One of the most common issues 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 independent study 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
- 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 lectures and seminars?
- 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?
What causes us to procrastinate?
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. 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 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 may not feel able to ask for help and to overcome the difficulties. 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 get it back in order.
- Under-developed study skills: Study skills are the tools a student uses - the ability to scan books and articles quickly; to summarise succinctly; to evaluate arguments quickly etc.. 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 recognise 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 a First and that anything less 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 City 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.
- 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 alcohol or 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, tearfulness etc. you may wish to see our page on depression [link].
Breaking the habit of procrastinating
Visualise what you could achieve. Imagine having all your work done before the deadlines; imagine doing six hours work a day then going out without a guilty conscience; imagine getting good (but not necessarily perfect) grades without having to panic and sit up all night. Does it seem like an improvement you would welcome? Try and work out what particular thing stops you working; then try any of the following which seem appropriate.
- Do something...anything...now: Do not wait for the moment to be right before you start work. Start an essay in the middle if this comes easier than starting with the introduction. The quicker you find a way to get going on things, the quicker you will finish them. Learning to get started without ceremony is one of the main skills of time management.
- Don't stop because something is difficult: If you come up against an obstacle, look for a way round it. For example, if you cannot seem to get the structure of an essay right, make a rough outline and show it to the lecturer or check with a friend. It is important not to just put everything on hold when you meet a problem since the problem will then never be solved.
- Make a list and a timetable: List what you have to do and estimate how long it will take. Then draw up a calendar of the next few weeks, mark the deadlines and fit everything in. It might be a painful process if you have a lot to do, but will soon give you a sense of direction. Don't beat yourself up if you don't stick to it 100%. It takes time to learn to plan.
- Arrange your work in an achievable way: Only the exceptional person can regularly do more than 40 hours good quality work on one subject in a week. Similarly, it is hard to do more than one and a half hours of one thing without a break. Give yourself generous time off in your timetable. This can be a reward if you do well and can be used to complete work if a totally unexpected event has thrown you off course.
- Don't aim for the impossible: Work out realistically what standard you can achieve and start working towards that. Once you have got started on the work you can always revise your estimate of your capability upwards if you find you have untapped potential.
- Consider your lifestyle: It is difficult to work in an organised way if you tend to sleep in an unplanned way and cannot predict when your day will start. Staying up late then sleeping late becomes a difficult cycle to break. The best way is to plan to get up early, irrespective of when you went to bed. If necessary, shower, lay your clothes out and have everything ready for the morning before you go to bed so you can get going in the morning with a minimum of hassle. Try not to sleep during the day even if you feel tired so that you can get your normal daily cycle back. If alcohol or drug use is slowing you down, look at our page [link] on these subjects to see if you can gain more control.
- Aim to get more organised: Research shows that the less worrying distractions there are, the better we work. Therefore, aim for a clear desk, sorted notes, clear priorities and so on. The more you can focus your mind, the better you will perform. However, do not substitute doing some actual work for tidying your room or sorting your notes or you will never get started. Keep tidying and listing as a relaxing task to be done at the end of a day's work.
- Take action about anything you really cannot stand: If you really don't like the University, your course or some modules, think about how you can make the changes you need. It's better to act now and find something you like more than drift into the future not working and then fail to pass your degree. However, if after consideration you decide you want to stick it out and work, go back to the top of this list and begin to get the work done.
- Find help if needed: Academic staff can usually offer a lot of support and advice if you are confused about a piece of work. The Academic Learning Support service in Learning Success [link] will support overseas students in improving study skills. Fellow students can also be a great help. Useful books are listed below and the Student Counselling Service can help you talk through your problems and find a solution. There is no shame in finding studying difficult, so try not to be too proud to ask for assistance.
Books and Leaflets
- Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers. Vermilion. 2007
- The Student Writing Guide, Gordon Taylor. Cambridge University Press. 2009
- How to Pass Exams without Anxiety. David Acres. How To Books. 1992 (A comprehensive guide to writing essays for arts and social science students.)
- Study Skills Handbook. Dr Stella Cottrell-Palgrave. Macmillan. 2013