Overcoming Procrastination

How many of you have reflected with regret the night before a paper is due: “Why didn’t I just get started last week?” I remember those feelings of frustration (often mingled with rising panic) from my college days. What I didn’t realize at the time was how procrastination or more generally, poor time management, was related to anxiety and stress. Let’s take a closer look.

There is no quick and easy cure to procrastination, but it helps to understand what’s at play. First of all, when it comes to studying, we have to acknowledge that there is an ongoing battle between what we know we should do and what we want to do. Often this battle is played out in the arena of short-term gratification vs. long term rewards. The more successful students among us are better able to handle short term discomfort in order to achieve better long term results. At times it may feel that this is a permanent part of our personality, but with persistent effort, this can change.  More on this later, but before we get there, let’s continue to dissect procrastination.

Part of what makes procrastination so seductive is that the results are immediate. Think about it, if you’ve got a paper due next week, contemplating all the work you have to do to find a topic, do the research, write and edit the paper puts you in touch with the amount of effort required. But the second you distract yourself — play a videogame, go out with friend, take a nap — those feelings vanish. This makes procrastination powerfully rewarding.

One final word about procrastination. In order to get into the University, everyone has been able to get good grades at the high school level. Even though that’s great, for many of us that means that we were able to procrastinate without experiencing negative consequences. In other words, even though you may have put things off until the night before deadline and might even have resolved to change your ways (the 2:00 am resolution), you were able to finish cramming with a decent grade, so the motivation to change evaporates in the light of day.

Okay, so at this point I hope you can see that procrastination is a formidable foe and takes more than just casual effort to change. Here are some strategies to try:

  • Slow But Steady Wins the Race: It can take a while to change bad habits, so don’t be disillusioned. It is much more realistic to be satisfied with small, consistent changes, at least at first. Procrastination needs to be chipped away, rather than blown apart.
  • Baby Steps: Thinking of doing a month’s worth of studying at once can be intimidating. One of the first tasks when you sit down to take on a project (reviewing notes, writing a paper, studying for a midterm) should be to identify intermediate goals, things that you can accomplish in a shorter period of time on the way to your ultimate goal.
  • Shift your perspective: When we sit down to do a project, we often see the work in front of us as an insurmountable mountain. If you practice viewing the task from the perspective of how you will feel after you’ve climbed the mountain, that can provide enough motivation to get started on the climb. And finally,
  • Reward Yourself: Changing you time management habits can be hard work, so if you start making headway, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back and some well-earned reward. Thirty minutes of FaceBooking, listening to your favorite music or hanging out with friends can be just the incentive you need to keep you moving forward.

Remember, there are many resources on campus to help you improve your efficiency and time management, including the Teaching and Learning Center. The most important step is to make the commitment to change.

Ron Miyaguchi, Ph.D.