When I was in college, most days started and ended somewhat like this: Wake up thinking about how I would accomplish my tasks and assignments for the day. Go to sleep wondering how I only completed the smallest task but somehow found time to clean my entire apartment, go to the gym, create a new filing system on my laptop and ponder becoming a vegetarian.
Most college students and adults can relate to similar scenarios. We know exactly what it is we need to do, but somehow at the end of the day, we’ve completed an impressive list of things that are not the thing that needed to get done.
And we scratch our heads at the mystery and vow that tomorrow is a new day during which we will be oh so productive.
There’s a lot of research on procrastination, so much so that there isn’t one universal definition. But we should understand the nuances of this hair-pulling concept if we want to learn how to beat it.
Procrastination is not the same as delay: Professor Piels Steel outlines that, “all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.” He points out that sometimes it makes sense to delay tasks, like when we prioritize assignments by how quickly their deadlines are approaching. But procrastination is different– procrastination is when you know it would be in your best interest to do what you have to do, but you put it off anyway.
When thinking about procrastination rationally, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would we subject ourselves willingly to the agony?? But there are psychological reasons why we procrastinate. Procrastinators aren’t necessarily less motivated or less ambitious– many chronic procrastinators, especially women, are actually perfectionists, and procrastinating provides the perfect way to self-handicap.
Consider the following scenario: you have a 10-page paper due in one week. If you start working on it now and utilize the entire week, you’ll emerge with a product on which you’ve expended a lot of energy and of which you are proud. If you start working on it the night before in a caffeine-induced frenzy, you’ll hand in a paper that might not be particularly good, but at least you got it done. Now, let’s say you receive a poor grade on that paper.
Getting that grade on the paper you worked so hard on probably hurts more than a bad grade on a paper you wrote in one night. It’s easier to attribute the grade to something external, or outside of your control than to something internal, i.e. what if the reason for the grade is your own intellectual shortcoming.
It’s possible for procrastinators to lead successful academic and professional lives. They, or you, might say that they “thrive under pressure,” and might put off their tasks to do fun things like watch Netflix or hang out with friends. And that idea sounds kind of appealing. I mean, why not put off responsibility until the last possible moment and have lots of fun until you have to sacrifice a day or two to get the thing done?
But the thing about procrastination is that it’s not fun. In Tim Urban’s hilarious and poignant TedTalk, “Inside the Mind of the Master Procrastinator,” he describes the idea of what he calls the “Dark Playground”: the place where procrastinators do their fun procrastinating activities, except that the whole time they have alarm bells in the back of their minds telling them that they should really be getting their work done. Research shows that procrastination can cause a lot of stress, and while not all stress is bad, chronic stress can lead to a whole host of health problems like muscle tension, increased blood pressure, bowel distress, fatigue and more.
Beating procrastination isn’t easy, and it takes deliberate action to combat it. Different methods will work for different people, but the main issue with procrastination is the disconnect between intention and implementation. We may really want to start studying for that test two weeks prior, but how can we ensure that we’re not in a puddle of shame-tears in the library the night before?
Breaking big assignments into smaller tasks, forming study groups, and working hard in short bursts all may help to kick the procrastinator into action. Implementation intentions, a strategy that involves coming up with a detailed plan of manageable action steps, is another useful and science-backed approach. At the end of the day, the best advice is something you’ve probably already heard, and perhaps you’ve rolled your eyes at: just get started.
Get that first sentence onto the page or start in the middle and work your way back to the beginning. Sit down, turn off your phone, and make that study guide. Approaching big projects can feel intimidating, but the goal shouldn’t be to produce a perfect version, or even any version, on the first try.
The procrastinator in you might resist, but future you will thank you.