Stop Procrastinating

Learning outcomes

  • Describe procrastination behaviors and strategies to avoid them

Procrastination Checklist

Do any of the following descriptions apply to you?

  • My paper is due in two days and I haven’t really started writing it yet.
  • I’ve had to pull an all-nighter to get an assignment done on time.
  • I’ve turned in an assignment late or asked for an extension when I really didn’t have a good excuse not to get it done on time.
  • I’ve worked right up to the minute an assignment was due.
  • I’ve underestimated how long a reading assignment would take and didn’t finish it in time for class.
  • I’ve relied on the Internet for information (like a summary of a concept or a book) because I didn’t finish the reading on time.

If these sound like issues you’ve struggled with in the past, you might want to consider whether you have the tendency to procrastinate and how you want to deal with it in your future classes. You’re already spending a lot of time, energy, and money on the classes you’re taking—don’t let all of that go to waste!

What Is Procrastination?

Simply put, procrastination is the act of delaying some task that needs to be completed. It is something we all do to greater and lesser degrees. For most people, a little minor procrastination is not a cause for great concern. But there are situations where procrastination can become a serious problem with a lot of risk when it becomes a chronic habit, when there are a number of tasks to complete and little time, or when the task being avoided is very important.

Because we all procrastinate from time to time, we usually do not give it much thought, let alone think about its causes or effects. Ironically, many of the psychological reasons for why we avoid a given task also keep us from using critical thinking to understand why procrastination can be extremely detrimental, and in some cases difficult to overcome. To succeed at time management, you must understand some of the hurdles that may stand in your way, including procrastination.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

There are several reasons we procrastinate, and a few of them may be surprising. On the surface we often tell ourselves it is because the task is something we do not want to do, or we make excuses that there are other things more important to do first. In some cases this may be true, but there can be other contributors to procrastination that have their roots in our physical well-being or our own psychological motivations.

We Don’t Have Energy

Sometimes we just do not feel up to a certain task. It might be due to discomfort, an illness, or just a lack of energy. If this is the case, it is important to identify the cause and remedy the situation. It could be something as simple as a lack of sleep or improper diet. Regardless, if a lack of energy is continually causing you to procrastinate to the point where you are beginning to feel stress over not getting things done, you should definitely assess the situation and address it.

We Can’t Focus

Much like having low physical energy, a lack of mental focus can be a cause of procrastination. This lack of focus can be due to mental fatigue, being disorganized, or allowing yourself to be distracted by other things. Again, like low physical energy, this is something that may have farther-reaching effects in your life that go beyond the act of simply avoiding a task. If your lack of focus is recurring, you should properly assess the situation.

We’re Afraid of Failing

This cause of procrastination is not one that many people are aware of, especially if they are the person avoiding tasks because of it. To put it in simple words, it is a bit of trickery we play on ourselves by avoiding a situation that makes us psychologically uncomfortable. Even though they may not be consciously aware of it, the person facing the task is afraid that they cannot do it or will not be able to do it well. If they fail at the task, it will make them appear incompetent to others or even to themselves. Where the self-trickery comes in is by avoiding the task. In the person’s mind, they can rationalize that the reason they failed at the task was because they ran out of time to complete it, not that they were incapable of doing it in the first place.

It is important to note that a fear of failure may not have anything to do with the actual ability of the person suffering from the fear. They could be quite capable of doing the task and performing well, but it is the fear that holds them back.

Think about it

Consider something right now that you may be procrastinating about. Can you identify the cause?

The Effects of Procrastination

  • Loss of time: When we fail to use time effectively to complete a task, we may lose out on time.
  • Failing to achieve goals: Completing a task leads to achieving a goal. These goals can be large or small (e.g., from doing well on an assignment to being hired for a good job). When we procrastinate on the tasks that bring us closer to our goals, we risk not achieving those goals.
  • Self-esteem drain: Procrastinating can lead us to become frustrated and disappointed in ourselves for not getting important tasks completed. Over the long term, we can begin to develop a low opinion of ourselves and our own abilities. We begin to suffer from low self-esteem and might even begin to feel like there is something wrong with us. This thinking can lead to other increasingly negative mental factors such as anger and depression.
  • Stress: Procrastination causes stress and anxiety, which may seem odd since the act of procrastination is often about avoiding a task we think will be stressful in itself! Anyone who has noticed that nagging feeling when they know there is something else they should be doing is familiar with this.

Try It

Strategies to Combat Procrastination

Below are some effective strategies for overcoming procrastination:

  1. Keep your studying “bite sized”: When confronted with 150 pages of reading or 50 problems to solve, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. Try breaking it down: What if you decide that you will read for 45 minutes or that you will solve 10 problems? That sounds much more manageable.
  2. Limit distractions: Turn off your phone, close your chat windows, and block distracting websites. The best advice we’ve ever heard is to treat your studying as if you’re in a movie theater—just turn your phone off.
  3. Set up a reward system: If you read for 40 minutes, you can check your phone for five minutes. But keep in mind that reward-based systems only work if you stick to it.
  4. Choose a study spot: Study in a place reserved for studying ONLY. Your bedroom may have too many distractions (or temptations, such as taking a nap), so it may be best to avoid it when you’re working on school assignments.
  5. Use checklists: Make your incremental accomplishments visible. Some people take great satisfaction and motivation from checking items off a to-do list. Be very specific when creating this list, and clearly describe each task one step at a time.
  6. Be accountable—tell someone else: A strong motivational tool is to hold ourselves accountable is by telling someone else we are going to do something and when we are going to do it. This tool may not seem like it would be very effective, but on a psychological level we feel more compelled to do something if we tell someone else.

In the following video, Joseph Clough shares key strategies for conquering procrastination once and for all.

You can view the transcript for “Overcome Procrastination For Good!” here (opens in new window).


procrastination:  the act of delaying some task that needs to be completed, often for subtle psychological reasons that are worth understanding and addressing