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Procrastination

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he next comes to drinking and sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.

Thomas DeQuincey

What is procrastination?

The avoidance of doing a task which needs to be done - postponing until tomorrow what can be done today.

Procrastination not only affects a person's work, but also commonly involves feelings such as guilt, inadequacy, self-disgust, stress and depression.

Often we try to disguise our avoidance by being very busy doing things that may be interesting, and even useful, but don't contribute towards the main goal - even doing something we normally hate - rather than writing, for example, just before an essay deadline!

Why do people procrastinate?

  • poor time management, often associated with a distorted sense of the time available
  • an inability to prioritise
  • overload of tasks at a specific time
  • anxiety about the task, so time is spent worrying rather than doing
  • difficulty concentrating
  • not knowing what is required
  • feeling overwhelmed by the task(s)
  • concern about failing or not meeting your own standards
  • fear of success and its possible consequences
  • perfectionism, often associated with unrealistic standards
  • negative feelings - e.g. "I'm stupid", "nothing ever goes right for me"
  • all-or-nothing thinking, where one setback is seen as a total catastrophe
  • being bored by the task
  • never having learned how to work or sort out problems while at school or living at home
  • avoidance of things which are disliked or difficult.

How to overcome procrastination

Overcoming procrastination usually involves both better organisational and time-management skills as well as a clearer understanding of its personal or emotional meaning.

The former skills can be learned and improved with practice. Although there are some useful tips that can help you improve, it is primarily a matter of finding the ways of working that best suit you rather than trying to rigidly follow someone else's model.

Counselling can help you to understand and change the personal or emotional aspects to your procrastination.

Here are some suggestions to help you get started:

  • Accept that there is no magic wand: you will have to do the task!
  • The words that we use to ourselves in thinking or talking about the task matter! They have feelings attached to them which colour our anticipation and experience of the work. Try changing the words "have to" and "can't" to "choose to" and "choose not to" - this won't always be true, but it will probably be more honest most of the time. After all, you don't have to do this work - you probably chose to come and do this course, research or job, and you could choose to leave it!
  • Take account of the sort of person you are, of your values and your expectations. Assess whether these "fit" with the way in which you are trying to tackle the task - do you need a new approach with which you will be more comfortable? Patterns of working vary from one person to another, and so do the desired outcomes.
  • Recognise self-defeating behaviour and its associated thinking. Try to work out why you procrastinate: what do you gain from it? Find out how to overcome such behaviour. You might choose to sort it out yourself, to refer to a self-help book or leaflet, or to consult the appropriate person, such as your tutor, supervisor, director of studies, manager, colleague or a counsellor.
  • Identify goals and make realistic decisions about how to do the tasks, and prioritise.
  • Ensure that you have the right equipment, information etc. to help in tackling the task. Some time spent in preparation and planning is vital - but not to the extent that no real work gets done. So set a time limit for the planning stage(s). Plan a (small) section and then work on it.
  • Whilst spending time planning is very useful, here's a word of warning to those who make very detailed plans which go wrong within an hour and are then ripped up in disgust - plans need to be flexible! Don't plan all the hours in the day; leave plenty of unplanned times and spaces - to allow for things taking longer than expected, and for you to have extra time for relaxation when they don't!
  • Break down tasks into manageable bits. Set yourself small goals - to read one chapter; to write 1 page; to work for 45 minutes, take a 15 minute break and then do another 45 minutes work.
  • Boost your motivation. Dwell on your strengths, on tasks you have accomplished and feel good about, in order to remind yourself that you can be successful.
  • Give yourself rewards when you accomplish something.
  • When you are getting stuck, rather than just stopping work, try a different strategy - take a pencil and an old, half-used piece of paper out of the bin, and scribble unplanned and unstructured notes and ideas to yourself for the task in hand. Or start on a different section of the piece (you don't have to work from the beginning to the end), picking the least demanding in thought or creativity.
  • Quite often procrastination is connected to anxieties about the quality of the work you hope (or fear) you will produce! At times like this, it is worth remembering that it's better to produce something rather than nothing!

Where to seek more help - when you can get round to it...

There is further help available. Tutors, directors of studies, supervisors and managers will have spoken to others before - you won't be the first (or last), and you are likely to find that they can make useful suggestions to get you back on track. But don't leave it until the situation is dire - it's then harder for you and for them!

The counselling service is also able to help - not with your academic subject-matter, but with the personal or emotional aspects that are often so important - again, don't leave it any longer!

For a list of relevant self-help books consult our: Self-help Booklists.