Everybody avoids or postpones doing things sometimes. It is a part of human behaviour. But sometimes procrastination becomes a concern that makes you fail your studies and feel bad.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination, sometimes called the ‘student syndrome’, is to consciously choose to avoid or postpone doing something even when you know that it may result in negative consequences. Another way to put it is that procrastination is the gap between intention and action – in other words the gap between what you have planned to do and what you actually do.
Why do we procrastinate?
We tend to procrastinate when we have a task in front of us that causes negative thoughts or feelings. For example, this might happen when something feels difficult, boring, hard to grasp, or overwhelming to get started. Sometimes it is because the situation reminds us about similar situations that were difficult. Then it is easy to start thinking about our inabilities and/or accuse ourselves for being lazy and experience discomfort or stress. That is often the reason why we start procrastinating: to avoid discomfort at the moment.
Research has shown that procrastination makes us feel less stressed and experience positive emotions, at least initially. At the same time, we know that many people who regularly procrastinate describe that it becomes an obstacle in the long run and results in stress and tension.
Everybody procrastinates from time to time; it is a part of human behaviour. Generally, students procrastinate more than others and there are different ways to understand that. One reason is that students need to take a big responsibility for structuring and organising their days and plan time for studies as well as time for rest. This requires being self-disciplined, which means that as a student you need to be able to say no to distractions.
Below, we focus on procrastination in the study environment and when procrastinating becomes a concern for your studies.
What can you do to help yourself?
Map your behaviour
Mapping your behaviour, in other words note the circumstances when you procrastinate is a good start for change.
What do you procrastinate?
Think about which things you procrastinate. Is it studying for an exam, going to lectures, asking for help, self-studies, presentations, or something else?
What do you do instead?
When we procrastinate we replace an important task with a less important task (but it does not have to be unimportant). This means that what you do instead does not have to be ‘wrong’. It is rather that you do it instead of the thing you should to do, and that it currently feels uncomfortable.
Find out what you do instead of studying – how do you procrastinate? For example, it could be meeting someone, calling someone, doing the dishes, watching a movie, working out, checking things on the Internet, or thinking about something that has happened or is going to happen.
What are your excuses?
The thought that we should do something else can cause discomfort, for example feelings of shame or guilt. Since we do not want to confront these feelings, we make up excuses for procrastinating. In this way, we can justify for ourselves that we do something else instead of the things we should do.
Think about your excuses for procrastinating, for example:
- I’m too tired/too stressed
- I’m not motivated / I’ll wait until it feels better
- I just have to clean/ work out / organise / finish the next episode first
- It’s too late to start now. I’ll start tomorrow
- I have plenty of time. I might as well start tomorrow
- I won’t be finished today anyway, so I might as well do it tomorrow
Our excuses can turn into ideas and rules that are not helpful in the long run but that we follow nonetheless. Practice on noting your ‘rules’ and train yourself into becoming more flexible. You might have a rule or excuse that sounds like, “I can’t study if I’m not motivated” or “I work best under pressure”, or “I have to read all the literature on the reading list”.
Train yourself into not having such stiff rules about how things ‘have to be’ in order to start studying. Train yourself into becoming more flexible and accept that you can start studying even if the conditions are not ideal. Try “I’m tired but I study anyway” or “I’m not motivated right now but I study anyway”.
Map your study habits so it becomes clear how you can set up good conditions for yourself. Below are a few suggestions:
- Organise yourself. Make a schedule
- Plan your study time as well as free time
- Plan breaks for lunch, snacks etc.
It is probably not helpful to believe that you will work for five hours at a time or an entire day without a break. Plan time for recovery: rest, exercise, social activities. They are protective factors for stress and worries. It is probably not helpful to take the day as it comes and wait for lust and inspiration (it might never happen).
Unreasonable demands make things harder and might become obstacles to you. Instead, set reasonable goals and break them down into smaller, concrete parts. It is easier to get started if you have a concrete, specific task ahead of you, for example “read chapters 5-6 and answer the questions” instead of just “studying”.
In other words:
- Set goals, sub-goals and deadlines for yourself
- Give yourself concrete, specific tasks
It might also be helpful to think about the following:
- Where do I study the best? At home? At the library? At a café?
- When do I study the best? In the morning or after lunch? Use the time of the day when you are the most concentrated to more demanding tasks.
- How do I learn the best? By sitting alone or working with others? Short sessions with breaks? Switching between different tasks? Telling others about what I have learnt?
Make sure you do not get stuck in making the perfect structure or mapping your behaviour. If so, you just procrastinate and avoid getting started once again.
Distractions: the things that bother you
If you have a hard time with self-control, try to increase the distance to the attractions that call for your attention. Take a look at your list, “What do you do instead?” What are your traps? Is it the phone, games, TV series, the couch, alcohol, food, friends…?
