Do you struggle with leaving things until the last minute? Do you wait to finish things until it is almost too late and then rush to finish, leaving yourself stressed and the project suffering? Check out these tools for understanding and overcoming procrastination.
Do any of the following statements sound familiar:
- “I’m more productive when I work under pressure, so I’m postponing all my work until the pressure builds up and then I’ll get it done easily.”
- “I don’t know how to do this problem, so I’m waiting until I know how before I do it.”
- “This task isn’t getting done because I really don’t want to do it. And that’s the honest truth.”
- “Relax. The world isn’t going to come to an end if this doesn’t get done.”
- “This job is easier to do when I’m in the mood, and I’m simply not in the mood right now.”
- “I waited until the last moment before and it worked out okay, so why not this time?”
- “If I wait until the last minute, I won’t spend so much time on it.”
- “If I do this work right now, I’ll miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime social event.”
- “Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from doing so.”
If so, it may be a sign of procrastination. Procrastination is the action of delaying or postponing something until a later time. It means putting something off now, usually in favor of doing something that is more enjoyable or that you are more comfortable doing.
Negative consequences of procrastination include feelings of anxiety and stress, fatigue, and disappointment from falling below ones own standards. Additionally, leaving things to the end dramatically increases the chances something will go wrong – such as getting sick or a computer problem – and not being able to pull off the desired grade. Even with all of these negative consequences, we procrastinate anyway. How come?
Procrastination is not a matter, solely, of having poor time management skills, but rather can be traced to underlying and more complex psychological reasons. These dynamics are often made worse in situations where students are constantly being evaluated, and especially in college where the pressure for grades is high and a lot can be riding on students’ performance. In reality, procrastination is often a self-protection strategy. For example, if you procrastinate, then you always have the excuse of “not having enough” time in the event that you fail, so your sense of your ability is never threatened. When there is so much pressure on getting a good grade on, say, a paper, it’s no wonder that students want to avoid it, and so, put off their work. For the most part our reasons for delaying and avoiding are rooted in fear and anxiety—about doing poorly, of not having control of our outcomes, of looking stupid, of having one’s sense of self or self-concept challenged. We avoid doing work to avoid our abilities being judged. So, what can we do to overcome our tendencies to procrastinate?
- Awareness: The First Step
First, to overcome procrastination you need to have an understanding of the reasons why you procrastinate and the function procrastination serves in your life. Reflect on the reasons why you put things off, as well as your habits and thoughts that lead to procrastinating. While there are many styles of procrastination, here are a few. Do you recognize yourself?
The Perfectionist: Hesitant to start or finish a project unless confident of doing it perfectly.
The Dreamer: Has great ideas but doesn’t want to do the work to fulfill them.
The Worrier: Preoccupied with security and minimizing risk, avoids challenges or tasks that seem difficult.
The Defier: Eager to rebel or be different, reacts against others rather than determining own course.
The Crisis-Maker: Waits until last minute then needs adrenaline boost to barely make deadlines.
The Overdoer: Takes on too many tasks to get them all done reasonable on time.
- Motivation: Finding Productive Reasons for Engaging in Tasks
To overcome procrastination it’s critical that you stay motivated for productive reasons. By productive reasons I mean reasons for learning and achieving that lead to positive, productive, satisfying feelings and actions. These reasons are in contrast to engaging in a task out of fear of failing, or not making your parents angry, or not looking stupid, or doing better than other people to “show off.”
While these are all reasons – often very powerful ones – for doing something, they are not productive since they evoke maladaptive, often negative feelings and actions. For example, if you are concerned with not looking dumb you may not ask questions, delve into new areas, try new methods, or take the risks necessary to learn new things and reach new heights. A good way to put positive motives in motion is to set and focus on your goals. Identify and write down your own personal reasons for enrolling in a course and monitor your progress toward these personal, intrinsic goals as well as your grade goal. Remember to focus on your own reasons and your goals. Other people’s goals for you are not goals at all, but obligations.
- Get Organized
There are many systems for getting organized. Find a method that works best for you and stick to it. Some ideas include:
- Get a Planner or Calendar – On the first day of classes review your syllabus and write down the important dates for tests, papers, quizzes, projects, presentations, and final exams. Resolve conflicts as early as possible (i.e. having 4 final exams in one day). Next, write down other important events dates, or on-going commitments. Remember to refer back to the planner to plan ahead and adjust as needed.
- Use Notebooks and Binders – Have a notebook or binder for each course as well as a personal notebook or binder. This helps keep subject material together. Separate notebooks or binders make it easy to stash and retrieve articles, research, notes, and other materials for each course. Putting things away also keeps them from distracting you when you’re trying to focus on something else.
- Have Visuals – Put a bulletin board or monthly calendar by your desk. This provides a space to post visual reminders, deadlines for papers, tests to study for, friends’ birthdays, swim practices, and everything else on your plate.
- Time Management Techniques: One Piece of the Puzzle
To overcome procrastination time management techniques and tools are indispensable, but they are not enough by themselves. And, not all methods of managing time are equally helpful in dealing with procrastination. There are some time management techniques that are well suited to overcoming procrastination and others that can make it worse. Those that reduce anxiety and fear and emphasize the satisfaction and rewards of completing tasks work best. Those that are inflexible emphasize the magnitude of tasks and increase anxiety can actually increase procrastination and are thus counter-productive. For instance, making a huge list of “things to do” or scheduling every minute of your day may increase your stress and thus procrastination. Instead, set reasonable goals (e.g. a manageable list of things to do), break big tasks down, and give yourself flexibility (leave plenty of time for repeating a task, asking questions, visiting office hours, tasks that take longer than anticipated) and allot time to things you enjoy as rewards for work completed.
- Chunk It Down
Sometimes we procrastinate because the task seems time consuming and will take large blocks of time, which seem only available on the weekends. To overcome this, break down large projects into small tasks, and tackle one at a time. A variation on this is devoting short chunks of time to a big task and doing as much as you can in that time with few expectations about what you will get done. For example, try spending about ten minutes just jotting down ideas that come to mind on the topic of a paper, or skimming over a long reading to get just the main ideas.
- Eliminate Distractions
When doing school work, choose wisely where and with whom you are working. Repeatedly placing yourself in situations where you don’t get much done and are easily distracted– such as “studying” in your bed, at a café or with friends – can actually be a kind of procrastination, a method of avoiding work. Additionally, be aware of how much time you spend on social media or your cell phone when you told yourself you would study. Try turning off your phone, disabling wifi, or using website blockers to avoid distracting yourself for a predetermined set of time.
- Positive Self-talk
Notice how you are thinking and talking to yourself. Talk to yourself in ways that remind you of your goals and replace old, counter-productive habits of self-talk. Instead of saying, “I wish I hadn’t…” say, “I will…”
Achieving goals and changing habits takes time and effort; don’t sabotage yourself by having unrealistic expectations that you cannot reasonably meet.
9. One Final Tip. Take action. Stop reading about procrastination!