challenge what you know and take you out of your comfort zone. The rewards of putting the work in – understanding, confidence, better grades - can seem unpredictable, or slow to arrive (low expectancy).
- Writing courseworks can be a difficult, painful, personal process – something that we do out of necessity rather than choice, for a degree or career that looks a long way away (low value).
- Deadlines are often weeks or months after the coursework is assigned (high delay).
- Writing on a computer as most of us do, our ‘workstation’ is loaded with distractions that are one click away. And there is also very little separation between workspaces and social spaces in student life – the library is very close to the Student Union (high impulsiveness).
So what to do? As procrastination is a such a complex and tricky problem, we don’t think there is one single solution that will remove it from our lives. Here is a selection of strategies that might help, offered not as a complete set of instructions, but as a menu - try one or two strategies that looks promising, and see what difference (if any) they make.
Use the ‘power of routine’. Treat studying like a job - plan your working week, ideally with fairly regular working hours. (If not ‘Monday to Friday, 9 to 5’, then what?)
Plan study periods and breaks.e.g. 45 minutes on, 15 minutes off. Make a commitment to keep working until the 45 minutes are up. Use an alarm or timer to take the decision out of your hands (look up the ‘Pomodoro technique’ for more on this idea).
Plan ahead: make sure everything is ready to begin studying the night before so that you can get started (this can set the mood for the whole day).
Adopt a time-focused approach to avoid feeling overwhelmed by what there is to be done. E.g. instead of asking ‘how long will it take me to read this article’, allocate 1 or 2 hours and make the question ‘How much can I get from the article in the time available?’
Set realistic targets for what can be done today. Making promises to yourself that you don’t meet can be discouraging. ‘Promise a little, but deliver the lot’.
Take time out if you feel stuck. Do something different (something active) and come back with a fresh perspective.
Make plans. Daily / weekly ‘to do’ lists can give you a clear (and limited) sense of focus. So can a semester plan – mapping out key tasks for the semester on a calendar so that the deadlines (including any clusters) can be visualised.
Identify priorities. Long lists can feel overwhelming and we can become focused on crossing off as many items as possible, regardless of their urgency. Use an ABC system (A = essential now, B = will be essential soon, C = not essential but useful) to identify priorities.
Turn goals into tasks. A ‘goal’ is an overall aim (e.g. completing an assignment), which can be broken down into ‘tasks’ (reading, planning, drafting etc.). Limited, time-specific tasks make better targets than overall goals; ‘Saturday morning – write introduction’ rather than ‘Weekend – do essay’.
Join forces. Find a ‘study buddy’ or form a study group
Reward yourself: mark the completion of a task, a study period, or a working day, by treating yourself. Turn the distractions (Facebook, TV, chocolate) into rewards.
Start somewhere else. If its hard to start at the beginning, start in the middle. If what you do normally isn’t working, do something different.
Remind yourself of past successes: both in past years and more recently – what skills, factors or people helped you to be effective? How could these be transferred to the current task?
Imagine your future self, say in 10 years time, looking back on your current challenges. What advice would your future self give you? What would they say to encourage you?
Adopt a ‘good enough (for now)’ perspective. Don’t ask ‘have I read and understood everything?’; instead ask ‘have I read enough to get me started?’ Don’t ask ‘Is this sentence/paragraph/assignment perfect?’ but ‘Is it good enough for a first draft?’
Tell yourself ‘I am not my work’. Your studies are not who you are, they are what you do. There are always constraints of time and resources on what you can achieve. Any judgement on your work is not a judgement of you as a person.
Identify what motivates you. Change ‘I have to do this’ to ‘I choose to do this because…’ or even better, ‘This is interesting because…’
Identify what de-motivates you. Write down why you don’t want to do the task – what seems difficult, boring, frustrating, unappealing about it. Then put that piece of paper away in a drawer and carry on.
Write encouraging messages to yourself – your words or other people’s…
Exercise / move / relax your body: breathe deeply and slowly, tense and relax muscle groups, stretch, jog on the spot, dance/sing… anything that generates a bit of energy.
Finally forgive yourself for sometimes procrastinating, and move on. Accept that what you are doing is difficult. Support and encourage yourself the way you would a good friend. The ideas in this leaflet are intended to promote a spirit of compassionate curiosity about your procrastination, not self-blame. There is good evidence that relentless self-criticism doesn’t help people to overcome procrastination - it just makes them more unhappy about it.