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What is procrastination?

Quite simply procrastination is the avoidance of doing a task which needs to be accomplished. This repetitious behaviour can lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, anxiety, depression and self-doubt among students. The consequences of procrastination can be quite devastating for students as it can compromise their chances of academic success.

  • Do you ever find yourself sitting at your computer staring off into space, or surfing the net instead of researching your project; or simply avoiding work and just not getting important stuff done?
  • Do you ever become so anxious or frustrated at the start of a new assignment that you end up avoiding the stress by putting it off and doing something else?
  • Have you ever started something then deleted it all and started over again… and again… and again?
  • Do you ever find that, when you really need to sit down to commence an assignment, you conveniently find all these ‘really important’ other things that need doing, eg mowing the lawn, cleaning
    the windows, tidying your desk, washing the dishes or doing the shopping?

If you have, then this is a sure sign that you are procrastinating.

Why do we procrastinate?

There are many reasons why people procrastinate. Some of the more common explanations include:

  • Not enough time: Too much to do and no time to do it—you end up worrying instead of working.
  • Avoidance of negative experience: You simply dislike the set task and you do everything you can to avoid doing something unpleasant.
  • No motivation: A distinct lack of drive, challenge or reward—you sit around waiting to feel inspired or energised to get started and it never appears.
  • Lack of training, knowledge or skills: Ambiguity, uncertainty or lack of understanding about the task or how to go about achieving it.
  • Faulty thinking: Assuming that if you ignore the task long enough it will go away, or failing to adequately plan how much time and effort the job will take.
  • Perfectionism—fears of doing a less than perfect job interfere with your productivity: Repeatedly applying more pressure to yourself than is necessary due to the expectation that you must hand in nothing less than a perfect piece of work. Possibly, you may believe that you have to read everything ever written on a subject before you can begin to write your assignment. You may even think that you haven’t done the best you could possibly do, so it’s not good enough to hand in.
  • Fear of evaluation: Concern about your assessment becoming a reflection of your worth. You may consider that if you don’t get an ‘HD’, you are a failure or that if you fail an exam, you’re a poor student or people will think less of you.
  • Difficulty concentrating and dealing with distraction: Competing and conflicting sources of stress interrupt your ability to focus and make progress.
  • Personal problems: Pressing personal and emotional issues affect your concentration and productivity, eg relationship problems, financial difficulties, health difficulties.
  • Poor time management: Inadequate prioritising of tasks and time.
  • Fear and anxiety: You may be overwhelmed with the task and afraid of getting a failing grade. As a result, you spend a great deal of time worrying about your upcoming exams, assignments and projects, rather than completing them.
  • Recognize when you are procrastinating. Often we sidetrack ourselves without realizing it, focusing on unimportant things rather than the priority. Become aware of your favourite procrastination tactics, monitor your thoughts and activities often, refocus when off task and begin again. Ask yourself this question regularly ‘what is my purpose’ to get yourself back on track.
  • Make a start. Have you ever watched a freight train start to move? That initial forward jolt takes an enormous amount of energy. But once it’s moving, keeping the train rolling is much easier. Focus on a couple of small things to get you started. For example, write the first sentence of your assignment, or pull together thoughts and ideas in dot form and then elaborate them into sentences once you have a clearer idea of how those ideas fit into your overall assignment plan.
  • Break down your project into small, manageable pieces. Set yourself specific, achievable tasks and focus on achieving those. Just take one step at a time, knowing that each of those small steps contributes to achieving the ultimate goal of completing the project as a whole. Knowing what we know about attention and concentration spans, you will find that you will achieve more work in four periods of fifteen minutes, rather than one hour of sustained effort.
  • Set reachable sub-goals that are specific. Rather than, ‘Read 30 pages of Chapter 5 by 8pm tonight,’ aim to read ten pages at a time in 15 minutes periods and have a 5-minute break after every section. Short, sharp bursts of energy result in more effective and efficient study with better recall.
  • Avoid self-sabotage. Set up a study friendly workspace. Minimize distractions and set clear specific, time limited goals. Arrange your workspace just the way you like it, and work at times when you have peak energy.
  • Reward yourself. You are the task master, coach and evaluator. Plan your activities, make a commitment to your study, use successful study strategies and reward yourself often as you
    complete your goals. Why? Because, if you don’t reward yourself, nobody else will. Rewards need to be comparable—small rewards for small tasks and big rewards for bigger tasks. This then will allow you periods of enjoyment as you progress towards your goal. Study can be fun as well as effective and the systems that you put in place to focus, progress and achieve will determine your level of satisfaction.
  • Enjoy your freedom. When you complete a study goal, take a moment to feel how nice it is to have it finished and done with. Have a break before you launch into your next piece of assessment. Use this time as a reward for a job well done.
  • Be kind to yourself. Dwell on success, not on failure. Talk to yourself about what you’re doing well and encourage yourself along the way. You are your own best friend or your own worst enemy during times of stress, so encourage, support and nudge yourself towards success and achievement. Remind yourself regularly how good it will feel once you’ve finished.
  • Above all—exercise the three self’s: self-discipline, self-denial and self-reward.
Adapted from

'Overcoming procrastination', n.d., Texas Woman's University Counseling Center, viewed online November 2008.

'Procrastination and time management', n.d., Ferris State University—University College Educational Counseling Center, Starr 313, 591-3057, viewed online November 2008.

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