From Putting Off to Digging In: How to Beat Procrastination and Get to Work

PhD Student Advising Articles written by Shannon E. Williams, Director of Student Engagement at the Schar School

The phenomenon of putting off important life tasks has been the subject of decades of psychological inquiry. Academic procrastination is of particular concern because studies show that 80-95% of all college students procrastinate, and 50% do so consistently and problematically (Steel 2007)(Onwuegbuzie and Jiao 2000). If you tend to avoid or delay essential activities, you may suspect that starting earlier and staying focused would improve your work. Research supports your suspicion: tackling dilatory tendencies is linked to increased productivity, reduced stress, and stronger performance.

Maybe you have already followed the conventional wisdom and tried talking yourself into better habits. Get organized. Work harder. Make lists. Based in lore and conjecture, many popular suggestions are of questionable validity. Beyond that, as Boice (1989) notes, the advice “is paradoxically accompanied by admissions that procrastinators loathe such advice and are unlikely to carry out suggestions” (605). The ideas are fine for those diligent enough to master a novel approach, but a new habit thrust into the seed-bed of an old pattern rarely takes hold. It is better to dig procrastination up by its roots while planting more effective ways of working.

This piece identifies the distortions of perception at the heart of procrastination, explores the behaviors that sustain it, and suggests steps for establishing more effective habits.

Find the Root

Do you recognize yourself in any of these statements?

You know how to produce in an abbreviated time frame. You’re good at cramming and have rarely failed on a project even when you waited until the last minute to complete it.

Thinking about all the steps required is overwhelming. You work more effectively if you calm yourself down and create the right environment before getting started.

There is plenty of time to get the task done. It won’t take very long. You’ll jump on it later after you’ve cleared away some of the more pressing things on your to-do list.

You’ve missed too many opportunities to work on the task or to gain the right skills. Now it’s too late to be successful. What you come up with will fall short of expectations so it’s better to let this one go and move on to something else.

What you really need is a large chunk of uninterrupted time to plow through the project and make some real headway.

Take note: every one of these beliefs is based in a cognitive distortion. For the procrastinator, perceptions of time, effort, ability, and opportunity rarely align with measures of what is required. Poor habits and skewed perception are problematic not just in the realm of procrastination but in health, relationships, finances, and other areas of human choice. Indeed, recognizing a well-worn pattern is as much a challenge as gauging its impact. Change is even tougher. No matter how appropriate these frames of mind seem in a different context, continuing to operate from them may impede success. Research demonstrates that every belief listed above contributes to procrastination, poorer performance and lower productivity (Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown 1995).

Intelligence, Effort, and Handicapping

The literature comes at procrastination from a number of directions, grappling with its sources and manifestations. Nevertheless, theorists and practitioners generally agree that putting off the activities necessary to reach goals will hinder progress towards those goals. The definition we use here applies to students and to the general population alike: to procrastinate is to needlessly and voluntarily delay an important task despite being worse off for the delay (Steel 2007).

Studies on college campuses show a surprising relationship between high measures of academic ability and procrastination. Those with a history of success in school may have discovered early that learning and achievement are nearly effortless. When they were young, some students found they could cram at the last minute and still pull off adequate work. Teachers, peers, and parents may have rewarded the behavior with high grades and unwitting encouragement such as, “You must really be talented if you can do so little and still achieve so much!”

Graduate students and academics often report such experiences of easy early learning. Habits associated with these notions of time and effort can lead to problems when work becomes more difficult and intense (Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown 1995). On complex, long-range tasks, procrastinators consistently perform worse than their non-procrastinating peers. The notion that one can cram and still do well ultimately puts those who are “good” at cramming at a disadvantage.

At the other extreme are those procrastinators who suffer not from an overabundance of confidence but from a shortage of it. They don’t necessarily think they will do fine waiting until the last minute. In fact, they may harbor a secret belief that they don’t have what it takes to do well at all. Bandura (2004) argues that an individual’s perception of self-efficacy, “rooted in the core belief that one has the power to effect changes by one’s actions,” is critical to performance (622). Along with perfectionism and fear of failure, some procrastination is exacerbated by these misperceptions of efficacy. Students and others in academia who experience “imposter syndrome” (McArdle 2014) may fear revealing their ineptitude if they make their work public. In fact, they put off the most essential portion of their graduate work – writing – as a way to avoid facing their perceived limitations.

