Procrastination is "the avoidance of doing a task which needs to be done" (University Counselling Service leaflet, Procrastination).
Most people find that they procrastinate sometimes, to a greater or lesser degree. It sometimes becomes more of a problem at university, as students adjust to more independent study. It is not always problematic, unless it is impacting negatively on the quality of your work or causing distress. Procrastination can be a time-management strategy: a way of doing a task in as short a time as possible - the last minute - to leave more time for other things. However, it can be a risky strategy, and can result in a loss of control over your time and work, leading to stress.
Procrastination can result in negative views of oneself, such as guilt or self-disgust, and others may ask, "why can't you just get on with it?" While this is rarely helpful, it is useful to reflect in an non-judgemental way, why it is that we procrastinate and what is stopping us from 'just getting on with it'. People procrastinate for very diverse reasons, and it is rarely a case of simple laziness. Identifying the reasons why we procrastinate can help us to identify strategies that might best suit us and help us to move on with a task. The strategies that will work best depend on the root causes of procrastination.
The causes can be varied:
- perfectionism - getting stuck at an early stage and putting off finishing
- anxiety about how to do the task properly and not knowing what is required, fear of failure
- not feeling 'ownership' of the task, if it isn't something you wanted to do, or is not on your terms
- low tolerance for things which are uncomfortable or difficult.
Take a moment to reflect on the following questions:
- What sorts of things do you tend to put off? Is there any common feature which links or characterizes these things?
- What do you gain from procrastinating?
- At what point in the task do you get stuck - planning, beginning, the middle, the end?
- What are you thinking and feeling when you start to procrastinate? What do you tell yourself?
Experiment with some of the following strategies and see which suit you most, depending on what is causing the procrastination:
- Identify your displacement activities - the things you end up doing instead of what you should be doing. Some of these are obvious, such as surfing the internet, but others look deceptively like productive work, but do not actually help you progress, such as making overly detailed plans, or reading tangentially related books. Use the Urgent/Important matrix to help you decide if it is productive work or displacement.
- Use SMART goals to make tasks more concrete and manageable. Make the first task you attempt as small as possible. See the pages on SMART goals and Getting Started for more guidance.
- Figure out where in the process you are getting stuck - making a start with a task, getting on with it, or finishing it. What would be the next action you could do that would move you on a step, however, small?
- Agree deadlines with other people, so that you are accountable for your progress. You could also ask them to help you reward yourself when you have completed the task.
- Set boundaries to your time, so that you have to focus at a particular time. "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" (Parkinson's Law). Use social or sporting activities to create some structure to your day and act as a reward, but be realistic in how much time you give yourself to work.
- Make deadlines and commitments visible as soon as you know what they are, perhaps on a wall planner, or using post-it notes, so that you cannot avoid or put them out of mind. Keep a list of Things To Do, but also a list of Things Done, to help you get an overview of your task and motivate yourself.
- Develop a support network of fellow students, approachable Director of Studies or Supervisors, Librarians, College Nurses, the Counselling Service's 'Can't Work' group, study skills books and online resources such as this one or the CUSU webpages, to help you feel confident in the way you approach your studies.
- Try some of the guidance for Perfectionism.
The University Counselling Service can offer further guidance on perfectionism, helping you explore what is causing it, and strategies to help you overcome it or manage it in a productive way. You might like to read their leaflet on procrastination or attend a or attend a 'Can't Work' group session.