Student Tips

Beating procrastination: A realistic guide for the "lazy" student

By Cait Bennett October 30, 2020

In last week’s Top Hat, our Grand Marshall Advaith Narayan gave his tips for managing academic stress. He talked about time management, goal setting, and motivation. Consider this a follow-up to address the elephant in the room, the biggest cause of student stress, low grades, and late nights: procrastination. From someone who has struggled with procrastination for her entire academic career, here are some guidelines to help kick the procrastination habit.

Reframe procrastination as a behavioral issue, not a personality trait

The biggest obstacle to addressing procrastination is the societal stigma around it. Parents, teachers, and bosses alike are quick to judge students who miss deadlines or avoid schoolwork as “lazy.” However, research has shown that procrastination is a behavioral issue involving our executive functions. Executive functions are a large range of goal-oriented cognitive behavior controlled by the prefrontal lobe. Decision-making, memory, self-control, prioritizing, and planning are all executive functions. Procrastination is also related to anxiety and feelings of self-efficacy, especially in academic settings.

From this research, we can conclude that procrastination is a behavioral issue, not a personality trait. We have to reframe procrastination as a generalized failure of executive function, rather than just “not wanting to do it,” or “being lazy.” Some social psychologists even go so far as to say that laziness does not exist at all! Describing a student as “lazy” because they procrastinate is hurtful to their self-image and asserts that the issue is unsolvable. Focusing on the goal-related cognitive abilities underlying procrastination provides a more productive framework for developing real solutions.

Figure out why you’re procrastinating

Let’s look at a non-academic example of failing executive function. You’re at a restaurant, and you’ve been scanning the menu for 15 minutes trying to decide what to eat. What’s the problem here? Maybe the menu is a 10-page book with so many options. Maybe you don’t know what the heck “sous vide” means. Maybe you’re worried you won’t order the right thing-ordering something new means you might not like it, but ordering something familiar isn’t interesting enough.

These are just a few causes of procrastination for this particular situation. But they correspond to some common causes of procrastination for schoolwork:

  • Overwhelming tasks (a 10-page menu)- writing a 10-page paper is just too much!
  • Unclear tasks (sous vide)- I don’t have a good rubric, I don’t know where to start.
  • Fear of failure (order the right thing)- I can’t write the paper without the perfect topic.
  • Resistance to change (order something new)- If I start this assignment, I won’t be able to continue playing this game
  • Irrelevant tasks (order something familiar)- I don’t see how this work will help me learn

Come up with solutions for your causes, not for your assignments

The causes of procrastination for a particular assignment will likely intersect and will vary between assignments. So, if you’re a chronic procrastinator, you should come up with solutions to your causes, independent of your assignments. That way, when you catch yourself procrastinating, you have a solution bank all ready for use! Here are some solutions that worked for me.

If a task is overwhelming

Break it down into small, specific tasks. Your 10-page paper has 4 sections, and each section has 3 paragraphs, and each paragraph has a main idea and a body. Your to-do list goes from “write a 10-page paper” to “write the main idea for the introductory paragraph to section 1.” You’ll have more tasks, but they’ll feel more manageable.

If a task is unclear

A lack of clarity can be about the material (e.g., how do I do a Fourier transform?), or about the task itself (e.g., what are the requirements for this project). If you have a specific question about class material, you could go to office hours or ask a classmate. If you don’t know where you’re stuck, you can ask to walk through a full example problem, to figure out your confusion. If the task itself is unclear, use a goal template, like this one for S.M.A.R.T goals to determine exactly what information you’re missing. A Solid 20 Minutes of Useless Information

If you’re afraid of failure

Create opportunities for external validation at various points in your work. If your professor allows teamwork, compare your final answer for each part of that notorious six-part problem with a classmate. For bigger projects, schedule office hours at certain milestones to get validation from a professor or TA that you’re on the right track before you continue. This can help alleviate anxiety that you’ll fail without noticing it or make cascading mistakes.

If you’re resistant to change

Make a conscious effort to reschedule whatever fun activity you’ll miss out on by doing your work. Block out time on your calendar for your leisure activity after the assignment deadline, or let a friend know that you’ll come over right after the assignment is submitted. Now you have something to look forward to, and everyone knows that if something is in a calendar, you HAVE to do it ;)

If the task seems irrelevant

When we say a task seems irrelevant, we usually mean it doesn’t help us achieve a certain goal (such as learning more about a subject). Instead of making the task relevant to the goal, make the goal relevant to the task. Completing that busy-work assignment might not help you learn, but it would help you get an ‘A’ in the class.

Be patient with yourself

The thing I’ve found most helpful in stopping procrastination: self-compassion. Beating procrastination requires identifying your limitations and your needs. It’s natural to respond to this with hostility and self-doubt. Instead, choose to treat yourself with empathy and kindness. Provide yourself with the circumstances and environment that you need to thrive.