Make sure you know what distracts you and make it harder for you to finish your studies. For many people who procrastinate, leaving the house is a good idea. At home there are plenty of distractions. And maybe you can try to close the tabs you do not need for the task you are currently working on? Can you practice on having your phone on mute, in your bag? Tell your friends that you are going to study until, say, 3 PM and that you are not available until then.
Take care of yourself
Studies show that more than a quarter of the procrastinating students do it because they lack energy. Fatigue can be both physical and mental. Our ability to maintain focus is affected by mental fatigue, and so is our ability to self-control; in other words to resist distractions and stick to good habits. So, if we are tired – physically or mentally – it is harder to resist temptations, whether they come in the shape of games, TV series, alcohol or food that gives fast energy, instead of doing the things we have planned or intended to do.
So, make sure you take care of yourself and schedule time for recovery – rest, exercise, and social activities. They are protective factors for stress and worries and help you stay focused throughout the day. Physical activity increases the ability to self-control and in that way counteracts procrastination.
Make sure you plan for and actually take several regular, shorter breaks throughout the day. This helps you stay focused. Schedule time for food and snacks to make sure you eat fairly nutritious, enough, and regularly during the entire day. An even energy level gives you more energy and helps you perform better.
Sleep is also important so that the things you have learnt will stay in your memory. Sleep also affects your ability to concentration, solving problems, and thinking.
What does your inner monologue sound like?
In what way do you talk to yourself? Are you strict and critical of yourself, do you push yourself down, or are you supportive and caring?
Research shows that lack of self-esteem, being judgemental and/or blaming yourself leads to more negative feelings and more guilt, which only complicates problems with procrastination.
Our brains perceive a critical inner dialogue as a threat, which increases worries and stress. This means that self-criticism triggers your worries and stress, while compassion and self-care instead helps breaking the negative stress spiral. Some people have a more or less constant accusatory and judgmental inner voice that they rarely reflect over.
Train yourself on noticing how your inner dialogue sounds like. Try showing compassion and self-care instead of nagging yourself and being self-critical. See if it is possible to replace stressful thoughts with more helpful, soothing thoughts.
- “I’ll never make this, I don’t understand anything anyway” to “I’ll do my best and prepare as well as I can”
- “It’s no use, there’s so many things I’ll never have time for, I’m useless” to “It’s hard right now but I’ll work and learn as much as I can and have time for”
Compassion and self-care reduce worries and lower stress levels. This makes us feel calm and regain our ability to stay focused and concentrated.
Use your breath
Our state of mind is often mirrored in the way we breathe. We can calm down our minds by breathing slowly and consciously. You do not have to make efforts to breathe in a certain way. Just try to notice your breaths for a while. Lower your shoulders and maybe place on hand on your stomach and the other over your ribcage to feel the breath in your body. Try!
Practice on focusing on your breath for a few minutes or a few breaths from time to time. Notice how you breathe in through your nose, how the air slowly fills your lungs and your stomach, and then how you breathe out.
When you practice on stopping and focusing on your breathing for a little while, you can eventually help yourself to become calmer and break negative stress spirals.
There is a lot of information about mindfulness on the Internet and you can also find audio files with relaxation exercises there.
By practicing acceptance, you can work through resistance and reluctance to start studying.
When we avoid or escape, we might feel that the worry or discomfort goes away in the moment (short term), but in the long run this only gives us more discomfort. In other words, the worry or discomfort grows instead of shrinks.
Often we want to get rid of the difficult feelings and thoughts that emerge when we are about to study or when we come into difficulties. We have a desire that things should be easy, that we should feel motivated and full of energy. When that happens, it can be helpful to accept that things are rough.
So, instead of trying to escape or avoid difficult thoughts and feelings, see if you can train yourself into accepting that this is what it is like for you right now. You do not have to like it, but see if things can be the way they are while you do the things you need to do anyway. Keep in mind that thoughts and feelings come and go. By accepting things the way they are, you can work your way through and beyond resistance and reluctance. Often the hard thoughts and feelings go away after a while.
Do you need more support?
Do you need help creating different approaches to food, exercise, and/or sleep? Or do you need help to understand how stress is related to your lifestyle? Then you can book an appointment with the Student Health nurse for health counselling.
Do you find it difficult with studying techniques and creating structure? Our Study Counsellors offer guidance in studying techniques. Your study planner can also help you with planning your studies if you are behind with your studies and need help.
Do you have reading or writing difficulties or dyslexia that makes it harder for you in your studies? Contact our dyslexia counsellor to see if assistive technology might be of help to you.
Are you unsure of which language skills are required of you at the university, or do you need help developing your oral skills? Then you can contact the Language Lab.
Do you have a disability and need extra pedagogic support? Then you can contact the coordinator for support for students with disabilities and get information about which support is available.
Sometimes procrastination is the secondary problem of a depression, illness or a crisis. If you suspect that this might be the case, contact your health clinic or a counsellor or a therapist for support. If you need help or guidance where to turn please contact the Student Health Care center for advice.