In Every Issue

Peace of Mind: Procrastination

Procrastination played a role in the writing of this column. With deadlines shared with the writer months before this piece was due, plenty of time passed before research and the pounding of the keyboard led to the words, sentences, and paragraphs you are reading now. Perhaps it was the passage of time and the crushing weight of the fast-approaching deadline that inspired the writer to pick this topic to explore with guidance counsellors. Is it still procrastination if the deadline was met? We’ll see.

In its simplest form, procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing or delaying an activity or task. What’s missing from this brief definition is the mental and emotional cost of postponing or delaying things. 

While procrastination is not a mental health disorder, it is often associated with things like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Strong links have also been found with ADHD (where inattentiveness dominates as opposed to hyperactivity). In the end, putting things off can lead to feelings of frustration, guilt, and even shame. This is especially true when goals and deadlines are missed.

How big is the problem?

By some estimates, close to 25 percent of people are chronic procrastinators. In terms of student specific data, a University of Calgary study found that over 85 percent of students engage in procrastination with 75 percent considering themselves procrastinators and 50 percent saying they have a procrastination problem. Other studies indicate that procrastination is associated with lower grades. Experts say that, while procrastination is a significant issue for young people, the habit of procrastination tends to diminish or lessen with age—perhaps because people learn (experience?) the costs associated with procrastination and choose not to get caught in the procrastinators loop. Taking all this information into account, procrastination is a common problem for at least one in four people.

Why do students procrastinate?

Students will procrastinate if they:

  • find a task boring.
  • don’t believe they have the skill to complete a task.
  • fear a poor result.
  • want to complete a task to perfection.
  • become distracted from a task.

Procrastination isn’t the same as laziness. According to Dr. Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University, procrastination is more about governing our emotions than poor time management skills. Procrastinators have to muddle through their negative moods—boredom, fear, insecurity, anxiety, doubt—before they can get down to the task at hand. Pychyl says, “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.” In other words, students need to deal with their fear and anxiety in order to escape the more crippling outcomes of procrastination.

While procrastination is normal, problems arise when important deadlines are missed, and overwhelming feelings of self-criticism and self-doubt emerge. In many ways, procrastination, if left unaddressed, can be a gateway to low self-esteem and over-arching anxiety. In other words, a person who procrastinates sees negative emotions begin to dominate while a task that should otherwise be easy to complete is left until the last minute or, worse, left unfinished.

Warning signs that procrastination is a problem

While procrastination can be a regular and common part of approaching certain situations, it becomes problematic for students if the following symptoms arise:

  • They get extra anxious about tasks that they have completed successfully in the past.
  • They worry excessively about failing to make the grade.
  • Feelings of inadequacy halt them in their tracks.
  • They blame others for their procrastination.
  • Perfectionism keeps them from completing a task.
  • Resentment causes them to choose to ignore a task.

Feel free to share this personalized list with students if they come to your office with concerns over procrastination. Odds are, if they are coming to the guidance office with concerns indicating any of these, they want some advice on how they can overcome procrastination. A guidance counsellors should focus on the negative emotions that are keeping the student from starting and completing tasks. Once they are addressed, the issue of time management can be explored.

Overcoming procrastination

When feelings of procrastination emerge, encourage students to try a few of the following strategies:

  • Be aware of procrastination when it first presents itself.
  • Address your negative emotions (like fear and anxiety) and try to figure out why you are afraid of taking on a task.
  • Set realistic and tangible goals.
  • Devise a plan for meeting the goals you set.
  • Get started! After addressing your emotions,this is often the most difficult obstacle to overcome.
  • Break the task into smaller steps.
  • Take breaks after completing certain elements of larger tasks.
  • Be patient with yourself when you make a mistake or don’t perfectly execute your plan.
  • Find a way to make the task enjoyable.
  • Remove distractions (like your phone!).
  • Expect distractions and have a plan to deal with them.
  • Reward yourself when you complete your task.
  • Evaluate the outcome of completing and not completing the task.
  • Manage your time.
  • Draw on past successes and avoid dwelling on past failures.

It’s about the emotions

Procrastination presents itself on a kind of sliding scale with delaying the start of a task being one extreme and completely giving up on a task being the other. If a guidance counsellor can help a student address the emotional reasons for why they are delaying the start of a task or choosing to not complete a task, the road to overcoming procrastination can become a rejuvenating avenue for the student. It would be important to remind the student that they aren’t lazy. More than likely, they are afraid, and if those fears can be addressed, procrastination can be properly addressed.

Yep, there was some procrastination involved

At the beginning of this column, I wondered if procrastination was the primary issue delaying the completion of this piece of writing. Certainly, unnecessary delays preceded the writing process but, perhaps unwittingly, I addressed my negative emotions and overcame my reluctance to get started. While I tread the bumpy path of procrastination, I did not succumb to its more negative obstacles. The deadline was met (to the minute) and the process of publishing proceeded unimpeded. We’ll see how things go when I have to write the next Peace of Mind. I will certainly be taking an emotional inventory if I find myself unnecessarily delaying the process of tackling my next topic.

By: Sean Dolan