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"I leave everything until the last minute." "I'm always putting things off." "I'm lazy – I waste so much time." "I keep getting distracted." "I think I work better under pressure, but then I have to rush to get everything done."
If these statements sound familiar, it's probably because you sometimes put things off, or procrastinate. We all do this sometimes, but when you are a student it can become a problem. You may end up missing deadlines, or feeling so rushed and stressed that your work isn't as good as you would like it to be.
It can be useful to identify when and how you procrastinate:
It’s easy to think “I’m just lazy” – especially if you have been called this by other people. But the reasons for procrastination are often more complicated, and are connected with feelings. Some of the most common causes of procrastination are:
All of these feelings have one end result – they make you feel BAD. And a natural human response to feeling bad is to avoid the thing that makes us feel like that – in this case, work. So we procrastinate, and look for other activities to try to make ourselves feel better. But this procrastination makes us feel even more anxious, resentful, guilty or ashamed – so we continue to try to avoid those feelings and get into a cycle of procrastination.
Always be experimental when you are trying to change. Procrastination always involves something other than you being in control of what you’re doing: the habit of procrastination controls you. So remember, you have a choice – you can resist this control and take charge. There is no one set of instructions for curing yourself of the procrastination habit. Try anything and everything, because if you experiment you are regaining control.
These ideas might be worth trying:
Sometimes the tendency to procrastinate can be outwitted by getting started before you’ve even thought whether you will, or want to, start. In other words, sometimes you can trick yourself into starting, by just sitting at a work-station with everything you need to hand – and just starting.
When you have to stop working, make sure the task is easy to resume – so that you don’t have to waste time trying to remember where you were. It can help to stop in the middle of a paragraph, or even a sentence.
Diaries, planners, "to do" lists, post-its stuck to the fridge... There are lots of different ways of managing or remembering what you have to do – but what they all have in common is that they create an external record of the task. And that means you don’t have to hold everything in your head and feel constantly anxious that you’ve forgotten something. We sometimes associate efficiency with being sensible and boring. But people who are well organised have more time to be spontaneous, and are less likely to miss out on something fun because they forgot!
"Self-talk" means the messages we all give ourselves throughout the day. Try to notice how you “talk” to yourself when it comes to your work. Are you very harsh: “I’m just wasting time as usual, I’m a complete failure?” Or anxious: ‘It’s not going to be good enough, I can’t get it right?” How do your “self-talk” messages make you feel? If you think they are getting in the way, try telling that internal voice to shut up. Even better, find some more productive messages, such as: “Every bit of work I do is a step closer to getting this finished.” “Even if I’m not completely satisfied, doing something is always better than doing nothing.”
Try to moderate the voice in your head that keeps telling you off... better is a voice that gives you praise whenever you get something done.
If you procrastinate, you are sabotaging yourself by making the work harder, or by not achieving as much as you could. Self-sabotage might be a kind of secret communication – perhaps aimed at people who have expected things from you, such as parents or teachers. So if you feel resentful about having to work, and you procrastinate, ask yourself: “Who am I angry with?” “Who do I resent?” This might help you feel that the task is yours: if you make it yours again, perhaps you will be less likely to sabotage yourself by procrastinating.
So, if you identify in yourself a sneaking feeling that all this academic work is put in your way by someone else and that you never asked for it, then self-talk might help. Say to yourself “This assignment is MINE, for ME.”
Procrastination works as a set of habits or practices. (“I always go on email first, then on Facebook, and then I have a coffee, and then...”) Habits get installed like computer programmes – but they can be uninstalled. Try changing a habit, or more than one, and that might help you uninstall procrastination. If you tend to procrastinate in your room, work somewhere else. If you’re more likely to do so in the evening, get up early and work then instead. If you always make a cup of coffee before studying, don’t, and see if breaking that habit helps the rest of the habit to dislodge itself.
Rewards can be effective motivators: “I’ll work until 6.00 and then I’ll treat myself to a night off” “When I get to the end of Chapter 3 I'll have a coffee and read the paper for 10 minutes.” If you give yourself something to look forward to, it can encourage you to get going and work hard. Punishments or threats, on the other hand, can be demoralising and make you feel like a naughty child: “I’m not allowed to stop until I reach the end of the book” “I’ve wasted time today so I can’t go out tonight”... You can end up feeling tired and resentful – and not get the work done anyway.
Associate work with a good location: don't work somewhere that makes you feel bad.
If you're not naturally a morning person, don’t try to start work at 8am, then fail to get up and waste more time being angry with yourself. Set the alarm for a more reasonable time, use the morning for routine tasks and settle down to work at the time that suits you best. (But be honest with yourself, don’t use this as an excuse for more procrastination!)
If you are putting something off because you feel stuck, ask for help. Speak to someone else on the course, or your module leader or supervisor.
Find an ally – someone who can support your decisions, praise you when you keep to them, and remind you when you don’t.
Find someone you can work with. They can also help you structure your time, if you find that difficult.
You can't work all the time, so schedule breaks into your work plan and stick to them. You're less likely to let distracting activities take over if you know that you're allowing yourself to have regular breaks.