Procrastination happens, and if you opened this because you procrastinate and you're looking for ways to change up that pattern, just know, too, that you're not alone. SO many of us procrastinate, and a lot of the time we're doing things we need to be doing, though perhaps not at the most effective time. And it's great to know you need to make a change and/or to want to make a change. We think you're awesome for taking this step! And we'll be here to help along the way, however we can.

Procrastination is the act of putting things off or choosing to do something you prefer to do (or might even need to do) instead of the actual project or chore or work you need to be doing now. It's a common challenge for college students, with about 80-95% of students reporting that they procrastinate (Steel, 2003). And it's important to address because procrastination can develop into a habit that can seriously impact your ability to be productive, which can then negatively affect your academic performance (Steel, 2003). Research shows there are lots of reasons why we procrastinate including self-doubt about performance (Burns, 1993), low-frustration tolerance (a tendency to give up if the work feels too difficult) (Ellis & Knaus, 1977), and believing myths like "I work better under pressure" (Cuseo, Fecas & Thompson, 2007). Developing a few techniques to help counteract procrastination or dedicating time early on to counteracting procrastination can not only help you to achieve academic success, but also help you to develop tools you’ll use well beyond college as you encounter work and obligations that require your timely attention.

Some of the possible impacts of procrastinating include producing lower quality work at the last minute, completing and turning in work late, and increasing your levels of stress. Procrastination can also cut into your sleep, exercise, relaxation, family, relationships, and other elements that contribute to life balance. It takes time to procrastinate, and it takes time to recover from procrastination. Finally, when you leave tasks until the last minute, you surrender your buffer zone for unexpected issues that might require your time and attention. Remember the advice in Murphy’s Laws: “(1) Nothing is as easy as it looks. (2) Everything takes longer than you think. (3) Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Start on things early so you have that wiggle room in case things get bumpy.

There are many strategies for overcoming procrastination, but ultimately engaging in or mitigating procrastination comes down to the decisions you make. Consider that second you take to decide between picking up your textbook to start reading and picking up the remote control (or video game controller, or phone to check Facebook, etc.). At that moment, you might be telling yourself that "it's just for a few minutes" or that "it will help me relax before I study." If you can take some time now to reflect on what your internal dialogue is in those moments, or what activities you tend to procrastinate with most, then you'll help yourself in the future to better recognize your language and choices as you're in the process of making them. In addition, to prepare, think about what it is you're going to do instead. What's your if-then statement.

  • If I notice I'm busy cleaning my apartment when I should be working on a paper, then I'll...
    • check my calendar to see when I've got time scheduled for cleaning, or
    • stop what I'm doing and sit down to work for at least five minutes to get something on the page, or
    • leave my apartment and do work outside of my living space, etc.

You can choose to be in charge of how you spend your time, and you can help yourself in this process by creating a proactive strategy to course-correct when you notice you're putting off what needs to be done.

Here are a few more tips to combat procrastination:

  • Have a plan. Set goals and make use of a weekly schedule and a to-do list.  These can keep you organized and help you stay committed to completing your tasks.
  • Find motivation. Think of 1-2 good reasons for getting tasks done early, and write those reasons down. We often allow ourselves to procrastinate because we think “I can do this later." When that thought comes up, make sure you have an answer for why it’s important to complete the task now.
  • Make it easy to get started. Schedule a date and time for starting your task, be specific about what you will accomplish, and find a location that is conducive to accomplishing your task.  
  • Identify your procrastination tendencies and your excuses. If you know that cleaning is a technique you use to procrastinate from homework, plan ahead for this. Set aside time for each task, pay attention when you get distracted, and redirect yourself to the reasons you want to complete the task now.
  • Learn to say "no" when distractions arise. There will always be things that threaten to interrupt your productivity. Saying "no" to interruptions or distractions can keep you on track as you complete your task.
  • Be patient. Procrastination is something you work to overcome over time by developing better habits. There will be areas of your life and times during the term when it will be harder to overcome this challenge. Recognize when you are making positive choices, and celebrate your successes.

Sometimes it takes hearing your own reasoning for you to recognize what’s happening here (spoiler: it's procrastination!). Do any of the following reasons sound familiar? If so, try one of the strategies suggested to nip that procrastination right in the bud (adapted by the ASC in 2011 from Burns, D. (1993) Ten Days to Self Esteem. New York: Quill.).

  "I Don't Feel Like Doing It" Lack of motivation is a commonly given reason for not attending to an unpleasant task. Most procrastinators believe that something is wrong with them if they do not feel motivated to begin a task. This simply is not true. How many folks do you imagine feel motivated and energized by the prospect of raking leaves, or changing the oil in the car, or doing taxes? These tasks are often seen as unpleasant and less than exciting. To believe that you must feel motivated in order to begin a task has the order of events in reverse. In The Feeling Good Handbook, Burns (1989) writes that the "doing" comes first, and then the motivation. Thus, starting a task is the real motivator, rather than motivation needing to be present prior to beginning the task. Often, just taking the first step, regardless of how small, can serve as an inducement and thus a motivator for further action.

