author image Jennifer Chen, Psy.D.
author image Jennifer Chen, Psy.D.

Learn how to stop procrastinating in college from a behavioral psychologist. Break the cycle and reclaim your life!

At some point, just about all college students have told themselves, “I’ll get it done tomorrow.” Many have fallen prey to putting things off until another “more convenient” time. For example, perhaps you’ve put off working on a paper that you know you won’t have time to do next week. Or maybe there are some projects that you have all semester to do, but just haven’t gotten around to completing. It is not uncommon to procrastinate. (That’s the reason post offices often stay open late on April 15! Every year millions of us wait until the absolutely last minute to file their income taxes.)

Procrastination is a widespread phenomenon; in fact, 20% of adults are considered chronic and serious procrastinators.

Putting things off from time to time can provide instant gratification, it’s true. However, research has shown that chronic procrastination can lead to negative consequences. These sometimes include increased stress, difficulties in relationships, and decreased overall well-being.

Procrastination in College Students: Breaking Down an Example

Consider a common situation where procrastination can be a problem. Many people find it difficult to sit down and write a paper, whether for high school, college, or graduate school. Ideally, one would carve out time and plan ahead, working on the paper little by little until the due date. Procrastinators, on the other hand, may wait until the very last minute and pull the dreaded all-nighter.

They may find that it is difficult to start the paper until they have all the information they need and have accounted for every possible contingency. Delaying what needs to be done is easy! Do any of these sound familiar? “I’m going to wait until I’m less tired.” “I need to organize my desk before I can even think about getting started.” “There’s more research I could do on this topic before I start writing.

Sometimes, just the thought of sitting down and writing might cause enough anxiety that we rationalize putting it off for another hour or day. Regardless of the reason, procrastination can have implications for the future besides giving us worse grades. The more one procrastinates, the more this can develop into a bad habit for future projects.

Take Charge of the Problem with These Time-Tested Strategies

When procrastination happens, it is important to become aware of these tendencies, and to face them directly. If you are serious about conquering procrastination, use the following strategies:

1. Unplug from distractions.

It’s easy to become distracted with our myriad of electronic devices and to use as procrastination aids. Put away social media, turn off your phone, shut off the TV, and find a quiet place to complete your work.

2. Take baby steps.

People who are able to manage time well usually find it easiest to break tasks up into smaller parts that are more manageable and feasible. For example, creating a list of each task involved in writing the paper will make the task less daunting. Setting specific, step-by-step goals with realistic due dates will certainly help, and will give you a sense of accomplishment when you can check these smaller steps off your list.

baby steps

3. Work earlier in the day.

For many, the morning hours are an ideal time to work, as there are less distractions and your brain is more fully awake. Even if you aren’t a morning person, be aware that as the day comes to an end, more things usually pile up on your plate, and it may become easier to justify putting things off until the next day. Give it a try!

4. Set yourself up for success.

Sometimes it takes a shift in your environment to overcome procrastination. What choices have worked for you in the past to get things done? For example, let’s say going to the library has helped you focus on writing your papers, and working in your room has not. Take advantage of that knowledge — go to the library and put yourself in a position to succeed.

5. Remember there is no better time than now.

Some people operate based on how they are feeling in any given moment with the belief, “I’ll do it when I feel more motivated.” Recognize that there may be some distorted thinking that is contributing to procrastination, and challenge these thoughts as they come up.

For example, you may be overestimating how much motivation you will have in the future, or underestimating how much progress you could make today. Many students find that if they can drum up the energy to get started on a task, even if they are not “in the mood,” they complete more than they thought.

6. Have self-compassion.

Being able to forgive yourself when — despite your best efforts — you do find yourself procrastinating, will help you to conquer procrastination. If you get caught up in beating yourself up over delaying tasks, notice those thoughts, and remember they are opinions, not facts. Things do get in the way in life, but don’t dwell on what could have been done. Instead, start again from the top and get back on task.

7. Take breaks and reward yourself in between work sessions.

Rewards can come in multiple forms. Try eating a sweet treat, taking a quick walk around the block, to watching YouTube for a strictly time-limited period. Acknowledge to yourself that you were focused and productive for a period of time, and positively reinforce these good habits.

Still Stuck? It Could Be Perfectionism

Perhaps you have tried these tactics, but still find yourself procrastinating. For some, procrastination may actually be a sign of more serious perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionism usually takes the form of setting impossible standards or holding onto unrealistic expectations for oneself. When a person constantly compares her performance to that of others, it undermines our self esteem. This can lead to excessive concerns over making mistakes and harsh self-criticisms for not getting things right.

Whereas procrastinators say to themselves, “I’ll start it tomorrow“, perfectionists tell themselves, “I’ll start it when I know it’ll be great” or “There’s no way I could do an adequate job of this right now because of (reason)” or even, “This will require so much effort — more effort than I could reasonably offer today, so I’ll do it tomorrow.

How to stop procrastinating in college for perfectionists

Returning to the above example, perhaps you are avoiding writing this paper because it brings up doubts about your abilities. When perfectionists adopt this mindset, they tend to feel far worse about themselves. This in turn leads to an increase in their level of emotional distress before and during the task at hand. Holding onto unrealistic expectations feeds the vicious cycle of procrastination and can eat away at one’s psychological well-being. In truth, being able to manage your emotions around the task can be very intimidating. Identify the reasons why you might be procrastinating, and challenge any of these irrational beliefs and expectations.

If you are unsure whether you are suffering from procrastination or perfectionism, contact a mental health professional. He or she can help determine the nature of the problem and recommend some solutions.

At the end of the day procrastination only eats away our most valuable and limited resource: time. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “You may delay, but time will not.”

For further reading, read the science behind procrastination.

Subscribe to the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy blog!

author avatar
Jennifer Chen, Psy.D.

Related Posts