and Motivation

What is procrastination?

Procrastination... to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse-off for the delay
Dr Piers Steel

Procrastination is not just about putting tasks off. It is postponing a task even though we know we will experience negative consequences from doing so.

For example, a common student experience is to postpone working on assignment until very close to the deadline. This can result in significant stress and a very unpleasant experience in those final hours whilst frantically trying to complete the assignment.

But then when the next assignment is due, the same pattern happens all over again...

  • In surveys, 95% of people admit to procrastinating, with about a quarter of these saying that it’s a chronic, defining characteristic.
  • At any time, “to stop procrastinating” is among the world’s top reported goals.
  • Procrastination has worsened over time, which is thought to be due in part to increased distractions and temptations in our environment e.g. smartphones, internet.

Although procrastination is such a common experience, it is a complex issue. It is not being "lazy". People may procrastinate for different reasons, and how best to manage procrastination may also vary. This page will help you identify what might be contributing to your procrastination patterns and help you explore strategies that may help you manage this.

What kind of procrastinator are you?

Dr Piers Steel is a researcher who has spent decades investigating procrastination. To learn how much of a procrastinator you are, complete his anonymous survey:

Recognising procrastination is an important first step in managing it. Can you relate to any of the types in the Field Guide to Procrastinators? What do you do to procrastinate?

We can often make excuses and justify our procrastination to reduce the guilt we feel. These can include:

  • I am really tired. I am better off doing it after I have rested
  • I will miss out on the fun now. I can always wait till nothing much is happening
  • I don’t have everything I need. I will wait till I do
  • I have plenty of time. So I don’t have to start it now
  • I don't have enough time. So I won't start it now
  • I have other things to do. I will do it once those things are finished
  • I work better when under pressure. So I will leave it to the last minute
  • I don’t feel inspired. I will wait until I do

This last excuse is common one...we tell ourselves if we just wait a bit longer, we will suddenly feel motivated to do the work... which is based of the assumption:

Motivation -> Action

Whereas it is actually more often like this:

Action -> Motivation -> Action

When we take action, this helps boost motivation, so we take more action.

What excuses do you tell yourself? Are these helping you? Or are they causing you problems?

Why do we procrastinate?

There are many theories that attempt to explain why procrastination occurs, including avoidance of negative emotions such as anxiety and boredom, perfectionist attitudes towards performance, and personality traits that may make us more prone to procrastinate.

One model synthesizing decades of research is The Procrastination Equation (Dr Piers Steel, 2007). As shown below, this model identifies 4 key areas that can affect motivation: expectancy, value, impulsiveness and delay. To boost motivation (thereby reducing procrastination), we want to increase expectancy and value, and decrease impulsiveness and delay.

How do I overcome procrastination?

Steps to manage procrastination

  1. Notice procrastination occurring
  2. Ask "why am I doing this?" - be curious, not judgmental. Are any unhelpful assumptions or beliefs occurring? Are you making excuses?
  3. Using The Procrastination Equation, identify which components of the equation are reducing motivation
  4. Apply strategies to increase/decrease the relevant components
  5. Review progress - did the strategies help?
  6. Adjust as required - any other strategies/adjustments needed?

Increasing Expectancy of Success

Can we help ourselves to feel more confident that we can do the task?

Identifying unhelpful beliefs is important. Some common beliefs include:

  • Fear of failure - e.g. “I must do things perfectly, otherwise I will fail or others will think badly of me
  • Fear of success – e.g. “If I do well, then people will just expect more of me
  • Imposter syndrome – e.g. “I am not capable and everyone will find out”, “past successes were due to luck
  • Fear of uncertainty – e.g. “I don’t know what I have to do for the assignment”, "I am not sure how it will go"

Once we have identified any unhelpful beliefs, it can be useful to gently challenge them. If we look at the evidence, how do we know these thoughts are accurate? What are we basing them on? Is there another way we can see the situation?

What would be a more helpful alternative thought?

For example:

  • "My assignment does not need to be perfect. I just need to give it a go."
  • "I don't know what I have to do for this assignment. So I will read the assignment outline and talk to my lecturer/classmates"

Other strategies to boost confidence:

Mental contrasting – clearly visualise an achievable goal and contrast with your current reality. Then visualise the steps needed to get to your goal.

Break big projects down into small and achievable steps. When you start working, just focus on the next step.

Anticipate challenges and setbacks. Have an action plan so that you are less likely to give up. This is when giving yourself extra time can be useful.

Pay attention to the small successes to create success spirals. Success leads to confidence, which leads to further productivity. Small steps will help you do this.

“Lower” the standards e.g. writing a rough draft first rather than a polished essay. Academic work is a process. Brainstorming, planning and drafting come first. Editing and polishing come later.