Another strategy involves taking an attitude check. Ask yourself: "Does my attitude prevent me from being motivated?" If your answer is "yes," then it's time to figure a way to make an attitude adjustment. This may mean giving up on the idea that "everything in life must be interesting" or that "I have to like all my classes for them to be worthwhile." It may also mean re-evaluating your goals and determining the "steps" which do or do not fit into the larger picture. If succeeding in the boring class seems to be a necessary "step" to achieving your larger goals, that fact alone may motivate you.

  "But, I Don't Know How" Skill deficits are one of the most basic reasons for procrastination. If you lack the skills to complete certain tasks, it is only natural to avoid doing them. For example, you may be a slow reader. If you have several lengthy articles to read before you can write a paper, you may postpone the reading because it is difficult. You may even have trouble admitting your poor reading skills because you do not want to be seen as seem "dumb." Thus procrastinating may seem better than facing your need to improve your reading skills.

The key to solving skill problems, is to identify what the problems are. Often a counselor, an instructor, or another professional can help you to make this determination. When you know the problem, then you can take action to correct it.

  "But, What If I Can't Cut It?" Fear of failure is another reason people procrastinate. It goes something like this: If I really try hard and fail, that is worse than if I don't try and end up failing. In the former case, I gave it my best and failed. In the latter, because I really did not try, I truly did not fail. For example, you may postpone studying for a major test and then pull an "all-nighter." The resulting grade may be poor or mediocre, but you can say, "I could have done better if I had had more time to study."

Similarly, you may delay researching and writing papers until the last minute, turning papers in late or incomplete. You then can also say, “I know I could have gotten a better grade on that paper if I had had more time."

The payoff for procrastinating is protecting ourselves from the possibility of perceived "real" failure. As long as you do not put 100% effort into your work, you will not find out what your true capabilities are. Another variation on this theme is that you may often fill your schedule with busy-work so that you have a "legitimate" reason for not getting around to more important tasks.

Perfectionism often underlies the fear of failure. Family expectations and standards set by parents may be so high that no one could actually live up to them. Thus, procrastination steps in to derail parental expectations and standards and prevent you from "really" failing.

Consider that the problem is actually the unrealistic standards that have been set, not your failure to meet them. The problem, and thus the "failure," may be that you begin to believe that you are not a worthy human being. You may procrastinate to such an extent from fear of failure, that you are actually paralyzed. Thus, you do not complete the task and achieve a more realistic level of success.

  "How Can I Top This?" "Fear of success" can be the other side of "fear of failure." Here you procrastinate because you are fearful of the consequences of your achievements. Maybe you fear that if you do well, then next time, even more will be expected of you. Or, perhaps, succeeding may place you in the spotlight when you prefer the background.

Procrastination of this kind may indicate an internal identity conflict. If your self-worth is tied to your level of achievement, then you may constantly question yourself about how much you must do to be "good enough." Each success only sets you up for the next bigger challenge. If your self-worth is tied to family acceptance, then how much more does it take for them to be satisfied? Each success only opens the door to greater expectations. Often this leads to a feeling of losing your identity and perhaps no longer being able to claim your successes as your own. Inaction or procrastination may be how you cope with the pressures you feel to constantly try to be "good enough."

  "This Stuff Is Just Plain Boring" Lack of interest seems to play a role in procrastination. All students from time to time lack interest in a course, however, not all of these students delay in studying or completing assignments.

If your natural interests are not stimulated by the course content, one solution to procrastinating may be to "just do it" (i.e., simply continue to attend class and do the assigned work on time). This will give you more "guilt-free" time to do those things that are more interesting to you. Of course, it won't necessarily make the class or assignment interesting, but at least you will not cloud the "good times" with worry.

  "You Can't Make Me" Rebellion and resistance constitute the final set of issues which can underlie procrastinating behavior. Delaying tactics can be a form of rebellion against imposed schedules, standards, and expectations. The expectations are often those of a power struggle, usually not on a conscious level. As an example, your father has an accounting business and has always planned on having you become his partner after college. You are enrolled in the College of Business and like accounting, but since you started college you have been wanting to explore some other careers unrelated to business. Your father says, "No, you'll stick to accounting and like it." As a result, you don't turn in work on time, "forget" to do assignments, and earn low grades, sometimes flunking a course.

Rebellion against external evaluation is another facet of this sort of procrastination. For example, if a teacher has offended or angered you in some way, you may retaliate by turning something in late or procrastinating indefinitely. Sometimes these same tactics are used on classmates in a group project setting or with parents. The thing to remember is that you ultimately lose (i.e., getting the bad grade, loss of self-respect, etc.).

Rebellion and resistance are re-actions not actions, thus, the control of your behavior rests with whatever or whomever you are rebelling or resisting. If you are rebelling against your parents, then they have a great deal of power in your life — probably more than you really want. Decide what you want for your life — don't just react to someone else's decisions for your life.

Want to talk about any of this? Come and see us: Waldo Hall 125 | Monday through Friday | 9 AM to 5 PM

We can help you tackle procrastination and figure out ways to move forward that work for you.