Anxiety about ability can contribute to writing apprehension (Onwuegbuzie and Collins 2001) which influences avoidant, dilatory behavior. In fact, writing apprehension is such a problem among students that it often leads to self-handicapping (Steel 2007)(Ferrari and Tice 2000). This can take the form of working in ineffective fits and starts until the eleventh hour and then slapping something together. The adequate but substandard product allows a student to tell himself, “It’s okay. My second-rate work was the result of procrastinating. It’s not any measure of my real ability.” He continues to harbor a conflicting set of notions in which he is both full of untapped talent and too incompetent to produce anything worthwhile. As peers persist in more difficult, long-term endeavors and gain greater ground, such a student may never learn how to navigate a complex project. The skills he has mastered only apply to tasks that can be accomplished in brief bursts of effort.

What do you do when you are procrastinating?

Procrastination can be devious. Often labeled as lazy or disorganized, procrastinators may be active and productive workers. As they busy themselves with blogging, volunteering, organizing and attending community events, and participating in job-related professional development, they may earn high regard from peers and superiors. Meanwhile, long-term goals suffer.

If anxiety is operating, these same activities might do more than stimulate and distract. Avoidant behavior may in fact be a mechanism for easing the distress brought about by the fear of failure (Schouwenburg 1995). Looking down the barrel of a long-range goal can heighten stress and trigger the associated distortions about ability and worth. In the short term, turning to pleasurable activities relieves tension and increases a sense of efficacy and well-being. The task required for the long-range goal continues to inch closer. Anxiety creeps higher. Avoidance increases.

The nature of long-range goals is that they come at a high short-term cost with low short-term payoff. Even when you’ve chosen a goal, the steps toward it may feel imposed and unpleasant. Indeed, people are more likely to procrastinate on activities they don’t like, and they tend to dislike doing things they don’t perceive as voluntary (Milgram, Sroloff, and Rosenbaum 1988). It is tempting to return again to activities that have greater immediate reward even though focusing on them is, ultimately, irrational. It sounds too simple but it must be said: When you’ve chosen the goals you want to reach, you must set yourself to the work required to reach them. No other behavior makes sense.

Beating Procrastination

Whatever your unique patterns of avoidance and delay, you’ll have to act with skill to increase focus on your goals, decrease task-avoidant behaviors, and diminish any resultant anxiety. The most effective change works in both the cognitive and behavioral realms simultaneously. Noticing and correcting inaccurate thoughts can influence behavior. It is also the case that changes in behavior can influence perception (Hayes et al. 2011). The steps discussed below are aimed at improving habits in both realms. The practices are distilled from findings in experimental settings, then tested and further honed with students and academics.

1. Root Out Distorted Thinking

Ferrari and his colleagues have studied the cognitive habits of procrastinators and identified the common themes. Whether dilatory behavior has to do with a low sense of self-efficacy or a basic habit of avoidance, most academic procrastination is rooted in one or more of these six basic distortions:

Overestimation of the time left

Underestimation of the time required

Overestimation of future motivational states (“I’ll feel more like doing it later.”)

Misreliance on the necessity of emotional congruence for success (“People should only study when they feel good about it.”)

Belief that working when not in the mood is suboptimal or unproductive

Misconception regarding the necessity of effort, particularly for those with a history of good academic ability (Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown 1995)

Consider these categories when you have a task on the horizon. Notice the stories you tell yourself about time, mood, and effort required. If you are not sitting down to a task you know is necessary to reach your goals, something irrational is influencing your thoughts. Name it, notice where it tends to lead you, and remind yourself that it is inaccurate and self-defeating. Then get back to work.

2. Cultivate Rational Thoughts

Self-talk may feel contrived, yet inner speech is recognized as a device for aiding reflection, focus, and problem-solving (Morin 2005). Indeed, self-talk, when used appropriately, can facilitate a shift from problematic behaviors to more effective, adaptive behaviors (Depape et al. 2006). Tell yourself that how you feel is irrelevant to the task, that you are in charge of reaching the goal even if the task seems imposed, and that your full effort is required. Verbally affirm your ability to complete the task and reach your goals.

