How to Fight Procrastination

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Changing College Students Procrastination Habits

We’re all familiar with procrastination — that uncontrollable urge to keep putting off a task, despite its level of urgency. Suddenly, now is the perfect time to deep clean your keyboard, respond to emails, or organize your refrigerator. Meanwhile, your term paper is due tomorrow and you’ve only finished the first paragraph.

It should come as no surprise that procrastination has proven to be negatively correlated with academic performance. The more a person procrastinates, the worse their academic performance. Yet, most of us engage in this reckless behavior. Some studies show that 80-95% of college students procrastinate at least from time to time. So, how do we stop procrastinating?

Why We Procrastinate

Most people boil their tendency to procrastinate down to laziness or poor time management — a long-held belief of social scientists. However, recent studies show that procrastination actually results less from a poor work ethic and more from avoiding negative emotions. Shame and guilt are major reasons why we procrastinate. Worrying about your past procrastination behavior often triggers new procrastination behavior. That’s why you may find yourself turning to quick fixes like watching TV or calling a friend when a deadline looms overhead.

Procrastinators also exhibit lower levels of self-compassion and higher levels of stress. Have you ever found yourself being overly critical of your writing to the point that you can’t even finish the first draft of an email or an essay? Your perfectionism could be another factor getting in the way of productivity. Being easier on yourself is key for knowing how to fight procrastination.

How to Fight Procrastination

  • Forgive Yourself and Show Self-Compassion

    A study from Carleton University evaluated the effect of self-forgiveness on procrastinating immediately before midterm exams. Results showed that students who practiced high levels of self-forgiveness reduced their procrastination in preparing for their next exam.

    According to the study, self-forgiveness can be broken down into 3 steps. “First, one must acknowledge the commission of a transgression against the self and accept responsibility for that transgression. One must then experience feelings of guilt and regret. Finally, one must overcome these feelings (i.e., self-forgiveness), and in doing so, experience a motivational change away from self-punishment towards self-acceptance.”

    Psychologists who have studied the benefits of self-forgiveness, including Kristin Neff and Linda Graham, encourage taking “self-compassion breaks,” which can be completed in a few minutes before you return to the task at hand. Dr. Neff’s website provides a list of activities and exercises to help you stop procrastinating.

  • Take Regular Breaks

    There are a few other evidence-based techniques to help you focus and overcome procrastination. One of the most highly recommended approaches involves mapping out your breaks ahead of time.

    There have been various studies showing that individuals who take regular breaks are more productive than those who try to stay focused for hours on end. Research suggests that we can only concentrate for 90 minutes before needing a 15-minute break.

    The Pomodoro technique — a favorite of writers, coders, and students alike — recommends working in 25-minute bursts and taking five-minute breaks. After you have repeated this pattern three times, extend your breaks to 15-30 minutes for the rest of the day.

    The amount of time that you can stay focused will be unique to you. Experiment in the range of 25- to 90-minute work intervals with 5-15 minute breaks to determine your optimal schedule.

  • Take Care of Your Basic Needs

    You’ve probably already heard about the importance of getting enough sleep and staying hydrated in relation to your academic success. While we’d love to tell you that chugging an energy drink is a sufficient substitute, unfortunately, science says otherwise.

    Studies show that sleep is essential to memory consolidation, i.e. your ability to recall information. The regularity with which you get a sufficient amount of sleep is also a significant factor in performance. Think twice before pulling an “all-nighter” and catch up on sleep later.

    The brain consumes an immense amount of the body’s energy — about 20% on average. Proper hydration and diet are essential to meeting your body’s energy quota and, in turn, stopping procrastination. In fact, being dehydrated by just 2% can derail your brain’s ability to function properly. Finally, having regular, healthy meals is just as important. Brain cells survive on a form of sugar called glucose, which comes from the foods we eat. Taking care of your basic needs is essential in knowing how to stop procrastinating.

  • Test Different Techniques

    There are many different ways to approach studying and taking notes. To find which ones work for you, test three of these hacks.

    • Chunking: Chunking is a strategy that helps you remember items from a list based on our natural ability to notice patterns. Start by separating a list of items into groups that are related to each other. One example of chunking you’re probably already familiar with is acronyms, like PEMDAS and SWOT. This strategy becomes especially handy and time saving for students who need to memorize information for exams.

    • Body Doubling: Another way to combat procrastination is a method referred to as body doubling, often used by people with ADHD. It is the practice of sitting with someone — either in person or via Facetime or Zoom — to make us feel accountable to stay on task. Whether you choose to talk or not talk at all, many find that simply being in the presence of someone else helps stop procrastinating.

    • Prioritization Matrix: If you become overwhelmed with obligations and have trouble deciding what you should do first, consider using a prioritization matrix. These matrices help you determine your own set of criteria, measure the importance of each task, and identify which tasks are most important. You can design your own or use templates, which can be found online.

Procrastination and Mental Health

Most of us struggle with procrastination, but neurodivergent students and those struggling with mental health are predisposed to challenges in how to study.

Fortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health and disabilities is beginning to break. Many colleges and universities add extra forms of support for students that struggle with mental health or learning disabilities, such as extended testing time and quiet environments for exams. Others are experimenting with the Universal Design for Learning, an alternative way of teaching that challenges traditional teaching methods and benefits learning-disabled students. Professors using this method present information with visual aids like color coding. They may also be more flexible with how they allow students to work, e.g. in groups or individually.

These new approaches to teaching not only benefit disabled learners, but any student that needs to employ new techniques for focus.

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