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2023-2024 Student Guide: Procrastination


Procrastination is a common problem, and not just for students! Procrastination is a habit, and it is best overcome by learning to recognize our tendency to procrastinate and by making a conscious effort to change our pattern of behaviour. This section explains some of the common reasons why we procrastinate and provides advice on how to combat our urge to procrastinate. 

Procrastination reason #1: Lack of motivation

It is understandable and okay that you aren’t motivated to do all your work all the time; no one is. What’s not okay, however, is using a lack of motivation to procrastinate doing the task until you “feel like it”. Instead, accept that there are tasks you will have to complete even if you don’t enjoy them or feel like doing them; this approach will take you much further than waiting to “become” motivated. While there is something to be said for the adrenaline-induced focus we can exhibit when we’re under pressure, waiting until the last minute is a strategy that will undoubtedly backfire most of the time, especially since most college-level work is not designed to be completed in a small amount of time.

Procrastination reason #2: Failure to start

Getting started is often the most difficult part of completing a task. Don’t underestimate the effect of small steps in gaining motivation; you don’t need to know exactly what the end result will look like in order to begin. For example, simply putting yourself in the physical space where you intend to complete the task can be very helpful, as can opening the materials you need to study, beginning a notes page for an essay, or reading the first few pages of a book. Often, once we’ve taken the first few small steps, the motivation to progress comes more easily.

Procrastination reason #3: Setting unrealistic goals

Saying to yourself that you need to spend the next 5 hours studying for an exam is a daunting task that you’re likely to put off to another time. It is usually more effective to attempt to complete a task in short intervals (e.g. 30 minutes at a time), taking a short break between each interval, than it is to try to work for several hours without any rest. If you begin an assignment or you start studying for an exam well ahead of time and work consistently toward your goal, the payoff is that you will experience less stress, you will do a better job, and you will have the time to seek clarification or feedback if you reach a stumbling block. 

Procrastination reason #4: Size of the task

Big tasks are often the ones we procrastinate with the most, often because we’re not sure where to start or because we feel overwhelmed by the size of the task at hand. The best tactic to take is to break down the large task into as many small tasks as possible; you’ll often find that tackling a series of small tasks seems much more manageable than the idea of completing the whole task at once.

Let’s take the example of studying for a final exam. Here are some ways you can break down the large task into smaller tasks: 

  • First, gather all your materials; if you prefer to study from paper rather than from a computer screen, be sure to print out all the material before you begin to study in earnest.
  • Make sure you’re aware of what material you’re responsible for, then break down the information into segments in a way that makes sense to you and in light of the course (e.g. by chapter, by week, by topic, etc.); if some segments are much larger than others, break them down into smaller ones.
  • Break up the types of studying that you can do for each segment (e.g. recopying/reorganizing your class notes; taking notes from the textbook; re-reading highlighted sections; reviewing PowerPoint presentations; completing quizzes or old exams, etc.).
  • Identify blocks of time in your schedule that you will use to study for the exam and set up a study schedule for yourself: using your broken-down segments, write down exactly what material you will study during each of those blocks; be sure to allow yourself more time for material you find more difficult. Read the Time Management section of the guide for more information on how to set up a study schedule.

Procrastination reason #5: Focus on instant gratification

Often, when we don’t see the rewards of our efforts immediately (instant gratification), we are less motivated to complete the work. It is important to understand that sometimes the gratification only comes much later (delayed gratification), once you’ve put in a significant amount of work over a long period of time. So, instead of craving instant gratification, focus on the longer-term benefits of completing the task. Here are some examples:

  • the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment you will gain from having done well in a course
  • the overall reduction in stress you will experience when you know you are on top of all your work
  • the time you will have to do an activity you enjoy, guilt-free, once you’re finished the task
  • the learning you will accomplish when you give sufficient time and energy to your work will serve you at a later time in the course and in your future courses that build on the knowledge you acquire
  • you will be one step closer to your long-term academic and career goals

Procrastination reason #6: Lack of information

What happens if your teacher assigns you a research paper, but you have no idea where to begin and you’re not even sure you understand the assignment? When you don’t know how to complete a task, putting it off can seem like a very attractive option. But remember that simply waiting for the missing information to come to you is a bad plan. Instead, take charge with these steps:

  • Identify the information you’re lacking: are you unsure what your teacher wants? do you not understand the material well enough?
  • Identify the people or tools who can help you obtain that information. Can you contact your teacher during office hours? Should you make an appointment at the Writing Centre? Do you need to request a Peer Tutor or consult a Librarian? Is there a database, website, or other source where you can look up the information yourself?
  • Obtain the information you need so that you can move ahead; the longer you wait to get started, the more daunting the task seems.

Procrastination reason #7: Perfectionism

Sometimes we procrastinate because we want our work to be “perfect” and don’t want to get started until we feel we are absolutely ready to make it flawless. It’s important to accept that there is no such thing as the “perfect paper” or the “perfect presentation”; in reality, putting off a task will not make it any easier to complete in the long run and we are certainly more likely to do a better job the more time and effort we devote to a project. Remember that the anxiety caused by putting off the task is making the situation worse than it really is. 

In some cases, perfectionism can become debilitating and can prevent even extremely talented and hard-working students from achieving success. If you feel that perfectionist tendencies are significantly impacting your life, schedule a meeting with a Counsellor to discuss strategies that can help you combat the urge toward perfectionism.

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