3. Aim for Automaticity

In a study of faculty members prone to displays of busyness and productive “bingeing,” participants erroneously believed they needed to carve out whole days in order to write. When they subsequently let their schedules be overrun with smaller demands, they assumed they no longer had a sufficient chunk of time to make progress on their writing (Boice 1989). The participants were prompted to try two things. One, write for a small, predetermined chunk of time every single day. Two, submit to check-ins by a colleague. Those who made these two simple changes saw their productivity increase measurably over those who stuck with their established patterns.

Automaticity is the process of turning a practice that requires intention into one you perform without awareness (Karoly 1993). The smaller the step, the easier it is to convert it into a habit. Boice’s participants benefited as much from the regularity and frequency of the new practices as from the activities themselves. Breaking down a task not only makes work more manageable, it also clarifies your route. Silver (1974) found that the number of “choice points” in a project predicts procrastination. In other words, each decision about how to proceed includes a corresponding decision about whether to proceed. The more junctures you face, the greater your likelihood of procrastinating. Determine the measures of work ahead of time and structuring them as regular, frequent bites. This will decrease the number of choices you have to make and help establish an automatic routine. You can read more on habits and automaticity here.

4. Stop Hiding

The isolated and inelegant process of plowing through the work of a long-range goal is rarely immediately satisfying. In fact, working on it may provoke unpleasant feelings that lead to further avoidance. Note that Boice’s study subverted this by having participants submit to regular check-ins with colleagues. Those who did so outperformed their go-it-alone colleagues. This outcome squares with research on “piggybacking” short-term interests onto long-range goals (Ainslie 1992). Socializing can be more immediately rewarding than working in isolation and peers can provide the prompt feedback that helps maintain momentum.

The fact that you meet with others is more important than how you meet. Find a partner or a group of peers and make yourselves accountable to one another. As you create a schedule for checking in, aim for automaticity. Set up regular, frequent meetings and attend them even if you haven’t completed the assigned tasks. Simply showing up is associated with higher productivity (Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown 1995). Especially as you get started, keep the demands low and the process easy so the practice has a chance to feel rewarding and become routine. Skim the article on study and writing groups here to consider group formats.

5. Go Double-Time

In one session of a treatment intervention for academic procrastinators, instructors provide students with a method for overriding distortions of perception. In preparing their schedules to complete certain tasks, students budget 100% more time for each task than they think it will actually take. This suggestion may come as a surprise, but it is an effective tool for more accurately planning out projects (Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown 1995). If you procrastinate, it is possible that your established estimations of time required for tasks fall short. Create wider windows in your calendar and protect them by cutting out as many diversions and extraneous commitments as possible.

Once again, make this time commitment automatic by turning your attention to the work for the allotted period no matter how confused, unmotivated, or distracted you are.

6. Light the Signal Fire

With complex, protracted projects, you’ll encounter many trails and no clear blazes. Few reassurances and even fewer public acknowledgments mark the way.

Establish ways of signaling that you are one step closer to achieving your goal. Signals contribute to “learned industriousness “ by training you to associate effort towards a goal with the sense of reward that comes when you actually meet a goal (Eisenberger 1992). Train your mind to recognize indications of completion by using a marker or incentive and sticking with it. Try a few things and find what works for you. Some suggestions include tearing a page off your task list, writing your accomplishment on a board, posting a note online, or taking a walk around the block. With its consistent and frequent reinforcement of effort, signaling is a simple form of classical conditioning. A sign of completion visible on the horizon becomes an added motivator, especially when your willpower is flagging.

Conclusion: Staying the Course

New habits of mind and behavior will not flourish untended. Indeed, the conscious practice of uprooting patterns and establishing effective approaches may feel like more work. The very effort of retraining yourself may lead to further procrastination. Circling back around to old behaviors is not a sign that you are unsuited for this approach or that you’ve failed at it. Changing your mode of travel requires repetition, adaptation, and finding the sweet spot between a firm grip and a light touch. