Strategies for overcoming procrastination when you're studying.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination involves putting off a task or goal and doing something that’s less important instead.
It’s important to know that procrastination is a normal part of human behaviour. Although it's a common challenge many university students face during their studies, everyone procrastinates at some point or another. Try and remember that procrastination is not “laziness” or a personal flaw!
Nonetheless, if you’re finding that procrastination is repeatedly getting in the way of your progress in study or work, or leads to feelings of stress and overwhelm, there are effective ways to better manage it.
Why do I procrastinate?
Figuring out why you procrastinate is an important first step that can help you identify which strategies will be most effective for you. Despite the negative consequences of not following through with a task, there are many reasons why people procrastinate including:
- Perfectionism - Procrastination is sometimes a result of perfectionism, where someone feels the pressure to produce work that is free from flaws. This can lead to the development of unhelpful rules and assumptions that we put in place (e.g., “I must do things perfectly or else I will fail”). These beliefs can often sabotage our desire or ability to move forward due to the fear of having to (potentially) face up to negative feedback or not ‘good enough’ results. In addition, getting things ‘just right’ can cause significant amount of stress to the point where tasks are delayed.
- Avoiding anxiety - If a task is important, unpleasant, or challenging, anxiety (and other feelings, such as boredom or frustration) can arise. Procrastination can be a way to avoid these difficult feelings in the short term.This can be problematic as procrastination often leads to an increase in anxiety as deadlines approach and study/work tasks pile up. A vicious cycle can emerge in which feeling anxious about a task can lead to procrastination, which in turn generates more anxiety, and causes someone to procrastinate further.
- Fear of failure - This is a common concern for many students. Sometimes, failing due to a lack of effort can seem more desirable than completing a task and failing due to a perceived lack of ability.
- Poor time management - Procrastination can also be the direct result of poor time management. Students can sometimes perceive time in an unhelpful way (e.g., “I still have a whole week before that is due”), or over-schedule in the lead up to deadlines, resulting in insufficient time to complete the task.
- Distractibility - It can be difficult to complete tasks if we find ourselves getting distracted. Distractions can be both real (e.g., your dog barking) as well as replacement activities (e.g., cleaning the kitchen) that are procrastination disguised as something important.
How do I stop procrastinating?
Let go of shame
Struggling with shame about procrastination can make the problem worse. Start with being less hard on yourself – everyone procrastinates; it is not a personal failing. Make your goal not about removing it altogether, but to learn what drives procrastination for you, anticipate when it’s likely to happen, and learn strategies to manage it as best you can.
Perfectionism can seem like a desirable quality, but there is a difference between a healthy pursuit of excellence as compared to an unhelpful striving for perfection. When we can realise the costs of perfectionism, and increase acceptance for imperfection, we’re less likely to get stuck in the trap of unhelpful thoughts (e.g., “it won’t be good enough”). It can be more helpful to ask yourself what is possible and ‘good enough’. Adjusting our mindset in this way is not about giving up high standards; it’s about being flexible and approaching tasks realistically, which is more sustainable in the long run.
Create realistic goals and break down tasks into small steps
Large tasks can often seem overwhelming. Identifying a realistic goal to be completed within a set timeframe is helpful. Once this goal is set, list each action required to complete the task, and then focus on one step at a time. This can also help create momentum!
If you'd like to brush up your time and task management skills, Academic Skills have a great time management tipsheet, and a suite of other time and task management resources. You can also make an appointment to meet an advisor to develop your study skills.
Stop thinking, start doing
Sometimes the more you think about a task, the more overwhelming it can become. We can also fall into the trap of thinking that we need to feel "motivated enough" before doing something, but psychological research shows the opposite - when we act first, motivation will follow. Try saying to yourself, “In the next five minutes, just do one thing”. Completing something is better than nothing!
Do what works for you
Everyone learns and studies differently, so use your knowledge of your preferences and strengths to complete a task. For example, if you know you concentrate better first thing in the morning, plan your day around this. This also applies to your study environment. If there are too many distractions at home, make plans to complete work at the library, or join a study group to improve motivation.
Planning a reward for achievements (big and small) is important for motivation. This could be savouring a meal, watching an episode of your favourite show, a walk in the park, or another pleasurable activity. Try to schedule a reward for as soon as possible after a task has been completed. When we delay rewards, this can decrease motivation as the reward can seem too far away.
Schedule time for rest and pleasure
This may seem counter-intuitive, but intentionally setting aside time to allow ourselves to be “inefficient” can increase our chances of staying focused when we need to. There’s a growing awareness that 'doing nothing' is important for our minds to consolidate information, improve self-awareness, and generate creative ideas. Knowing that there is protected time in our schedules for rest and pleasure can help us feel less like we’re missing out, and potentially procrastinate less.
What can I do next?
- Work through the Centre for Clinical Intervention's Put Off Procrastinating and/or Perfectionism in Perspective self-help modules.
- To help tertiary students get things done, thedesk has a specific module on Beating Procrastination.
- Speaking to a CAPS counsellor can help you understand and address the personal and emotional factors associated with your procrastination behaviour. We also offer workshops on overcoming procrastination and related topics to enhance your learning.
If you'd like more support, come along to one of our workshops or make an appointment for individual counselling.