Procrastination is something we all face at some point, even though we know we should just get our work done. I am always so amazed by students who finish assignments before the deadline – I’m one of those people submitting at 11:59pm. So how can we beat procrastination? The first step is figuring out the cause, and then how to overcome it.
I was working quite a bit when I did my undergrad and masters, so it was less about procrastinating and more about trying to get my work done in the limited time I had. I didn’t necessarily start my work early – I was just constantly trying to make room on my to-do list to get onto my upcoming assignments.
When I became a full-time PhD student, this totally changed. My first year was coursework, which is not that different from other levels of courses. But now I was not working very much, and had all the time to dedicate to studying. And I procrastinated more than I ever thought possible!
To resolve this, I had to figure out what the problem was. Why was I procrastinating? Why wasn’t I motivated to study (when I was definitely interested in learning)? How could I turn myself from an unmotivated university student into a thriving, A+ studier?
Why are you procrastinating?
Procrastination doesn’t always have the same cause, so in order to overcome procrastination, try to figure out why you are doing it. This takes some soul-searching and can be challenging. If you are having trouble figuring out why you aren’t motivated to get your work done, try talking to a trusted friend, family member, or counsellor about it. Sometimes other people who know us well can see our blind spots!
This was my problem, but I had a lot of trouble seeing it. I thought I just didn’t know where to start. In reality, I just had to sit down and start ANYTHING, but because I wanted my papers to be perfect, I was waiting until I had the perfect idea or knew how to start perfectly.
All of this was just a fear of not producing a “perfect” paper. But this is counter-productive, because by not starting my papers earlier, ultimately I had less time to work on them.
This could be you if you spend more time envisioning that A+ or the gold star from your professor, but have yet to put pen to paper. This could also be you if you’re waiting for inspiration or a good idea to get started.
Beating Perfectionism Procrastination
Doing something is always more helpful than doing nothing, so my way of moving through this was just starting with small pieces. If a 30-page paper is too intimidating, take 15 minutes to review the instructions and brainstorm ideas; Take 20 minutes to read one article on your topic; Take 30 minutes to start outlining your paper.
The pomodoro method may also be useful for you in this case. You can read more about pomodoros in this post, but essentially this is where you study for a short period, and then take a short break. You can adjust the lengths of the study periods and breaks so they work for you – if I’m not very motivated, I’ll study for 20 minutes and then take a 20 minute break.
Breaking your project into the smallest steps possible may also be useful. It’s intimidating to write a 30-page paper, or review an entire semester of content! Take 15-20 minutes to organize your project or study plan and break it into the smallest pieces possible. This is much less scary and helps you to see that you can and are making progress as time goes on.
Taking a small step is better than taking no step, and is much less intimidating.
“I Work Better Under Pressure” Procrastination
When I hear this from somebody, I always think to myself “Really???” I’m a bit skeptical. Yes, I believe that you work better with a deadline. But I don’t think that’s because of the “pressure.” I think it’s because you are better at being accountable to external influences than to yourself.
I am this way, too! A lot of us are. For example, it took me a couple of years of thinking about this blog to start it. Now that it’s there, I keep working on it because I am accountable to my audience .
Building Accountability to Defeat Procrastination
If you are better at working with deadlines that are put on you by others, you can leverage this to procrastinate less by building in some external accountability yourself. This may mean organizing a study group and building a schedule together. It could mean setting a date to exchange your draft paper with a friend and give each other feedback. It could even mean asking someone you trust, like a friend or even a parent, to check in with you on specific dates and remind you that you set yourself a goal. You could also book office hours with your professor or TA and set a goal to do a certain amount of work before you go.
How can you engage those around you to help you build external accountability into your work? Who are the folks you can work with to build some support for yourself?
Procrastination Due to Overwhelm
Are you procrastinating because your brain is going to explode? Does thinking about the work you have to do make you want to throw up or cry? Does it all just feel like too much?
Sometimes we procrastinate because we need a break. As students, if we don’t plan properly for rest and breaks, our brains and bodies will take the breaks anyways.
It can seem counter-intuitive to take a break when your to-do list is a mile long. I get it! But what is the impact of not taking a break? If you’re heading into overwhelm territory, or even burnout, that’s going to make you less productive than taking an afternoon off.
Tackling Overwhelm to Stop Procrastinating
There are different solutions to this. The suggestions above may help: short periods of work with lots of breaks, breaking your work into small steps, just working for short periods, seeking support from your social group.
You might really just need a break! Think of an activity that helps you to feel rested and re-energized to keep studying. Plan that activity into your schedule – ASAP! Make sure that you are also taking enough breaks from studying to take care of yourself: eating properly, getting exercise, and socializing.
You might also feel better if you got some things off your to-do list. Are there any tasks that you can just power through and get done? Anything that isn’t important right now that you can postpone for later? Focus on the most important tasks and set other items aside for now.
More Tips for Students Who Procrastinate
Remember your end goals, whatever they are, and focus on those. What can you do today to move you towards your dream career, or towards graduation? Sometimes focusing on the bigger picture will help you remember why you’re studying at university and this may take some of the pressure off.
Take the time to figure out why you’re procrastinating. Procrastination is a symptom of other challenges, so in order to defeat it, you really need to figure out what’s going on for you. We’re all different, so although it can be helpful to look at what works for others, you will need to figure out the best solution for you.
Don’t beat yourself up. We all procrastinate at some point. I know it can feel like everyone around you has got it together and you’re the only one struggling, but I assure you this is not the case. I have it together, ut sometimes I struggle. That is totally okay!
Being a student is difficult. You are challenged regularly, whether it’s professionally, academically, or around studying skills and time management. University student life is hard. Be kind to yourself, and remember that it’s hard for almost everyone. And those people who find it easy are something else!
Check out these three posts to read more on motivating yourself to study: