Procrastination – Part 1 – the basics



Welcome to this first post in an ongoing series I will be writing on procrastination. This is a topic of relevance to all of us in the academic/university sector: students, lecturers and academics alike.

Procrastination is not a topic that can be dealt with in a single post. Doing so would poorly represent the amount of research on the topic that has been done in the last 30-40 years. Instead, this is a topic I will be revisiting frequently, looking at the research that has been done, and how you might apply the findings of that research to your own situation.

This first post is intended to be a general introduction to procrastination as it relates to the academic sector. The bulk of the information for this post comes from a book chapter by Henri C. Schouwenburg titled “Procrastination in academic settings: general introduction. The chapter and book are available from the Flinders Library under the name “Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings (2004).

What is procrastination?
Procrastination is essentially continuing to delay something that must be done. In the academic setting, this is the putting off of assignments, exam revision, watching lectures etc. Often the task is delayed to the last minute whilst the individual engages in other activities perceived as more fun or rewarding (e.g. sleep, socialising, watching TV, playing games). When it is finally done, it is often performed poorly, and, over repeated occasions, the student may start to accumulate poor grades or academic penalties.

We can think about procrastination as a task specific behaviour – for example, ‘I really procrastinated on that last psychology assignment’ or we can think about it as a tendency (personality trait) that a person has to do this across multiple areas of their life – for example “I am always putting important things off”.

How common is it?
It is hard to get an accurate measure of how common procrastination is in the academic setting (specifically for students). Schouwenberg suggests around 10% of students are habitual procrastinators. International data suggests around 13-15% of adults are chronic procrastinators.

However, in a review by Steel 2007, some degree of procrastination was reported by up to 95% of students, with 50% procrastinating consistently and problematically. Certainly these figures are more consistent with my observation that procrastination affects most students at some point during their studies.

What are some of the factors that drive procrastination?
Factors that drive procrastination can be roughly divided into three categories: skills/behaviour, thoughts/beliefs and feelings.

Skills/behaviour – most chronic procrastinators struggle with the skills of planning, time management, goal setting, organisation, and self-discipline. Not surprisingly, these are the exact kind of skills that are required to consistently and successfully complete university assignments on time. It is these kinds of skills that are commonly taught in programs designed to address procrastination.

Thoughts/beliefs – procrastinators often exhibit distortions in thinking that put them at risk of delaying starting a task. For example, they might consistently make false estimates of the time taken to complete a task, consistently under-rate their ability to complete the tasks, or be overly optimistic in how easy the task will be. Also, because students are typically studying for an outcome that is relatively faraway (i.e. graduating with degree), they often ‘discount’ the value of that outcome in comparison with much less important activities that have more immediate rewards (e.g. cleaning the house).

Feelings – many procrastinators also struggle with negative emotions like anxiety, depression, and dejection. For example, the feeling of anxiety is commonly accompanied by avoidance, so anxiety about an exam or assignment can lead to avoidance of preparing for that exam/assignment. Bad marks from a previous assignment can leave a person feeling upset and hopeless. When it comes time for the next assignment, these feelings can flare up and make the person feel powerless to do a good job.

Types of procrastinators
So Schouwenberg suggests all procrastinators struggle with the skills/behaviour component of getting tasks done on time – that is, they are not very organised. Where they differ however is the nature of the thoughts and feelings that accompany those skills deficits.

‘Anxious procrastinators’ are characterised by fear. They fear failing, or maybe even fear success. They struggle with thoughts related to perfectionism (i.e. it should be done perfectly or not at all). Their worries about their studies become all encompassing, and increasingly they start avoiding both the work, but anything related to their studies. This starts a vicious cycle in which their avoidance leads to the negative outcomes they fear (e.g. poor grades). On the plus side, this group more commonly presents for help, because they want both the anxiety and the procrastination to stop.

‘Happy-go-lucky procrastinators’ have the same level of disorganisation as other procrastinators, but are considerably less emotionally affected by it. For whatever reason, this group is considerably less concerned with the consequences of procrastination and as a result do not as regularly seek help even if their grades might be suffering as a result.

‘Rebellious procrastinators’ are more mindful of their procrastination and may be doing it out of a lack of interest in the topic, or deliberate attempts to defy standards, or challenge people’s expectations. This group is actively resisting engaging in the topic or task at hand. Help for this group is less about skill building, and more about resolving the conflict they have with the task at hand.

A fourth group called ‘Arousal Procrastinators’, not covered by Schouwenberg but discussed elsewhere, procrastinate almost as a form of sensation seeking – that is – they enjoy the rush of last minute work, and often believe they work better under pressure. They deliberately delay work till the last minute.

These are by no means the only categories of procrastinators outlined in the literature. We will explore others in future posts. Do you find yourself identifying with any of these categories?

What can be done about procrastination?
We are going to dig into this question further in future posts but here is just a taster:

1) Most chronic procrastinators will benefit from skill building in the areas of study skills, goal setting, planning, self-monitoring and scheduling. These kinds of skills, if not picked up during high school, are useful for most university students regardless of whether they are procrastinators. We will explore these skills in later posts.

2) In addition to learning to be more organised, procrastinators benefit from an examination of the unhelpful beliefs and thoughts they have that contribute to their procrastination. For example, students who suffer from thoughts related to perfectionism (e.g. “I need to be the best”) are encouraged to reflect on, and challenge those beliefs. These shifts in perspective are considered critical in making sustainable changes to long term procrastination behaviour.

3) Many procrastinators, particularly those who have accumulated negative consequences (e.g. poor grades) might also become quite emotional and distraught in the context of ongoing procrastination. For these people, some techniques to manage that distress is important, as them being able to learn new study skills, or challenge their thinking may be impaired by high levels of distress.

Where to next?
In the next post, we will explore in more depth some ideas for tackling procrastination 🙂 In the meantime, if you want to get in contact with me and make an observation or comment – email me at gareth.furber{at}, or Twitter (@Dr_Furber) or leave a comment below.
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