Understanding procrastination

Procrastinating: we’ve all done it. We gear ourselves up, ready to get into study mode. We open our laptops with all the good intentions of being productive and of ticking a few things off the study list. But then it hits: the desire to run, or sleep, or text that friend back, or tidy, or scroll on our phones… to essentially do anything apart from the task that actually needs completing!  

Often we’ll make a joke about procrastination, such as how our house is never as clean as when a deadline’s looming. But whilst sharing with our peers about how we are avoiding knuckling down to work can be amusing and somehow reassuring, procrastination can become problematic and a very real barrier to successful study if not brought under control and managed. 

So why do we procrastinate and how can we more effectively manage our urges to procrastinate? 

What is procrastination?  

Procrastination is defined as ‘the act of delaying something that you should do, usually because you do not want to do it’ (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, 2022). Procrastination often occurs when completing an activity that causes short-term discomfort or distress (Togetherall, 2022). Therefore, when we procrastinate, we may well be trying to find a way to avoid or postpone experiencing these difficult emotions.  

Why do we procrastinate? 

Some possible reasons why we procrastinate include: 

  • Fear of failure 
  • Low energy 
  • Low self-esteem or low self-confidence 
  • Perfectionism 
  • Intolerance of uncertainty 

When reviewing literature, Uzun Ozer et al. (2014) identified 3 common perspectives presented by researchers on reasons why we procrastinate. Some studies suggest that the cause was strongly linked to low mood, whereas others focus on the cognitive aspects and why we sometimes choose to avoid work such as overestimating the time taken to complete a task or being fearful of not producing work to a high standard. Behaviourists see procrastination as a problem with self-regulation. Uzen Ozer et al’s own research concluded that these three perspectives are so inextricably linked, the only way to understand procrastination is to acknowledge how our mood, our mental processes and our actions all affect our levels of motivation. 

Image by Pixabay

Sometimes when we’re procrastinating we might be waiting for a feeling of motivation to strike and telling ourselves that once we feel motivated, we’ll get going. We might say things to ourselves like “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow” and then tomorrow comes and we don’t feel any more motivated so we delay again. Some studies on procrastination suggest that momentum comes from taking a small step such as doing one small action to help us to get going. Procrastination expert Dr Tim Pychyl’s (2013) slogan is: Just start it! By completing one small action that might only be 10 minutes long, the odds are high that we will feel more motivated to keep going and do more.  

But what if we’re part way through something and we’ve lost our drive? If you’re mid-way through your course, the struggle is even more real according to research by Stewart, Stott and Nuttall (2016).  If you’re a second year undergrad, you’re faced with the realisation that your marks now count towards final grades and the increased pressure may manifest in procrastinating behaviour. Alternatively, it could be that the enthusiasm you felt at the start of your course has waned but the end goal still seems so far away.  

If we’re focussed on instant gratification and delaying an uncomfortable feeling until later, we can forget that it’s us – our future selves – that will still need to deal with whatever it is we are putting off in the present moment. We need to try to connect with our future selves, rather than see our future selves as some remote, unrelated stranger.  Thinking about your plans for after university, your goals and ambitions might help you refocus if you’re at the mind-point of your studies and boost your motivation levels.  A study in which high school students wrote letters to and from their future selves found that connecting with the perspective of their future selves helped these students to better connect with the impact present actions would have on future experiences (Chisima and Wilson, 2020).  By reducing the gap between their present and future and not seeing their future self as a distant stranger, students were more likely to take action rather than procrastinate.  

Tips to help overcome procrastination

Image by Pexels

To help you overcome your procrastinating tendencies, you might want to try the following: 

  1. Complete the Stop Procrastinating course on Togetherall 

Togetherall is an online hub for mental health and peer support that’s available to students of the University of Cumbria. The Stop Procrastinating course explores the causes of procrastination and offers cognitive behavioural strategies to help combat procrastination. 

  1. Hold yourself accountable 

Tell other people about the tasks that you plan to complete and ask that they check-in to ensure that you have completed your tasks by a set date. You can do the same for them and together you can provide support whilst also holding yourselves accountable.  

  1. Write to yourself 

Taking inspiration from the study by Chiasma and Wilson (2014), try writing yourself a letter to your future self. Imagine yourself on your graduation day or starting in your dream job. What do you hope you will have achieved? What do you want to tell yourself? This could be in the form of a blog post or even some brief notes in your phone. 

And remember if you feel that you need some further help and support with procrastination, consider contacting the Skills@Cumbria Team or Mental Health and Wellbeing Team via the Student Enquiry Point.  

References 

Chisima, Y. and Wilson, A. (2021) ‘Conversation with a future self: a letter-exchange exercise enhances self-continuity, career planning, and academic thinking’, Self and Identity, 20(5), pp. 646-671. 10.1080/15298868.2020.1754283 

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. (2022) Procrastination. Available at: procrastination noun – Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes  (Accessed: 28 April 2022). 

Pychyl, T. (2013) Solving the procrastination puzzle: a concise guide for strategies for change. New York: Tarcher Penguin 

Stewart, M., Stott, T. and Nuttall, A.-M. (2016) ‘Study goals and procrastination tendencies at different stages of the undergraduate degree’, Studies in Higher Education, 41(11), pp. 2028–2043. doi:10.1080/03075079.2015.1005590. 

Togetherall (2022) Stop procrastinating. Available at: https://v2.togetherall.com/courses/stop-procrastinating-and-be-more-productive (Accessed: 7 April 2022).  

Uzun Ozer, B. et al. (2014) ‘Dynamic interplay of depression, perfectionism and self-regulation on procrastination’, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 42(3), pp. 309–319. doi:10.1080/03069885.2014.896454. 

Leave a Reply