So I just finished reading and taking notes on this research paper “The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure” by Piers Steel from 2007.
My hats off to the author 🎩 It is a grand and impressive piece of work. This is reflected in the 3000+ citations it has received over its lifetime.
What I think Piers was trying to do was draw out of the literature on procrastination a coherent explanation for why people procrastinate, to inform how we tackle this common problem.
And ‘common’ it appears to be. Piers reports that most of us procrastinate to some degree, 50% of us to a problematic degree. Procrastination is endemic to university students and I can certainly attest to the fact it is one of the more common reasons for students to present for counselling.
Whilst there is no way that I can summarise the full contribution of this article in a single blog post, I can extract some practical advice for those looking to tackle their own procrastination.
What is procrastination?
To procrastinate is “to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.”
To relate this to studies, procrastination is putting off starting assignments or exam revision, even when you know it will lead to poorer performance and grades.
And the research suggests that procrastination is indeed a threat to GPA, exam scores, assignment grades but also things like health and career and financial success.
Before you start self-flagellating yourself for your own procrastination, it is worth acknowledging again that it is incredibly common, suggesting it is a natural by-product of how humans have psychologically adapted to the world around them 🐵
Thus, you aren’t flawed because you have procrastination. We all have that ‘flaw’, and your job is to instead find what works for you in keeping on top of your procrastination tendencies.
What is driving procrastination?
The essence of Piers’ paper (I hope he doesn’t mind me using his first name) is an attempt to sift through the many proposed contributors to procrastination, to find those that are most strongly related.
Piers concludes that 4 groups of variables capture the bulk of the factors driving procrastination: expectancy, value, sensitivity to delay and delay (these form the elements of a theory called Temporal Motivation Theory – TMT that we’ll explore in future posts).
Expectancy is your perception of whether you will be successful with the task you are trying to complete (e.g. how well you think you will do that essay you have to write, or perform on that upcoming exam). The greater the doubt you have about your performance on the task, the more likely you will be to procrastinate. Such doubt may arise from previous setbacks/failures (e.g. bad marks on assignments) that have you doubting your own abilities.
Value is how important and/or attractive the task is to you. Tasks that you feel are fun and engaging are less likely to trigger procrastination. You are more likely to procrastinate on tasks that are aversive in some way: too difficult, boring, seemingly irrelevant.
Sensitivity to delay captures how impulsive and distractible you are. Are you able to focus on the task at hand and not be distracted by other more fun or interesting activities?
Finally delay is the length of time between now and when you’d experience the reward (or punishment) for completing the task. In academia, this is how long before the task due date, but also can be considered how long before you get your grade or mark on the task. The further away the due date, the more likely you are to put off doing the task. The closer the due date, the less likely you are to put it off. This is why most of us do most of our assignments in the days (and nights) before they are due.
What can you do about these 4 driving factors?
Thankfully there are things you can put in place to address each of these factors.
Your key focus here is to enhance your academic skills. If you doubt your ability to write essays, get some further instruction or tutoring on essay writing. Use the Student Learning Support Service. Utilise the Studiosity service to get feedback on essay drafts. ✍
If you doubt your ability to do exams, ask your tutor/lecturer to give you practice quizzes so you become familiar with the feeling of being tested.
If you doubt your ability to learn material effectively, check out our Evidence-based Study and Exam Preparation Tips document that pulls together many of the best study strategies. These can help you streamline and improve your study process.
Another option is to surround yourself with people you know are good at these things. Start a study group and learn from skilled others on how they prepare their work.
As your actual study skills improve, so will your expectations about how well you can do on exams and assignments. You’ll have greater faith in your capacity to do the work and thus less need for procrastination as an avoidance strategy.
The truth is, not every assignment or exam or lab session will be about topics that you find interesting. You may even wonder at the relevance of some of the things you are asked to complete.
Try pairing the less interesting tasks with things you do find interesting. If you are social, get a study buddy or a study group and utilise the social dynamic to add interest to the topic.
Find ways to reward yourself for the effort put towards completing such tasks. 🏆 Use little rewards for every hour worked. Create a study space that you really enjoy being in (comfy chair, good keyboard, great headphones etc), so that study itself is enjoyable, even if the individual task isn’t engaging.
At the topic level, see if you can find any connections between the topic and your life. Perhaps you’ll find that with a big of digging into the topic, it might help illuminate something of interest in your everyday life (psychology was quite good for this, because we could usually diagnose someone in our lives using our new knowledge 😄)
Sensitivity to delay
Impulsiveness and distractibility can be a little trait-like, meaning they (to some extent) reflect aspects of our personality. Thus modifying them can take time and a lot of patience.
It doesn’t mean however that you can’t manage these tendencies better.
The best way seems to be via modification of your environment. Surround yourself with cues that relate to study (e.g. text books, paper, pens, computer, link to library website) and try to remove cues that relate to things that would normally tempt you away from study (e.g. food, games, social media, mobile phone, email, TV, people etc). Create a study space that maximises focus on study tasks and not others. This may involve using software to block access to distracting sites.
The other is to create highly structured study times. I wrote recently about using time blocking to allocate sections of the day to specific tasks. The goal is to reduce the number of decisions that you need to make during the day. The more decisions you need to make, the more opportunities to make the decision to go off on another task. Embed into your schedule specific slots for specific work, so you don’t have to make random decisions each day about what you will work on and when.
To counter the impact of the time between now and when an assignment is due, you can set proximal goals. A proximal goal is simply a step on the way to the ultimate goal. For an assignment, proximal goals might look like this:
- Dissect the essay question – what is being asked
- Collect the references necessary for the essay
- Take notes on each of the references
- Draw out a preliminary essay outline
- Chat with study buddy about outline
- Write intro
- Write content
- Write discussion
This way you aren’t always just focused on the submission date, you can focus yourself on the more pressing goals of assembling the necessary components of the essay.
Other versions of this include:
- Setting yourself daily writing goals (i.e. how many words will I write each day)
- Giving yourself regular quizzes to test your knowledge of material in the lead-up to exams
The other thing I recommend students do is take time to visualise their future. Imagine the end of the year, having handed everything in and got good grades. Imagine graduation day and knowing you have your degree. Imagine your first job, which you got because of your degree. This visualisation is about bringing the future a little closer to you in the present moment. It is easy to discount the future and our future selves, if we never spend any time really considering what our choices now will mean for our future selves.
We’ve written a fair bit on procrastination on this blog. You can browse the posts here. We also have a program called Studyology which helps students tackle procrastination. We’ll be running that program in 2021, so stay tuned to the blog for dates.
I’ll be doing some more blog posts, inspired by the Piers Steel article, but obviously feel free to read it yourself. It is a long article and there is some complexity in terms of terminology and methods used. But it is an enjoyable and interesting read, especially if you ever struggled with procrastination.
Want more content on procrastination? Let me know and we can make sure we visit this important topic on a regular basis.