Procrastination is the action of delaying or postponing something. We all put things off sometimes because we are tired or there are higher priority tasks. However, procrastinators chronically put things off. On average only about 20% of the population are chronic procrastinators, but about 80% of the consider themselves as procrastinators to some degree. In my experience this estimate seems about right. I could give an assignment for my zoom online classes two weeks in advance. But when I check the day before it’s due, most students have not even started on the assignments yet! Our life will be more productive if we can reduce our procrastination habit.
If procrastination is a counterproductive habit to avoid, then why do a majority of students procrastinate? There are several explanations for this. Students might seem to be procrastinating on important assignments, in reality they might put their effort on something that is not relevant nor important. They do not know how to prioritize. Externally it could be because of the foundation or structure surround the students. They are simply in an environment that do not foster punctuality and timeliness. An analogy is being on a bad football team with a bad coach. Sometimes If an assignment is considered challenging, students can procrastinate because they do not have high confidence of successfully completing it. That assignment can even be overwhelming for some if their self-confidence or self-efficacy is low. An attachment loss or “fear of failure” is another reason for procrastination. If students feel anxious about the consequence of doing a bad job and getting a bad grade, why would they jump at the opportunity of making this a reality as soon as possible? As a result, they will procrastinate and delay the potential moment of truth for as long as possible.
Another way to think of this fear of failure is those students have a fixed instead of a growth mindset. According to Carol Dweck, Stanford University, “in a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” If students perceive that having a bad grade on the assignment means they are dumb and bad, then they will put doing the assignment for as long as humanly possible.
On a personal level, some students seem to lack motivation. It is challenging to start something when the motivation is not there. Other students can be passive to the point of indecision. They have a challenging time of deciding on a course of action. For example, they can take much longer time in deciding whether to do assignment A instead of B. Their dawdling seems like they are procrastinating, but the underlying cause is passivity and indecision. Some students have more perfectionistic tendency than others. With the perfectionists, everything has to be just right before they start. So, they would spend an inordinate amount of time making sure to dot every i’s and cross every t’s before they even start. When start a task, they seek perfection instead of excellence in every single step. The net effect for the perfectionist is the equivalent of procrastination most of the time. Finally, for some students, playing online games like Roblox or Minecraft for hours is a pleasurable experience, while stopping the game to do homework is coercive and painful. Human being naturally avoids perceived painful activities and naturally seek more pleasurable experience. So, a procrastinator could simple be someone who naturally avoid pain and seek pleasure!
Theory and explanation aside, if you are a procrastinator like me 😊, what can you practically do to change the habit? Realistically it is very challenging to change a habit once it is ingrained within. However, there are several things you can try on the margin to improve. Even if you can improve only 10 to 20 percent, compound the effect over a lifetime, and the dividend can be substantial. The first thing you can do is to set appropriate goal so that it will increase your confident about the assignment or the task at hand. For example, you do not know for sure that you will get an A on an astronomy lab, but you can set a goal to read over the lab instruction and start to working on it at a certain date. Then on that date sit down and start working! The hardest part for the procrastinator to do is simply get started. Set a goal to start working a task at certain date and actually start working is already 50% of the solution. The rest will eventually take care of itself.
Once you start you can fine tune your goals such as you will email classmate or zoom to ask the professor for clarification about part of the lab you do not understand. This way you can sketch out an appropriate plan of action and gather the necessary resources you need to complete the lab. This is because failing to prepare is preparing to fail. If the task still seems overwhelming, break the goal down into smaller, more manageable chunks. This will also reset your self-confident appropriately: “Hey the whole thing seems a lot. But I’m pretty sure I can do part I, and once part I is done, I am confident I can do part II…” Then you give yourself a deadline and work to finish the lab by that deadline. You can also write your goal down or voice record it. This sends a message to your brain that you are serious about the job, and you are committed to getting it done. If you successfully complete the lab, pat yourself on the back and give yourself a reward. Do a fun activity or treat yourself to a good meal. This might recondition your brain to thing of doing the lab as pleasurable instead of pain avoidance activity!
Finally, if you have a fixed mindset where getting a bad grade or result can bring tension, irritation, shortness of breath, be kind and empathetic to yourself. If the result is not an “A”, it does not mean that you are a dumb or not worthy person. You are still a good person. The more you can be kind and empathetic to yourself regardless of what result you get, the less procrastinate you will be. This because you are comfortable with who you are and with your self-esteem no matter what happen.