Increasing Value

Can we make the task more important or enjoyable?

  • Add rewards - save the fun activities as a reward for getting study done
  • Find passion - are there any parts that are interesting for you?
  • Find meaning - how is this task useful for you? How does it relate to your career goals/other life goals?
  • Make it into a game/competition
  • Add accountability – tell others what you are working on/what your goals are
  • When is the best time of the day? Do the harder parts of study at the time of day when it is easiest to concentrate. Or try to get some chunks of study done earlier in the day to give you a sense of achievement
  • Is there anything else to make it more enjoyable? E.g. motivating music, having a nice space to do study

It is also important to notice and challenge unhelpful thoughts/beliefs such as “Life’s too short to be doing things that are boring or hard, fun should always come first”. Sometimes tasks are not fun, but we need to do them anyway.

Tolerating/managing discomfort

Thinking about study, or other tasks we are putting off, can cause us to feel stressed. Indeed, even if we try to make these tasks more meaningful and enjoyable, there will still be times when we feel stressed or bored. Consequently, having strategies to manage these negative emotions is important.

  • Remind yourself that getting work done will make you feel better – mood follows action – don’t wait to be “in the mood” to start doing the work
  • Use mindful approach to notice and accept difficult thoughts and feelings
  • Imagine discomfort and negative feelings as a wave – they will pass

Managing your energy

Feeling tired is a common reason for procrastination. Manage your energy levels by:

  • Having a regular sleep routine (even during busy times of semester)
  • Eat healthy food and drink lots of water
  • Take regular breaks from study to rest and recharge (away from the computer)
  • Prioritize physical exercise - physical movement helps manage stress hormones and can increase our energy levels and concentration ability

Notice and challenge unhelpful thoughts/beliefs such as “I can’t do things when I am stressed, fatigued, unmotivated, or depressed” – you can still take small steps.

Reducing Impulsiveness

Can we reduce temptations, manage our impulses and increase focus?

Piers argues that this is the most important factor in the procrastination equation. We now live in a world designed to provide constant distractions and to reward impulsive actions. So what can we do?

Use self-reflection and mindfulness to help identify impulses when they occur - e.g. noticing the urge to reach for our phone or check social media when we are trying to study. By catching these urges, rather than responding on auto-pilot, this enables us to consider other options (e.g. "I will do another 15 minutes of study and THEN check my phone")

Reduce distractions and temptations in the environment - e.g. turn your phone off or on airplane mode, block social media sites and Netflix (apps and programs can help you do this), declutter your study space, don’t study in bed

Increase study cues - e.g. have goals/deadlines somewhere you can see, set reminders in your calendar, uses planners/diaries to track your time and help you stay focused

Break tasks into concentrated time chunks - e.g. use the Pomodoro technique where you study in 25 minute blocks with 5 minute breaks (see the Pomodoro apps later on the webpage). If the idea of starting a task seems very overwhelming, start with 5 minutes and then you can build up from there

Build habits – e.g. have regular routines where you get tasks done. The more these become habits, the less your mind will fight to do something else

Reducing Delay

Can we modify our deadlines?

Depending on the task, there may be external deadlines. For example, assignments have deadlines to work towards. However these deadlines might be too far way to motivate us effectively.

Create mini-deadlines for the smaller steps. As discussed, breaking down tasks into steps is an important strategy. Can you add deadlines to these steps?

Tell others about your mini-deadlines - again, increasing accountability can increase the value of a task

If you have several assignments due at once, give yourself earlier deadlines. Stagger them out to reduce how much you will be trying to do at once

If conducting research – discuss with your supervisor about creating several smaller deadlines

Attach rewards to meeting these deadlines to boost motivation further

Changing our justifications and excuses

Hopefully, the practical strategies in the previous sections provide some options for how you can tackle your procrastination patterns.

Keep on the lookout for any justifications and excuses popping up that may get in the way of you using these strategies.

As has been discussed, we often make excuses and justifications for why we are procrastinating. To help us move towards action, it can be helpful to change the conclusions we are making.

For example:

  • I am really tired. But I can still make a small start now
  • I will miss out on the fun now. If I get some done I can reward myself with the fun
  • I don’t have everything I need. I can still try to make a start on some bits of the task
  • I have plenty of time. I have other assignments. It is safest to start early
  • I don't have enough time. But I can still do a small bit
  • I have other things to do. Those things are less important, they can wait
  • I work better under pressure. It is still worth making a start now, because if I leave things too late it can backfire
  • I don’t feel inspired. If I get started, the inspiration may follow. I can’t just wait around hoping for inspiration to arrive

Let's Talk About...Procrastination & Motivation

Watch a webinar run by members of the university counselling service and student advice teams on identifying and managing procrastination. Select the purple button on the lower right to open up the chat box for the webinar.

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