Every time a student tells me that he or she waited to the last minute to complete an assignment, I know I’m supposed to say that it’s much better to plan ahead and allocate enough time to do a really good job. While I often give this de rigueur response, in the back of my mind is the nagging reminder that I, too, am a procrastinator. Like my students today, I used to justify my procrastination by saying that I worked better under pressure. That last minute adrenalin rush fueled my creativity and forced me to really work.
The truth is, though, that even if I managed to get good grades with my last minute efforts, I realized as I matured that I could have done better with more time. When I got my papers back, I would see glaring errors, which I missed in my haste. Even if these errors seemed relatively small and had little effect on my final grade, I realize now that I could have learned so much more if I had taken a more balanced approached.
Procrastination is motivated by different reasons, and exploring those can help reform a procrastinator. Here are a few reasons why people procrastinate:
- They are uncertain about the project.
- The project is distasteful.
- The project is overwhelming.
- They need materials, ideas or support from others.
- Too many other demands take precedent (or are used as an excuse to put off the project).
Uncertainty: I still think there may be some value to procrastinating, as long as it doesn’t last right up to or past the deadline. When a project involves a lot of uncertainty, the time spent procrastinating can be used to investigate other similar projects, talk with people who may be able to give more information, conduct research and consider different possibilities.
Distasteful: Of course, we all dream of unloading our distasteful tasks onto a willing and unsuspecting victim. In college, though, having someone else do the work is called cheating. A lot of times, the task isn’t as bad as you expect, and the anticipation and anxiety about what it involves and what will happen if the task isn’t completed are actually much worse than the task itself. Doing the initial and least distasteful steps can make the task more manageable. Otherwise, you just have to suck it up and plow through.
Overwhelming: If a project is so large or the results are so important that you become overwhelmed just thinking about it, putting it off seems really appealing. The problem is, that large tasks are the ones where the penalties of procrastinating are the worst. If you put it off too long, it becomes impossible to even attempt. The best strategy is to break the project up into smaller tasks. I like to create a table with three columns (Task, Resources Needed, Completion Date) and work out each small step that will contribute to the final product.
Support from Others: Working with others can have two major pitfalls: you might feel uncomfortable about asking for help or people don’t always follow up and get back to you with the resources you need. Try to consider this an opportunity to build networking and people skills. Rehearse conversations and carefully craft emails that you can use to ask for the resources you need. Follow up with polite reminders when others are not carrying through with their tasks.
Competing Demands: Admit it: sometimes being busy is just an excuse to avoid doing a project you really don’t want to do. Sometimes, of course, we all get too busy. The best way to do this is to write a to-do list that prioritizes tasks based on importance and nearness of deadline. Then allocate an hour or two each day to take care of high priority tasks.
Well, knowing what to do to overcome procrastination and actually doing it are two different things. If you’re like me, you’ll be tempted to say, “Some day I’ll put my plan into action,” knowing well that I’m in no hurry to arrive at some day. I still procrastinate, but when I manage to follow my own advice, I avoid a lot of stress and anxiety—and I end up proud of my work.
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