Challenging procrastination

  • "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:

    • Getting started
      Some people find it hard to get started. When an assignment is set, they think they have lots of time, so they forget it for a while, until it becomes urgent. When they do decide to make a start, they find it hard to settle down, and find lots of other “more important” things to do, like sorting out files, cleaning the house, checking email and Facebook, making cakes – even helping someone else do their work. Hours go by ... and suddenly it’s too late to start.
    • Keeping going
      Some people start with enthusiasm, but find it hard to keep going when the first excitement has worn off. Postgraduates, in particular, can enjoy doing more and more research, but put off beginning to write. After all, there’s always another journal article to read, or more internet research to do.
    • Finishing off
      Some people get their work done in good time, but then spend ages correcting and revising it to try to make it more perfect. This can take so much time that the work never gets finished.

    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:

    • Anxiety or fear – about not knowing what’s expected, of getting things wrong, of failure or not being good enough. This can link with perfectionism: believing that unless the work is perfect it is a complete failure. Perfectionists may feel that they would rather not hand something in at all than risk it not being good enough. Or they may leave things to the last minute so that they don’t have time to worry about the standard of their work. Procrastinating also allows them to comfort themselves with the thought “It would have been better if I had enough time."
    • Resentment or anger – perhaps you would rather be doing something more exciting or enjoyable. Or maybe you feel as if someone else is making you do the work – like a nagging parent or teacher – so you feel resentful and put things off.
    • Guilt – that you’re not doing enough, that whatever you are doing, you should be doing something else, that it’s already too late and you have wasted too much time.
    • Shame – that you’re lazy, useless, a time-waster; that you always let people down...

    Procrastination cycleAll 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.

    Effective strategies for overcoming procrastination need to be practical (the work needs to be done) but you also need to address the negative feelings involved in your own cycle.

    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:

    Break things down into manageable steps.

    • Be realistic about what you can do in the time you have.
      Sometimes it can be hard to define what’s manageable. It’s easy to focus on what you think you should be doing: “I need to finish reading and making notes on this book” rather than on what’s possible: “I’ll aim to get to the end of Chapter 3.”
    • Stay focused on your realistic goal.
      Once you have defined your step, as above, it’s important not to let negative thoughts undermine it: “I’ve only got to the end of Chapter 3 – there are another 7 chapters, and then I’ve got to read that article and then I’ve got to start writing, and I haven’t got enough time....” Try to focus just on that first step: “This is my goal for today.” That way you can enjoy the sense of achievement when you manage it, and build up confidence for the next step, rather than being overwhelmed by thinking about the whole task.
    • Experiment with thinking about your goal in different ways.
      If you’re finding it hard to get started or even think about steps, a useful alternative can be to define your goal in terms of time: “I’m going to work for an hour this morning.” Once you’ve done your hour, you’ve achieved the goal you set yourself – regardless of how much work you have done in that time. Try experimenting with reverse psychology – “I’m only allowed to work for an hour today.” It’s surprising how attractive things can be when we’re not allowed to do them!

    "Just do it."

    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.

    Use organisational aids.

    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!

    Change how you talk to yourself (inside your head).

    "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.

    Challenge your self-sabotage.

    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.”

    Break the habit.

    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.

    Try rewards, rather than punishment.

    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.

    Experiment with where you work.

    Associate work with a good location: don't work somewhere that makes you feel bad.

    Experiment with when you work.

    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!)

    Ask for help when you need it.

    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.

    Don't forget to have breaks.

    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.

    The Counselling Service runs procrastination talks each semester.