Students who routinely miss deadlines may have more serious problems than writer's block. Elizabeth Mistry explores how to break the procrastination paralysis cycle
Everybody puts off doing things occasionally, but chronic procrastination can be detrimental to academic performance and may lead to a student dropping out of education altogether.
Andrea Perry, guest speaker at a procrastination training workshop at Edinburgh University this week, believes that awareness of the issues surrounding procrastination will become increasingly important to universities and further education colleges as the Government pursues its aim of getting 50 per cent of 18-to-30-year-olds into higher education by 2010.
Perry says research shows that 70 per cent of students procrastinate. "It causes genuine distress and can have serious health implications, thwarting life plans and even ruining relationships. Procrastination is an acquired habit." And it's not always about laziness. It embraces those who get into patterns of working that mean they do everything at the last minute, usually with the aid of caffeine, cigarettes or other substances. "Many people who put things off are highly intelligent and often very creative, but that creativity can be misdirected," Perry says. Understanding the causes of procrastination is vital. While the odd last-minute scramble to finish work is not unusual, a reluctance or inability to start or continue work may be due to a deeper anxiety such as a fear of failure or even success, says Mark Phippen, head of Cambridge University's counselling service, which has also run workshops with Perry.
"In the eight years I have been at Cambridge, I don't think I have seen a particular rise in the number of those affected, but I think we are becoming better at recognising and understanding the dynamics of what goes on inside these students' minds now. Fear of success is a common underlying factor. They think, 'if I produce my best piece of work now, will I be able to keep it up?'
"We don't yet offer specific workshops on procrastination, but we do offer students a weekly work group where we look at various issues from a psychological point of view. We also have leaflets available to download from our network and our website. About two thirds of the students we see are referred by lecturers and tutors, but many staff still don't necessarily make the connection that the counselling service can help with issues such as this."
While every case is unique, there are common patterns. Many students, especially those from a traditional A-level background, will have been hothoused - closely monitored by teachers, and maybe parents. According to Perry, suddenly finding themselves without one-to-one attention can be hard to adjust to. For students used to feedback, a tick on a paper with no detailed notes might come as a surprise, almost an anticlimax. They might feel, 'was that it?' and decide that they will put their energies elsewhere. "For those away from home, often for the first time, the difficulties are well known but not always easy to recognise. Reluctance to complete assignments can also be a small sign of rebellion, particularly when students are under pressure to choose courses to please their parents.
If they don't really have any interest in the subject, there will be less motivation to do the work required."
One of the trickiest reasons, Perry suggests, is perfectionism. "Students can set themselves unreasonably high standards. They very much want to produce an exceptional piece of work and to receive the positive feedback that comes with it." But a fear of not "coming up with the goods" can lead to paralysis, a total inability to act or to stop researching and actually start writing.
Susie Jackson, head of the student counselling service at Edinburgh, says one of the reasons the university started running workshops last year was that they were becoming increasingly concerned by the numbers of perfectionist students they were seeing. "They were incapable of getting any work done, paralysed by an inability to act, and getting very disturbed." The workshops focused on how they got to this stage and on getting them to come up with habit-breaking ideas.
Perry says: "If you are afraid of failing, it is tremendously hard to overcome that block. It is very important to realise that the tangible reality is never the same as your internal fantasy. Putting something - anything - down on paper is much more important.
"Getting that first task done or that first paragraph completed is a vital step. Once you have something tangible to show for your efforts, it can become easier to continue - although it is important to know when to take a break and allow yourself a small reward for completing the job too."
"Some students," Perry says, "simply can't stop working. This may be because they are trying to avoid the anxieties a social life can bring.
Certain students create a life that evolves almost entirely around their computer, so they don't develop any social skills."
And not all students procrastinate over purely academic issues. Perry says:
"Some students just don't like taking decisions. Particularly if it has something to do with problems of debt or with relationships. Of course, this can have implications for those closest to them - family, friends, housemates or even employers."
In all cases, the same advice applies. "You have to begin to change behaviour, just a little at a time. Putting off asking for help can mean putting off getting on with your life."
Understand the underlying causes
Point out the long-term implications
Ask students to suggest habit-breaking ideas
Encourage students to share their concerns
Advise students to change their patterns gradually