Putting off work that needs to get done is perhaps one of the most common human experiences. Adults do it and kids do it, but delaying important tasks too frequently can cause anxiety and negative feelings about one’s self and one’s ability to finish work. Cycles of delay can be very disempowering, and in extreme cases can be detrimental to a person’s life. Many students put off work they aren’t excited to do, and over time develop poor study habits that affect them in the long-term.
Often people call this kind of delay “procrastination,” but psychologists have a very specific definition for procrastination that doesn’t fit the popular use of the word.
“When I procrastinate I’m putting something off voluntarily, and I recognize that putting it off is going to put me in a worse position,” said Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada and author of “Solving the Procrastination Puzzle,” on KQED’s Forum program.
Psychologists are careful to note that true procrastination is a complex set of behaviors that could stem from depression and is often related to overcoming some kind of adversity. It’s hard to know why people procrastinate without knowing the details of their experience, but recognizing when it’s happening and working to break the cycle could be important for both work and academic productivity.
“If you have that sense of guilt, this cognitive dissonance — you intended to do something and you don’t do it — that provokes feelings of guilt,” Pychyl said. “Then you are probably recognizing that you’re engaged in some kind of self-deception. At that point I think you’re procrastinating and you’re probably going to be worse off for that delay.”
Perfectionism lies at the root of many people’s procrastination. The fantasy that the work will be perfect and well received by everyone makes it difficult to get started. People often find it easier to do something else instead. If a student waits long enough, desperation sets in and the fantasy of perfection disappears, making it possible to complete the task.
“It’s easier to change what you’re thinking about than to change what you’re doing,” said John Perry, author of “The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing,” on Forum. “So the first step to change what you’re doing is to change what you’re thinking about.”
He suggests fantasizing about completing the task perfectly as a way of fulfilling that need. Then fantasize about how it will feel to wait until the last-minute, as well as how it would feel to send it off the first day it’s assigned. Playing out the different scenarios intentionally might help overcome the perfectionist barrier.
Another big reason students put off tasks is that they are busy. There are so many tasks competing for attention that some are necessarily pushed to the bottom of the “to-do” list. That’s a perfectly reasonable form of delay, Pychyl said, and students juggling many demands will inevitably have to learn how to prioritize.
However, it’s worth noting that one common way of putting off the most important work is to do other productive work. It’s a kind of “moral substitution,” according to Pychyl, substituting cleaning or doing laundry, instead of sitting down to write a dreaded report.
A lot of procrastination stems from some kind of adversity and is often worse when the task is boring or has no meaning for students.
“Procrastination is an emotional regulation behavior,” said Mohsen Haghbin, a recently graduated doctoral student who worked with Tim Pychyl. “You try to postpone it, but that doesn’t resolve the problem.”
Delaying the task makes students feel better in the short-term — they can do something they like better — but in the long-term they know it will harm them. Accepting this premise makes it easier to identify the environment, personality and task involved and to pinpoint where the adversity is coming from and what might help to remove that barrier.
IS DELAYING ALWAYS BAD?
Researchers like Pychyl and Haghbin dislike how the various forms of delay stemming from many different motivations get lumped under the single term “procrastination,” which has a negative connotation. Inevitable delays from a busy life aren’t necessarily bad. And, some delays actually help people complete work more efficiently when they are finally ready to sit down and do it.
For example, when writing, sometimes ideas need a little more incubation time. By leaving the keyboard, engaging in a different task and coming back later, a student might actually have saved a lot of agonizing over why she couldn’t write. In those moments, Pychyl said, it’s unnecessary and unhelpful to beat oneself up as a “procrastinator.”
“Those people who self-forgive when they procrastinate are more likely to try again,” Pychyl said.
Haghbin has his own hypothesis about procrastination that he hasn’t been able to prove through research. He believes that procrastinators may be more creative.
“Maybe those who have lower levels of conscientiousness, they are more willing to try and do other things, they are more creative, they are less likely to be put in a box,” Haghbin said.
In this case, procrastination might be a form of self-actualization, although it’s important to note that a scenario in which a student doesn’t complete a task because he doesn’t find it important, and then doesn’t feel bad about it, is not procrastination. That delay didn’t cause negative emotions, so it falls into a different category of behavior.
TIPS TO OVERCOME DELAY TEMPTATION
There are lots of strategies that might help students stay on task or improve their focus. Tricking oneself in various small ways is a common technique.
“You’re treating yourself like you teach your teenagers,” explained Perry. “You don’t just expect them to spontaneously do what they should do. You set up the structure so that they really have motivation to do that.”
He says the current self needs to be the parent to the future self, manipulating the future self, who will inevitably be in the throes of procrastination. For example, Perry hates waking up in the morning. He knows he will hate it and that he’ll press snooze and miss his meetings. So the night before, when he’s not in the middle of putting off getting up, he sets his alarm clock and puts it in another room. When it goes off in the morning, he’ll have to get up and get out of bed to shut it off. He has manipulated his future self into getting up.
Thinking about delaying as a choice can also make refocusing very empowering.
“It’s all prioritization, and of course there are other things like avoidance going on, but to me it’s really about being clear about what things you really need and want to do, and setting aside time to do those,” said Joshua Zerkel, productivity expert for the note-taking app Evernote, on Forum.
He works with employees at the company to analyze their choices, set realistic goals and timeframes for meeting them, and offer focusing tips.
He says tools like RescueTime, which allows an employee to block certain websites from himself for a set amount of time, can be helpful to some people. “A more useful thing than blocking websites is for a person to be mindful of the time,” Zerkel said. “How long does it take to work on a given task? How much time have you set aside and is it enough?”
As other educators have noted, online distractions like social media sites are here to stay, so helping students find techniques to meaningfully focus their time is key.
John Perry suggests a “Power Hour” of work as an effective way to focus. Get all the things you need, refocus on why the task is important, and then sit down and work on it for a full hour without doing anything else. Perry also makes sure there are lots of small productive tasks on his to-do list, so if he’s procrastinating on a larger project, at least he’s doing so productively.
For many people, starting the task is the hardest part. Some people tell themselves they’re just going to work for five minutes, but inevitably once they get going they work for much longer. It’s a way of tricking the self to get over the starting barrier.
“I say to myself, if I was going to do this task what’s the first thing I’d have to do? Open a clean piece of letterhead. I keep it that simple and just get going,” Pychyl said. He also uses mantras to remind himself of things like “it’s not going to be easier tomorrow.”
Zerkel has also experimented with lyricless music to focus attention, which he says works for some people and not others. Task list apps can also be helpful, although he notes that people can get a little app crazy, writing their tasks down in 20 different ways. “People are looking for a way to organize their tasks away, but that doesn’t work,” Zerkel said. “At some point you have to do them.”
For students, visualization can be helpful in a number of ways. Ask them to remember another time they were successful. What did they do? How did it feel? This process can help restore the student’s sense of self-efficacy.
“They need to imitate the times they have been successful and remind themselves of times when they have been effective,” said Haghbin. This is how he overcomes his own moments of delay.
Haghbin also notes that the university is a time when anxious procrastination often increases. Students are often on their own for the first time, without parents or high school teachers helping them organize their time. In a study, he found that between 34 and 39 percent of university students experience high levels of irrational delay. For some of them delaying work is a new experience, and so it is particularly anxiety-provoking.
Haghbin worries most about this group of students, who haven’t adapted to delayed ways of working and are putting huge amounts of emotional stress on themselves with negative feelings about their procrastination.