Student Procrastination – Why You’re Not Getting Stuff Done

Procrastination! Enemy of all students, especially in the run-up to exams and end-of-year assignments.

Student procrastination is a problem that many suffer from, especially in times of stress. In fact, that’s when it can get worse.

So what can you do if you’re sat in your student flat in Leeds or Sheffield and are struggling to concentrate on your assignments? Let’s take a look!

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Am I a Procrastinator?

Have a look through the following statements.

  • I have pulled an all-nighter before an exam
  • I tend to submit assignments just on the deadline
  • I have asked for extensions for assignments
  • I get an uncontrollable urge to tidy my room/call a distant relative/do my laundry/every time I sit down to do some study
  • I have organised my study timetable several times, in different formats and colours
  • I’m binging on box sets instead of getting my studies done
  • I’m spending too much time on Snapchat/Internet/Instagram… instead of being organised
  • I get a feeling of dread every time I think of my study
  • My assignments are starting to pile up

If you recognise yourself in any of these, then you may be suffering from student procrastination.

It’s very common, and actually, it’s a kind of coping strategy that many of us use when dealing with something important that makes us feel uncomfortable or causes us some emotional pain.

Our procrastination is our way of avoiding this discomfort. Unfortunately, it’s not a helpful way to deal with things as it tends to exacerbate whatever was causing us discomfort.

What Does Procrastination Look Like?

For example, in terms of getting an essay done, the part of our brain that is all about immediate reward and avoidance of discomfort will start to look for ways to avoid the task and find something more pleasurable or less taxing to do.

Ideally, at this stage, the prefrontal cortex and our self-discipline will cut in and help us ignore this impulsive/avoidant behaviour and get us started on the task.

By putting off sitting down to study, we might gain a short-term benefit, such as catching up on that Netflix series you wanted. But guess what? Your study isn’t going to go away.

Your short-term alleviation of feelings of discomfort about study turns into increased stress, self-recrimination, fear of failing the assignment, and so on.

Eventually, the threat of the consequences of not getting something done becomes greater than the benefit of avoiding it, and you actually sit down to do it – usually under lots of stress and time constraints.  And don’t fall for the “I work better under pressure” maxim; that’s your mind justifying your behaviour.

The exercising of willpower and self-discipline is like a muscle. If you tend to give in to your student’s procrastination and avoid tasks, and you are certainly not around, then you need to start exercising your self-discipline regularly to make it easier in the future.

This can be easier if you have an understanding of why you procrastinate and are able to catch yourself in the act of doing it.

How to Recognise When You’re Procrastinating?

Student procrastination is most likely to be a result of emotion and the unconscious thoughts we have about ourselves.

Thought: “I’m not sure where to start in this essay. I’m not sure I can do it well enough. I’ll be exposed for not being good enough.”

Action: Put off sitting down and making a start. Watch Game of Thrones instead.

Feelings: Self-recrimination, frustration, stress, feeling inadequate.

Result: Oh, No. Now, I’ve only got a day to get my essay in. I’m so stupid. I’m not good enough to be on this course.

From this example, you can see that student procrastination can be a self-perpetuating behaviour that confirms whatever thoughts you have that make you want to avoid the task.

Everyone’s reason for procrastination is unique to themselves. It could be fear of failure, fear of success, feeling inferior or inadequate, of not belonging, of feeling out of depth, and so on.

We all have these kinds of thoughts, so don’t berate yourself for having them. Instead, try to start catching them and not accepting them as true.

What unites all procrastinators is that by giving in to it, we tend to make the situation worse. Logically, we can see why we need to knock procrastination on the head… the problem is it’s not a behaviour governed by logic.

Another way of looking at it is thinking about ourselves as our present and future selves. The future self is part of our planning, such as “I will get my essay done a week early so I don’t stress” or “I’ll get up every morning an hour earlier and go for a run to start the day”. The problem is that the present self is where all the action happens… and in the moment of procrastination, it’s actively ignoring the possible future you.

Overcoming Student Procrastination

Set yourself up to succeed through acceptance, self-awareness, committing to action, and a little bit of self-compassion.

Recognise & Own It. The first thing to do is to accept that you have a tendency to procrastinate and that you are not alone.

Using avoidance of tasks as a coping strategy is an extremely common behaviour. But once you know you have this tendency, you can recognise it and start to deal with it.

Try and Figure out Why. Think of the last time you gave in to student procrastination. Ask yourself what you were thinking, how you were feeling, and if you had any bodily sensations.

Next time you find yourself about to procrastinate, ask yourself the same questions. This might give you some hints as to why you are avoiding tasks.

Ask yourself if this is really true. This way, “I’m not good enough for this course” can change to “I’m unsure of my current level of knowledge on this subject. Maybe I could read up on it more and ask a friend to help”.

Be Kinder to Yourself. We’re programmed to see the negative more easily than the positive.

When you sit down to something and stop putting things off, make sure that you give yourself a pat on the back. This will help you start to reframe whatever it is that’s making you avoid getting stuff done.

Additionally, when you have given in to procrastination, don’t get too upset with yourself; move on and commit to doing better next time.

Some Tactics for Time Management and Stopping Student Procrastination
  1. Commit to yourself. Start making promises to yourself and committing to the future you. Take these promises seriously. If you can keep promises to your friends, why can’t you keep promises to yourself?
  2. Start exercising that self-discipline muscle. Start with small things and build up. It will get easier.
  3. Just Start: Next time you find yourself about to avoid a task, just start. The most difficult thing is to begin. Once you commit to starting, you’ll very often find that it’s not as bad as you thought.
  4. “Eat the Frog”. This is a Mark Twain quote. If you have a range of things you need to do, start with the thing that you don’t like the most. Once you’ve eaten the frog, everything else on the list gets so much easier.
  5. When you complete something, note the feeling of accomplishment. Take a moment to congratulate yourself on getting it done. Getting something completed can release endorphins and a feel-good factor. Take note of this and use it to build your habits.
  6. Chunk Things. Divide your task into smaller pieces so that you can tackle any feelings of being overwhelmed by achieving smaller pieces and steps. Remember to congratulate yourself on your progress.
  7. Get an accountability buddy. Ask one of your mates to have a meet-up or a call at the same time every week. Exchange the most important things that you both need to get done. Check-in with each other every week to keep an eye on progress.
  8. Pomodoro Technique. Divide your time into 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of time out. Works well for people who can turn a 30-minute piece of work into 2 hours!
  9. Limit distraction. Remove your phone from the area and consider using an app to stop you from falling down internet rabbit holes.
    Aim for getting it done, not for perfection. You can improve things in the edit.
  10. Categorise tasks – stuff that’s important vs urgent, things that can be done in 5 minutes, tasks that take focused effort.
  11. Start using a planner. If you are visual, it might make sense to have this in a diary or a desk planner so you can make a physical connection with what needs to get done.
  12. Get a study group together. Work on collaborating and sharing resources so that you become accountable to yourself and to your group members.

The main thing to realise is that student procrastination is a coping mechanism that many of us use. Recognise you have this tendency, and try using the tips above to start getting things done.