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Loughborough University

Counselling and Disability Service

Procrastination - Putting Things Off

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One of the most common problems worrying students is the tendency to put things off until the last moment - or to beyond the last moment. Of course it is not only students who have trouble with this habit. Probably every one of us has tried to avoid some unpalatable task at some time - it is a natural human reaction. However university students are particularly vulnerable, possibly because of the amount of work expected of them, the lack of formal structure in university and the range of tempting distractions on campus.

We all have our own preferred way of working. If letting the tension build up a bit before you get started works well for you, then there is no reason you should change. However if you get increasingly behind with your work and end up feeling wretched about yourself and your course the problem needs addressing. Counsellors call the problem procrastination (from the Latin for "until tomorrow") and have given a lot of thought to why it happens and how to deal with it. Many people can and do break this habit, so read on if you need help.

Signs of procrastination

Do any of the points below sound familiar to you?

Difficulty in making a start on a piece of work or revision
Do you find yourself constantly putting back your starting time and never actually getting going? Are you often waiting for the "right moment" to start or for inspiration to strike you?

Craving diversion
Does the need to tidy your room, do the shopping, phone home and so on become irresistible whenever you contemplate getting down to work? Are you easily distracted from your work by friends and social opportunities?

Ineffective working
Do you spend time in the library but end up with little to show for it? Do you stare at a blank piece of paper rather than being able to start writing?

Last minute rushing
Is all your work finally done at a breakneck speed the night before the final deadline or the exam? Do you often think you have not left yourself time to do the work justice?

Missed deadlines
Do you feel you are always requesting extensions and making excuses? Are you losing marks on work because it is late? Do you find it hard to get to classes?

Nagging guilt
Is your social and relaxation time spoilt by the continual feeling that you ought to be working? Do you often feel you have got a lower grade than you should have achieved?

Disappointment and self-reproach
Do you feel you are letting yourself down by putting things off? Do you think of yourself as lazy and as a poor student? Do you compare yourself unfavourably with others because of your procrastinating?

If you answer yes to many of these questions, you may well have developed the habit of putting things off. Read on to learn why you do this and how to help yourself.

What causes us to procrastinate?

Before looking at possible remedies, we offer some explanations about what may have led you into this habit. Understanding some of the causes of the trouble may help you avoid blaming yourself and calling yourself lazy. Instead it can help you look at constructive solutions.

Over-Aversion to Discomfort
Being a student is certainly not all easy and enjoyable. Much of the work needs effort to get started and can be demoralisingly difficult to complete. In addition the lack of structure places a considerable demand on the student. The reason that a degree is a highly respected qualification is because of the volume of hard work which goes into getting one. It is normal to find the work uncomfortable - and if you can face up to this discomfort, you can expect to get the knack of dealing with it surprisingly soon and so cease to notice it so much. If however you have got into the habit of putting off work whenever it feels too challenging, you never get good at doing uncomfortable things. It is as though you are never breaking through the "pain barrier" to the comfort beyond.

Lack of Self-Confidence
Facing up to a complex essay or to a pile of demanding revision is never easy. It is made more difficult if you see the natural problems that arise as a sign that you are not a very good student rather than just as a sign that the work is hard. If you tend to blame yourself when problems arise, you then may not feel able to ask for help and to overcome the difficulties. This makes the problems worse. Perfectly able students can convince themselves that they are "impostors" who do not deserve to be at university at all when in fact they are capable of a high level of achievement.

Getting Overwhelmed
If we sit down to write an essay and find there is a lot to research, it is natural to feel a bit swamped. There are practical ways of solving this. If however you tend to lose direction, maybe reading books haphazardly without having a clear idea of how they can help you, you may get more and more overwhelmed until you put off starting the work altogether. Similarly if you have got all your work in a muddle, you may not know how to start getting it back in order.

Under-Developed Study Skills
Study-skills are the tools a student uses - the ability to scan books and articles fast; to summarize succinctly; to evaluate arguments quickly. If your skills are rusty or have not been sharpened, you will be like a carpenter working with blunt tools - everything will be much harder work. This problem may be made worse if English is not your first language. If you don't recognize this as a simple study skills problem and take steps to remedy it, you may become demoralised and unable to face working.

Unrealistic Expectations
Some people decide they should never get less than full marks and that any grade below a first is a mark of personal failure. Unfortunately most of us are not capable of such sustained excellent performance and will soon grind to a halt if we put this pressure upon ourselves. Unrealistic ideals can lead us to shy away from producing work that reflects our true ability. By leaving everything to the last moment we can keep alive the hope that we really could get a first in everything if we just got started.

Resentment
Possibly you are not impressed by Loughborough in general. Maybe some aspect of your course has proved to be a disappointment. Perhaps the course you are on was not your first choice and you resent that you could not do what you really wanted. You might have felt pushed into going to University against your will by parents or teachers. In situations where we feel wronged or let down or coerced but we cannot clearly see who is to blame, it is natural for us to express our resentment by not doing the work which is asked of us. It is a sophisticated form of sulking! Talking this through with someone may help.

Habituation and Lifestyle
If you have become totally used to putting things off and to getting extensions, it can be immensely difficult to take the first step towards breaking the habit. The situation can be made worse if you have got in the habit of sleeping in very late, or of using drink and soft drugs to distract you.

Depression
Inability to concentrate and lack of motivation can be a symptom of depression. If you have other symptoms, like sleeping problems, lack of energy and appetite, weepiness etc. you may wish to see our page on Depression.

Breaking the habit of procrastinating

Useful Books and Leaflets

Isn't it About Time? How to stop putting things off and get on with your life
Andrea Perry - 2002 Worth Publishing

Beating the Comfort Trap
Windy Dryden and Jack Gordon
A good motivating book for those of us who tend to put uncomfortable tasks off or run for the bar at the first sight of a problem - i.e. most of us!

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
Susan Jeffers
The title says it all

The Student Writing Guide
Gordon Taylor
A comprehensive guide to writing essays for arts and social science students

Visit the Library for a range of study help leaflets and workshops. 

Ted Talk - Tim Urban, Inside the mind of a master procrastinator. 

 

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