How to trick yourself out of procrastination

One month into school and you’ve re-marathoned the Lord of the Rings films, organized another club event and helped your brother move into his new apartment. But that 10-page paper you were assigned on the second day of class that's due in two days? Word count: 12.

We’ve all heard the mantra of “don’t leave it until the last minute.” Procrastination isn’t uncommon, after all — studies show that 80 to 95 per cent of college students procrastinate, and of that number, approximately 50 per cent procrastinate problematically and on a regular basis. But if we’re all aware of procrastination, why do we do it? And how can we deal with it?

Dr. Allyson Hadwin, an associate professor at the University of Victoria, described procrastination as a cycle of putting things off and delaying important tasks. There are many reasons for procrastination, but in an academic context, poor task understanding and underestimating task completion time are common reasons.

According to Hadwin, self-regulated learning can be thought of as a four-phase process — task understanding, task goals, task execution and task completion. When procrastination repeats over and over again, you have failed to adhere to this regulatory cycle on some level such as failing to understand a task or failing to discontinue an ineffective learning strategy. However, even though procrastination gets a lot of bad press, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Research has identified two types of procrastinators — passive and active. The passive type are your stereotypical procrastinators who end up putting assignments off until the deadline despite their best intentions. They report feeling extremely stressed during procrastination, and are generally unsatisfied with their results. Active procrastinators, on the other hand, feel invigorated and challenged with a deadline. They claim that the pressure of putting things off until the last minute gives them a burst of energy and motivation, which they then use to complete tasks. Unlike passive procrastinators, active procrastinators report feeling satisfied with their results. Although these two categories seem separate, people can be both an active and a passive procrastinator. Your procrastinator type actually varies by task. You could be a passive procrastinator when it comes to studying for exams but act as an active procrastinator when it comes to writing papers.

For active procrastinators, procrastination can actually be used as a strategy if used correctly in certain contexts. Active procrastinators may actually benefit from procrastination in highly demanding, unpredictable and fast-paced environments. This can be attributed tfo active procrastinators’ abilities to flexibly switch between tasks based on time demands.

Although pumping out papers before a deadline may be an effective solution for some, the trouble for active procrastinators appears when many assignments are due at the same time. In that case, it’s probably better to start early, even if you’re not feeling that motivation.

For those of us procrastinators who belong to the passive group, starting earlier before the pressure sets in is always a good idea. Hadwin has some tips and tricks. Here are some ways for both passive and active procrastinators to stop procrastinating and get work done effectively:

  • Set learning goals for yourself. Your profs make those for a reason. Make sure all of your studying is directed towards a specific, attainable goal, like “understand the environmental requirements for evolution” rather than “read chapter 5.” Setting up learning goals narrows your focus on specific concepts and helps you organize your thoughts instead of simply memorizing facts.
  • Break it into smaller chunks. Taking an entire essay and separating it into doable tasks — such as researching materials for supporting evidence, writing an introduction and organizing body paragraphs — make the assignment much less intimidating. You can then delegate time slots for each individual task rather than tackling the assignment all at once. If you fail to finish a task, you can then go back to that specific area and re-evaluate how much time it actually takes to complete the task compared to your expectations.
  • Do it early. Like, before noon. Finishing tasks earlier gets the ball rolling for tasks later in the day. Having a productive start to your day increases your self-efficacy, increases your sense of self-control, boosts your motivation and inhibits you from coming up with excuses to procrastinate.
  • Make it a public commitment. Creating public commitments, such as meeting friends to study, makes you accountable to a group. If you’ve already made plans to study with someone beforehand, you’re more likely to stick to that commitment rather than coming up with excuses to do something else.