You don’t have to look hard to find students doing it on campus. They’re everywhere, at all hours of the day: in every corner of Rutherford and Cameron library, in SUB study spaces, in the HUB lounges — idly flipping through Facebook photo albums and getting lost in YouTube while textbooks go unread and essays go unfinished.
Tales of extreme procrastination are a fixture of the academic war stories students share at the end of each semester: the time you waited until an hour before the exam to start studying but still pulled a passing grade, the long night of turmoil and caffeine you endured to complete your entire 12-page paper in one furious burst of writing, the extravagant number of hours you spent working through a video game instead of a tough lab report. To some extent, most are familiar with the hope each new semester brings for finally getting organized for real and not putting things off, saving yourself from academic agony. But when midterm season descends and once distant due dates are suddenly staring you in the face, there’s no denying that the vicious cycle of avoidance has repeated itself yet again.
Completing schoolwork is far from the only activity subject to the destruction of procrastination. From postponing getting out of bed when you hear your alarm to spending “just a few more minutes” watching TV before going to sleep, procrastination can affect everything — the most fundamental or menial parts of a daily routine. And while nearly everyone procrastinates sometimes, it’s estimated that about a quarter of students who put things off are chronic procrastinators. This can contribute to far more significant disturbances than occasionally postponing minor tasks, potentially paving the way to guilt, anxiety and depression.
Far beyond a simple problem with time management or motivation, procrastination can sometimes result in serious mental health consequences, especially for students faced with a mountain of overwhelming work trying to prove their academic worth. Educational institutions readily acknowledge this: university counselling services, including those offered by the U of A Mental Health Centre, often provide resources specifically geared towards helping students deal with and work through procrastination problems.
Piers Steel, a social scientist and professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, is a prominent researcher in the science of procrastination as well as the author of The Procrastination Equation, a book that provides insight into the psychology behind procrastination and offers solutions to combat the behaviour. He points out that procrastination can show up in virtually any area of a person’s life, and as society and technology have evolved, so has our access to distractions. This makes it much more difficult to combat the key source of chronic procrastination: lack of impulse control.
“It’s actually become a pandemic,” Steel says. “It’s grown because of access to really first-rate temptations — immediate access to them increases procrastination. If you want to increase childhood obesity, put French fries in the cafeteria. If you want to increase gambling, put lottery terminals all around the place. If you want to increase procrastination, have everyone work in front of a computer with access to YouTube and social networks.”
The causes of procrastination can also work to perpetuate it. Procrastinators sometimes even openly acknowledge this, poking fun with phrases like “I’ll do something about my procrastination… tomorrow.” Steel explains that this in itself is a self-destructive habit, helping procrastinators justify their inability to regulate their compulsions to avoid whatever they’re supposed to be doing while also normalizing their behaviour for both themselves and the people around them.
“The easiest thing is to laugh about it and dismiss it. That gives you the immediate reward. Procrastinators are the most vulnerable, and that’s why they do it: they’re impulsive. They like the now more than the later, and being able to make fun of their foibles instead of actually dealing with them gives them the immediate reward,” Steel says.
Humour can be a common defense mechanism for the implications of procrastination that make us uncomfortable, leading to misunderstandings about its seriousness. But for those subject to its more damaging effects, dismissive jokes are increasingly not amusing. As more research on the habit emerges, some argue the behaviour should be treated more like an addiction than a detrimental personality quirk. The website Procrastinator’s Anonymous gives people like this a place where they can find support and resources to deal with the effects of procrastination on their lives. They schedule in-person, phone and online meetings to discuss their struggles and successes with each other, much like other 12-step programs geared towards conquering addictions, and share insights on dealing with the negative impact of procrastination. At extremes, this can include things like being unable to enjoy any leisure time or fun activities due to obsessing over what’s actually supposed to be getting done, robbing procrastinators of their ability to be in the moment because they chose an easier short-term out from their work.
“Procrastination by its very nature is not adaptive, because you are putting things off despite expecting to be worse off,” Steel explains. “You, yourself expect to be worse off, and you, yourself are often right. Like any type of addiction, the people keep putting it off because it’s easier.”
Facing a task we find boring or intimidating makes it easier to put off, Steel says, but the biggest factor in determining the likelihood for procrastination to occur is a lack of impulse control. The benefits of doing something that won’t pay off until a future time just don’t compare to the instant gratification of avoiding what you don’t want to do. Chronic procrastinators, in some sense, are addicted to the immediate rewards that come from pleasing themselves instead of facing discomfort or difficulty. And in the bigger picture, this behaviour is not to be scoffed at — your quality of life might be on the line.
“Eventually, it’s kind of like you miss the starting gun,” Steel says. “This is our brief time on earth, and if you are not particularly religious — and even if you are — this is it. Every moment is sacred and important and finite and it’s all blowing away.
“The reality of that responsibility and the importance and even sacredness of your life and your choices is so overwhelming that people don’t want to deal with it. They pretend their lives and choices don’t matter, when it all does.”
1. Just start something
Sometimes a task or assignment just feels so overwhelming that it’s hard not to put it off. If this is happening to you, give yourself “permission” to procrastinate, but do something else on your list instead of giving in to time-wasting temptations like surfing the internet. You’re still being productive, and cutting down your to-do list might help reduce anxiety about getting started on whatever is worrying you.
2. Change the way you use the internet and your computer
Sometimes, even if you’ve made a commitment not to look at your go-to distractions on the interwebs, the compulsive habit of moving the mouse over to the bookmarked Facebook or Twitter link is too strong to resist. Consider installing programs such as Freedom or Anti-Social, which for a price allow you to block all or selective parts of the internet. If you don’t want to pay to remove these temptations, Piers Steel recommends a different tactic: make two separate user accounts on your computer and designate one for work and the other for social networks, gaming or other activities. Set them up to look completely different and give yourself access to separate applications on both, then restrict yourself to school and work duties only on the work account.
3. Change your routine to form habits conducive to focused work time
Designate a specific place or time for work each day rather than waiting for a time when you’ll magically feel like doing what you’ve been putting off, and enforce the schedule every day. Some people find it helps to wear certain clothing or listen to certain music to help themselves understand it’s time to work. Being tired can also contribute to procrastination, so consider trying to overhaul your sleep schedule if it’s irregular.
4. Ask for help
Procrastination can cause some seriously undesirable effects on your life, and admitting you have a problem with it doesn’t mean you’re lazy. Ask yourself why you’re procrastinating and examine your issues at a deeper level rather than continually dismissing them. Have someone you can call for encouragement and motivation if you feel yourself starting to procrastinate, and get them to check in and help you hold yourself accountable for completing tasks on time. If procrastination is contributing to serious anxiety or depression or vice versa, look into counselling options to talk out the issues you’re experiencing instead of trying to hide them.
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