Let’s begin with a few questions. Would you like to be successful at university? Do you ever avoid work or delay doing difficult jobs? Would you like to stop procrastinating and prevent its negative consequences? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this chapter can help you. Procrastination is common at university. Students tend to procrastinate if a set task seems too challenging or stressful to tackle. Surprisingly, procrastinating students are more susceptible than their peers to stress, anxiety or guilt (see Figure 7.2). Therefore, it can be helpful to consider both why you procrastinate and what can you do about it. In this chapter you will learn about what procrastination is, why it exists, its effects, and helpful strategies to combat it. Understanding these elements can help keep you on the path to academic success.
What is Procrastination?
Procrastination is the act of delaying tasks that need to be completed at a certain time. We all do to it to some extent. For most people, minor procrastination is not a great concern. There are however, situations where procrastination can become a serious problem and hinder academic success. For example, consistently deferring your revision to the night before the exam or leaving your assignments until the due day can threaten your success. The risks of causing anxiety, poor performance and loss of self-esteem amplify when it becomes a chronic habit affecting multiple subjects. If procrastinating is so destructive, then why do we do it?
Reasons for Procrastinating
There are several reasons why we procrastinate, and some are surprising. Superficially, we may delay a task because we think we don’t need to do it yet, because other tasks seem more important, or because we simply want to avoid the strain of a challenge. If you look a little deeper, however, you may find you have hidden physical or psychological motives driving your choices.
Lack of energy and focus
Sometimes we just do not feel up to the challenge of a certain task. It might be due to discomfort, illness, or just a lack of energy. If this is the case, it is important to identify the cause. It could be something as simple as a lack of sleep, having an unhealthy diet or tiredness after working constantly all day. If a lack of energy is continually causing you to procrastinate to the point where you are beginning to feel stressed over not getting things done, it’s time to assess the situation and find the remedy. It may be as simple as improving your diet, reducing your work shifts or heading off to bed earlier instead of playing games into the early hours of the morning.
A lack of mental focus can be another reason we avoid tasks. This can be due to mental fatigue, being disorganised, or being distracted by other things. If we allow our attention to be constantly diverted by phone calls, friends, family members and social media notifications, it can hinder our progress in meeting goals on time. Lack of mental focus is something that may have far-reaching effects in your life going beyond simply avoiding tasks. If it is something that reoccurs and seems difficult to rectify, you may find it helpful to seek professional support.
Fear of failure
A fear of failure is another hidden cause of procrastination. Sometimes even without awareness, we can be afraid that we will not be able to do a task well. Failing may make us feel incompetent or embarrassed, so we secretly find ways to sabotage doing a task. We trick ourselves into thinking that if we don’t do the work, then we won’t get those feelings of failure of not being clever enough. Then we can rationalise that we failed because we ran out of time to complete the task, not because we were incapable.
A fear of failure may not have anything to do with the actual ability of the person suffering from it. You can in fact be quite capable of doing a task and performing well, but fear holds you back from trying. Viewing ourselves in a negative manner can directly impact our self-confidence, building more fear and more avoidance (Nicholson & Scharff, 2007). One way to break this destructive cycle is to realise that not everyone does everything perfectly the first time. Failure can be a valuable learning experience that helps us improve and develop. It provides useful information about what we need to change in order to succeed. By changing our mindset about failure, you can disarm its power as an excuse to avoid tasks.
The Effects of Procrastinating
The effects of procrastinating can be detrimental to your academic success (see Figure 7.3). Many are obvious and understood easily, but some are more subtle. If you can identify the effects, it can help you to recognise when procrastinating is interfering with your study. You can increase your self-awareness about your behaviour by discussing what you are noticing with friends (Nicholson & Scharff, 2007), family, or with the support services available at your university.
Loss of time
Procrastination diverts time away from important or necessary tasks, and spends it on less important activities. The end result is you have less time to do what is really important. With less time to complete assessment tasks, the accuracy of your work and quality of the content are likely to suffer. The result can be poor academic performance (Van Eerde, 2003). Time is a precious gift that cannot be refunded. Once it is spent, it is gone forever. Procrastinating risks trading this valuable commodity for things that do not ultimately support your goal of graduating from university. Students who don’t address their habit of procrastinating, may regret their actions.
Loss of achieving goals
Another adverse effect of procrastination is its impact on achieving academic goals. Some long-term goals can only be reached if short-term goals are achieved first. For example, you may have to pass a theoretical subject on child safety and wellbeing before you are permitted to do any practical teacher-training in a classroom. If you fail to submit that crucial child safety assignment, then your goal of visiting a school for teacher-training, and also the bigger goal of becoming a teacher are both jeopardised. Failing to complete a task can be a sign of procrastination. The effect of not completing it is missing out on reaching a goal and every other goal that depends on it. Without the focus of goals and the satisfaction of achieving them, it can be easy to lose direction and motivation.
