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The real reason students procrastinate and how to fight it

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Introduction

“Procrastination is like a credit card: it's a lot of fun until you get the bill.” - Christopher Parker

If procrastination and credit cards would truly be similar, the Great Recession of 2008 would haunt the world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It would never end. Account overdrafts would plague every single individual and bank and they would never be repaid.

While thankfully this is not the case, procrastination is as real nowadays as the Great Recession was. In fact, it has been for centuries. Every single human being does it to some extent, from children refusing to wash their teeth, to you postponing household chores or studying. You are procrastinating the moment you start thinking “I’ll do it later” and what a great feeling it is…

Clock

However, postponing studying altogether to watch a movie or putting off learning microbiology in favour of anatomy are not the same. One decision is purely rational according to priorities, while the other is based on sheer enjoyment for your favourite subject, anatomy, right :)?. Not all procrastinations are the same, therefore it is important to realise what category you fit in - the harmless or the harmful one. This article will explain what procrastination actually is, the main reason students do it and various ways you can fight it. It will help you understand and crush this bad habit that has hindered your learning for all those years.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is nothing new. This practice has probably been around from the moment a human being had to accomplish a task, with the first historical record from 800 BC. If procrastination has such negative connotations in the 21st century, why then did it stand the test of time for so long? Is it purely due to human nature? Or is there much more to it once you scratch the surface?

It is not easy to clearly define procrastination. What is truly known so far is that it involves delaying or putting off a task or decision. In some cases, this is necessary and advantageous. For example when prioritising tasks within a company or during your studies. It can also be framed as avoiding rushed actions. However, other experts classify procrastination as an irrational delay of behaviour, causing users to defer action without good enough reasons. In other words, procrastinators voluntarily choose a course of action that deep down, they know will not be beneficial in the end. This is where the danger lies. A procrastinator is a “pro” at making life difficult for him or herself. In turn, the results are subpar, performance is worse and suffering is high.

It’s all about emotions

If you are reading this article, you are more than likely a serious procrastinator who is trying to understand and fix the problem. Interestingly, even though you realise this, it is impossible for you to stop doing it. Rather than poor time-management skills, there is something innate that keeps you trapped inside the procrastination vortex. Actually, the latest work has shown that time-management has nothing to do with this phenomenon, so telling a procrastinator to “stop wasting time and simply do it”, is like urging a depressed individual to “stop worrying and cheer up.”

Why is this the case? The root cause of procrastination is a failure to properly regulate emotions at a point in time. When you face a significant task as a procrastinator, it goes like this:

  • you realise that delaying it is harmful
  • you focus on making yourself feel better in the present moment (your Kryptonite)
  • this desire takes over completely
  • you postpone the task
  • you hope for the best in the future (which is a gamble)

Smiley

In addition, you find it challenging to stop procrastinating. Learning from mistakes comes with uneasiness about being wrong. A procrastinator will do everything in his power to avoid such a feeling (remember your kryptonite). What’s the result? You will procrastinate on a future task, again. Ironically, trying to boost your current emotional state is preventing you from feeling good in the long run.

The obsession of procrastinators with positive feelings in the present moment must have a reason. After all, non-procrastinators do not shut their anatomy books and take a nap because the topic is difficult. This reason is simple - personality. Two traits, in particular, are making you a chronic procrastinator: high impulsivity and low self-discipline. Unfortunately, you can’t change them dramatically because they are mostly at the mercy of genetics. Do you start to see the problem? Acting on a whim and having low self-control allow the desire of temporarily feeling good to irrationally control you. When these tendencies are combined with an unpleasant task, the result is a perfect procrastinator.

Fighting procrastination

Now you know that postponing stuff is not because you are lazy or you lack time-management skills. Instead, you were born with a personality that predisposes you to be more focused on the present moment, without being able to detach yourself. Luckily certain traits can be modeled, to an extent, by the individual. Here are some possibilities and they are not as difficult as you might think!

Divide your work

The main problem of procrastination is feeling good in the present moment. Therefore, why not fight fire with fire and provide yourself exactly that? If you have to complete a certain task, divide it into many parts. If you have to go from A to C, don’t simply divide the journey by stopping once at B. Make many small stops going from A to B to rest your legs, drink some water and have a snack.

By accomplishing all those little tasks, you are receiving the instant gratification that your personality requires and you finish the overall task on time and in good shape. You are essentially rewarding yourself every time you pass over a hurdle. The important thing is not to look all the way to the finish line and just concentrate on the next fence.

By accomplishing all those little tasks, you are receiving the instant gratification that your personality requires and you actually finish the overall task on time and in good shape. You are essentially rewarding yourself every time you pass over a hurdle. The important thing is not to look all the way to the finish line and just concentrate on the next fence.

Make it positive and rewarding

Distractions can momentarily improve your mood because they help you forget the unpleasantness of the task at hand. Ironically, those that don’t need distractions can constantly find them. Suddenly, searching online for the origins and history of your surname or trying to see your car on Google Earth is incredibly appealing. As you are ruled by emotions and lack self-discipline, simply blocking distractions is not an option.

Kenhub ipadAlternatively, to eliminate quick mood boosters, you could dig deep and find something positive and worthwhile about the task at hand. For example, put some background music while doing house chores or studying. If you are learning anatomy, you could put the information you are learning into a clinical context in order to make it more interesting and grab your attention. Just remember to scroll down and have a look at the clinical information when you read your favourite Kenhub article, it might be the small tweak you need! But wait - you normally need distractions when you read something for a long time, right? Go and watch one of Kenhub’s videos! You’ll learn the same information in a fraction of the time!

Forgive yourself

As a procrastinator, deep down you know that what you are doing is harmful to your future performance. Therefore, for every underperformance, which is a regular event, you criticise yourself and the inability to stop procrastinating. As a result, you place even more negative emotions upon yourself, and as you’ve seen, a procrastinator does not react well to them. A helpful practice is to simply forgive yourself after procrastinating and accept that sometimes things simply go wrong. Interestingly, research has shown that procrastinators who indulge in self-forgiveness feel more positive and as a result are less likely to postpone work in the future.

Reframe the deadlines

A lot of non-procrastinators don’t realise that simply “scaring” a procrastinator by bringing a deadline closer does not work. If they know an upcoming exam is two weeks from now on, they cannot imagine that the exam is in one week and plan according to this new schedule. Deep down, they know it is simply a lie because feeling good overrides their rational decision-making process.

Calendar

An alternative would be to reframe the deadline. Instead of changing it, think like this; “What if I slightly force myself to do the work now, so tomorrow I will have a free day to do whatever I want?”. You can also mould your thinking into something like “What if I sit down and do the work now before lunch and then I will be completely free in the afternoon?”. It’s all about transforming the deadline into a challenge and adding a reward to offset the difficulties.

Overall, the latest research has shown that procrastination is not due to poor time-management skills or laziness. The chronic procrastinator is a concoction of an inability to regulate emotions with traits of high impulsivity and low self-discipline. As a result, the possible solutions are more abstract and require quite an in-depth reflection, but with patience and practice, the personality can certainly be molded to diminish this way of living.    

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Show references

References:

  • Steel, P.: The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychol Bull, 2007. 133(1): p. 65-94.
  • Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination, accessed on 31/08/2016
  • Wohl, M.J.A., T.A. Pychyl, and S.H. Bennett: I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 2010. 48(7): p. 803-808.

Article, Review and Layout:

  • Adrian Rad
  • Yoav Aner

Illustrators:

 

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