10 tips for procrastinators

Everyone procrastinates. We’re all wired to avoid negative feelings so we seek distraction from difficulties. We turn to mood-enhancing activities like games, social media, even tidying up – anything to avoid the negative mood that comes with a challenging task.

In the short term, procrastination works because it can lift our mood and we feel less stressed for a while. But then it catches up and we wish we’d started that assignment earlier. These 10 tips will help you get your essays started – and feel good about it!

10 tips to stop procrastinating now and make the task more approachable

1. Start small. Forget trying to write the essay and instead write five facts about the topic. Or four ways in which the recommended reading does not answer the essay question. Or three reasons why the topic matters, and who it matters to. Once you achieve a small aim you will begin to feel good and feeling good will motivate you further. Aim low again! Write one argument and defend it with evidence. Write one paragraph. Keep going. You’ll get that essay done.

2. Study with someone. Studying can be lonely, but good company along the way can make it feel relational and supportive. Choose people who are interested in your work and who share your interest in succeeding at it such as a study group or the Academic Learning Advisor. Develop a network of positivity – you might even help others overcome their procrastination.

3. Change your study location. Sitting at the same desk without making progress can be disheartening, so lift your spirits with a change of scene. Local municipal libraries can be great places to work. Or try a café with the right level of buzz for you. Or, just move to a comfier chair. It’s all about lifting your mood, so find out whether being surrounded by people, books, or upholstery works best for you.

4. Try free-flowing writing with a pen. Answer a question such as ‘what are the big themes in the topic’ or ‘how does this topic connect to that other topic’. Forget perfection and just write fast for five minutes without letting the pen leave the page. Don’t stop to think about getting exactly the write word – write several ‘almost right’ words instead – and just keep writing. The momentum is rewarding. You’ll feel a little better. Overcoming the need to be perfect is liberating, and free-flowing writing with a pen can help liberate your studies from perfectionism.

7. Remove distractions. Switch your device to ‘Airplane mode’, or use a product that limits your internet access. If it’s worry that distracts you most, try scheduling a time for worrying tomorrow instead. It sounds counter-intuitive, but resolving to worry at 9.15 tomorrow can help you put aside your worries in the short-term. And maybe when tomorrow comes, some of those worries will not seem so unmanageable.

5. Set a (short) timer and resolve to work on your project just until the timer goes off. It’s an achievable task. You could use an alarm, but using the dishwasher or washing machine cycle is doubly productive. Aim to work until the cycle is complete, hang out the washing, make yourself a snack (or do 5 minutes exercise), put the dishwasher on, and resume study. You’ll be so productive, and very well fed (or fit).

6. Impose an artificial deadline. If the essay is due on the 30th, then you could decide to finish the first draft by the 20th. If you find you can’t stick to an artificial deadline on your own, make a time to talk to the Academic Learning Advisor on the 20th and get some forward-looking feedback. A little accountability and the promise of helpful advice can be a useful motivator.

8. Read academic writing on procrastination if you really can’t get started on your work. Seriously, it’s an area of scholarly research. Much better than cat videos or the unreal world of social media, reading scholarly work will help you absorb the ways of thinking and styles of writing that you need. And you might pick up some time-management tips. Try looking up the website of Dr Timothy Pychyl, Carleton University, Ottawa. He coordinates a research group on procrastination: http://www.procrastination.ca/

9. Relieve yourself of the expectation to achieve. Fear of not meeting expectations can really get in the way of trying. It’s a major cause of procrastination. Remember too that the marks you receive are not a measure of you, but of how that particular essay matched up with the grade descriptors and learning outcomes. The world of study (and of social media) is full of metrics, but you are more than the grade on an essay. Complete the work, learn as you go, and get on with being you.

10. Forgive yourself. Forgive your procrastinating and have some compassion. It’s short-term negative feeling that causes procrastination, so adopt a long-term program of kindness to yourself (and others).

Dr Kerrie Handasyde
Academic Learning Advisor, Pilgrim Theological College