Loss of self-esteem
Often, when you procrastinate, you can become frustrated and disappointed in yourself for not getting important tasks completed. If this continues to happen, you can begin to develop an inferior opinion of yourself and might question your abilities. It can lead to low self-esteem and might even begin to feel like there is something wrong with you. This can trigger other increasingly negative emotional experiences such as anger and depression. Low self-esteem can be both the cause and the effect of procrastinating. It can produce a damaging cycle. Increasing our self-esteem can help us to interrupt the pattern and reduce our fears of failure (Langher et al., 2017), leading to more positive outcomes.
Procrastination causes stress and anxiety, which may seem odd since the act of procrastination is often about avoiding a task we think is stressful! Anyone who has noticed that nagging feeling when they know there is something else they should be doing is familiar with this. On the other hand, some students see this kind of stress as a boost of mental urgency. They put off a task until they feel that surge of motivation. While this may have worked in the past, students quickly learn that procrastinating when it comes to university work almost always includes an underestimation of the tasks to be completed— sometimes with disastrous results. Stress not only affects an individual’s health and wellbeing, but it can also have a negative effect on academic accomplishment. Procrastination might sometimes help us to release stress for a short period of time, but intentional avoidance can trigger even more stress, anxiety and guilt later.
Strategies for Combatting Procrastination
Now that you understand a few of the major problems procrastination can produce, let’s look at methods to manage it and get you on to completing the tasks, no matter how unpleasant you think they might be.
The most effective way to combat procrastination is to use time and project management strategies such as schedules, goal setting, and other techniques to get tasks accomplished in a timely manner. In order to be more organised, you need to clarify what needs to be done, how it can be done, and when you can complete it. Contemplating these questions will assist you to manage your time appropriately by helping you to be more focused and organised. Essentially, we need to monitor our progress frequently, ensuring that we improve our approaches by figuring out which strategies work best for us.
Put aside distractions
Distractions are time-killers and are the primary way people procrastinate. It is too easy to just play a video game a little while longer, check out social media, or finish watching a movie when we are avoiding a task. Putting aside distractions is one of the primary functions of setting priorities. It is important to exercise self-discipline, so that we can focus our attention on one thing. Additionally, we can develop good study habits by delaying short term pleasure and by paying more attention to completing those tasks that are more significant.
Rewarding yourself for the completion of tasks or meeting goals is a good way to fight procrastination. An example of this would be rewarding yourself with watching a movie you would enjoy after you have finished the things you need to do, rather than using the movie to keep yourself from getting things done. Furthermore, completing a task successfully and getting the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment can be considered a reward in itself. Since you have invested a lot of effort for a good purpose and you have sacrificed your comfort, you can reward yourself. This can not only motivate you, but also enhance your self-efficacy beliefs in undertaking other tasks confidently in the future.
Be accountable—tell someone else
A strong motivational tool is to hold ourselves accountable by telling someone else we are going to do something and when we are going to do it. This may not seem like it would be very effective, but on a psychological level we feel more compelled to do something if we tell someone else. It may be related to our need for approval from others, or it might just serve to set a level of commitment. Either way, it can help us stay on task and avoid procrastination—especially if we take our accountability to another person seriously enough to warrant contacting that person and apologising for not doing what we said we were going to do.
Procrastination is a common experience among university students. The results are often detrimental to academic achievement, produce stress and raise anxiety. This chapter examined the nature of procrastination, why we do it, how it affects us, and how to fight it. Be on the lookout for signs of procrastination and combat it actively when you see it. If you do, you can reap the benefits of having less stress, higher self-esteem and greater achievement during your academic journey.
- Procrastination is the act of delaying tasks that need to be completed by a certain time.
- Reasons for procrastinating include a lack of energy and focus, and a fear of failure.
- The effects of procrastination include a loss of time, goals, self-esteem and/or increase stress.
- Develop good study habits by being organised, putting aside distractions, rewarding yourself and remaining accountable.
Langher, V., Caputo, A., & Ricci, M. E. (2017). The potential role of perceived support for reduction of special education teachers’ burnout. International Journal of Educational Psychology, 6(2), 120-147. https://doi.org/10.17583/ijep.2017.2584
Nicholson, L., & Scharff, L. F. (2007). The Effects of Procrastination and Self-Awareness on Emotional Responses. Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research, 12(4). https://doi.org/10.24839/1089-4136.JN12.4.139
Van Eerde, W. (2003). A meta-analytically derived nomological network of procrastination. Personality and individual differences, 35(6), 1401-1418. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00358-6