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How to stop procrastinating – from a procrastination psychologist

As a university student, you can often find yourself procrastinating when you should be studying. But, procrastination can be beaten if you understand it better

Nick Wignall's avatar

Nick Wignall

August 28 2019
How to overcome procrastination


I admit it: I procrastinated over writing this article.

I told myself I would work on it over the weekend, but blew it off in favour of going for a run and watching Netflix. I even convinced myself to do some chores around the house rather than to sit down and write my article on procrastination.

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Of course, I knew this was only going to make it harder for me in the long run. And sure enough, here I am, with only a day left to write my article, worried that I won’t have enough time to get it done and feeling guilty for not doing it earlier when I had the chance. And I’m a psychologist who specialises in overcoming procrastination.

If you are reading this article, I’m sure you can relate – especially if you are a student getting bombarded with assignments left, right and centre. 

Luckily, there are proven methods for fighting back against the tendency to procrastinate courtesy of some recent research in psychology.

The psychology of procrastination

While psychologists have been studying procrastination for decades, it’s only in the last few years that we have built a consensus on what really contributes most to procrastination and, as a result, how best to deal with it.

Psychologist and procrastination researcher Piers Steel conducted a meta-analysis of all the research on procrastination in the past few decades and discovered that there are four primary causes of procrastination:

1. We tend to procrastinate when we have a low expectation of reward or success in our task. If you have never written a paper of more than five pages, that 15-page research paper might shake your confidence a bit.

2. We will also procrastinate more when there doesn’t seem to be much immediate benefit from successfully completing our task. For most of us, writing research papers is not an inherently enjoyable task and no one gives us any kind of reward whe we turn it in.

3. Our likelihood of procrastinating also goes up the more easily distracted we are. It’s easier to procrastinate on that paper when you are constantly getting texts from friends about the exciting stuff they’re doing while you’re in the library.

4. The further away the deadline for a task, the higher our likelihood of procrastinating. When the due date is three months away, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we have plenty of time.

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Interestingly, these four factors also work together in a particular way to contribute to procrastination – what Dr Steele calls the procrastination equation.

In other words, your likelihood of procrastinating goes up if the product of your confidence and value are small relative to the product of your distractability and the delay between assignment and due date. On the other hand, you are less likely to procrastinate when your confidence and value are high relative to your distractability and delay.

But here’s the really big takeaway from this research: we all procrastinate for different reasons.

Hopefully that helps clarify why procrastination is such a sticky problem and why we all tend to procrastinate a little differently. Here are some tips to stop you from procrastinating once and for all. 

Five tips to stop procrastinating

Using the framework we discussed above from the most recent research on procrastination, here are five tips anyone can use to procrastinate less:

1. Chunk your work. Instead of seeing your essay as one big task, break it up or “chunk” it into smaller, more manageable pieces. “Write an introduction” might be one piece, and “outline main pieces of evidence” might be another. This will help you to actually get started on doing some work, and these little bits of work will boost your confidence to tackle more, thus decreasing your likelihood of procrastinating.

2. Create artificial deadlines. The problem with many university assignments is that the due date is far away. To counteract this procrastination-inducing delay, create your own artificial deadlines. If your entire paper is due 31 November, create your own schedule where the introduction is “due” 31 September, the body is due 31 October and the conclusion is due 15 November.

3. Treat yourself. Unfortunately, much of the work we have to do in college is not itself all that rewarding or immediately valuable. But we can counteract the low value quality of our assignments by adding external rewards for their completion. So pick something you find personally rewarding or enjoyable (say a milkshake or an hour of video games) and treat yourself after the successful completion of your task. 

4. Work in a strange location. Most of us tend to study and work in the same handful of places over and over again. The problem with this is that these common work locations are often full of distractions. Instead, if you have an important task to finish, drive to a new neighbourhood and work in a coffee shop you have never been to. Or take your laptop to a park and work from there.

5.Turn off your phone (and WiFi, if possible). Here’s another one that will dramatically improve your odds of resisting procrastination by minimising distraction: turn your phone off when you sit down to work. Sometimes the most distracting things are quick jumps into social media or email. If your phone is off, it’s much harder to do this (and easier to stay focused).

6. Use gentle self-talk. Many people who struggle with procrastination are quite harsh in the way they talk to themselves often beating themselves up for procrastinating. But this overly negative, judgmental self-talk only makes it more likely that you feel the urge to “escape” the current situation with a pleasantly numbing distraction. When you feel the urge to procrastinate, remind yourself that it’s normal to want to procrastinate and doesn’t mean anything about you as a person.

Hopefully this has given you a new way to look at the problem of procrastination and some practical strategies you can use to fight back.

Remember, we all procrastinate sometimes. But if you can learn which of the four factors is most likely to lead you into procrastination, you can take steps to outmanoeuvre it ahead of time.

Read more: You've started your degree, now please make sure you do the reading!

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