Dealing with Procrastination in Your Coursework (Part 1)

Procrastination tends to be a big challenge for most students taking college courses.

There are many reasons people procrastinate and the reasons tend to vary from person to person.  In fact, the same person may procrastinate for different reasons in different situations. Changing this behavior is much more complex than simply practicing better time management or making schedules.  Procrastinators know what they should be doing; they are just not doing it.

Time management is important in avoiding procrastination, but it isn’t always enough.

It is almost impossible to completely stop procrastinating, but better understanding procrastination – why we have these feelings, and how do we combat them – is a start.

Reasons for Procrastination

Here are some common reasons people procrastinate in their studies.

1. Lack of Motivation

    • What it is:  Lack of interest, or even a lack of understanding about why an assignment is important, can be a common reason for procrastinating. This can be especially frustrating because students often think everyone else understands the assignment and start to doubt their own abilities.
    • What students say when they lack motivation: “I don’t feel like doing this today.”  “This is just busy work.” “This is not worth that many points.” “This is boring.”
    • What to do:  One approach is simply to start.  As the old adage goes, “The best way to begin is to begin.” Acknowledge what you are feeling about the assignment, and then set that aside. Schedule a short study session and power through it.  Often, the perceived fears or negative feelings are worse than reality.
      It is a mistake to think that motivation has to come before you can do something. If your attitude is keeping you from being motivated, you may need to reframe your expectations. Not everything we do is interesting or fun. Taxes and laundry are two good examples, but these activities can be important to achieving important goals in life (staying out of jail and having clean clothes). Consider how completing an assignment will move you closer to your overall goals for learning and getting successfully through school.

2. Overwhelming Assignments

  • What it is:  Looking at a whole assignment can be overwhelming.  When you only look at the end product or outcome, it can seem like there is no way to get there.
  • What students say: “But I don’t understand the subject.”  “I don’t understand the assignment.” “I don’t know how.” “This is just too much to do.” “I don’t have enough time.” “I have never done anything like this before.”
  • What to do:  Many college-based assignments are designed to be completed over the course of the semester – like a research paper or a semester project –  and encompass knowledge you probably have not acquired at the beginning of the semester. Instead of trying to research, develop, draft, edit, and format a paper all in one weekend, identify different tasks or steps that make up that project.  Schedule and complete these tasks in more manageable time segments. Breaking large assignments into manageable pieces can make them easier to tackle

3. Fear of Failure or Success

  • What it is:  Perfectionism can be paralyzing: either feeling you can never reach perfection or that it is expected of you.  Procrastination is often a cover for a fear of failure. If you wait until the last minute to complete an assignment, you can always blame the lack of time for a bad grade, as opposed to confronting how hard it can be to learn something new.  Conversely, you may fear that if you put in the work on this assignment, you will only be expected to do better on the next assignment.
  • What students say: “Well, I did the best I could with the time I had.”  “The instructor never really explained the assignment.”  “What if I can’t do this.” “What if they want me to share my paper with my fellow students.”  “I think I peaked in high school.” “I am really working hard/doing better in my other courses.”  “I am working as hard as everyone else.” “They won’t give me a good grade no matter what I do.
  • What to do:  Fear is a symptom, so finding the root cause is important.  Often for procrastinators, the fear is perfectionism. There are expectations from family and friends, as well as our own goals for ourselves.  Re-evaluate the standards you are trying to live up to. Did you set them? Do you need to reset them? Review your goals for going to college. What do you want to learn and achieve? Focus on meeting these goals, not on getting a certain grade or being perfect. Remember, your peers are not judging you as hard as you are judging yourself. They are more focused on their own struggles and learning.

4. Control

  • What it is:  College is often the first step to being an adult, and it comes with new freedoms and a sense of control over your life.  For non-traditional students, there is the added complication that they are already used to managing their own time. It can feel like class assignments and structure are taking away this control.  Refusing to work on the course’s schedule can be a way to wrest control back.
  • What students say: “They can’t make me do all of these assignments.” “I will work on this when I want to.”  “I am paying for this education, they should make it easier.” “I work best under pressure.”  “They don’t understand how much I can accomplish in a short amount of time.” “They don’t know how busy I am.”  “This isn’t fair.” “Other courses don’t require all of this.” “If I don’t do this, what is the worst that can happen? The world won’t end.”
  • What to do:  This form of procrastination can be a manifestation of overestimating your skills and underestimating the time it takes to perform well in college.  What worked well in high school often does not translate to college, and previous success in other courses is not a guarantee you will do well in every course.  Always be willing to improve your study skills and ask for help from student support services. Keep a journal of your study sessions, habits, and feelings about how you study versus the actual outcomes.  Again, review your learning goals, and don’t let aggravation with a course or assignment keep you from achieving those goals.

When you make the commitment to being a student, you are setting a goal for yourself: to achieve something more than just making it through. You want to be successful. You want to meet your objectives. You want to learn. Focusing on these goals can help move you through chronic procrastination.

Additional Resources

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

How to Beat Procrastination

Leaving essays to the last minute can ruin your grades

Are You a Procrastinator?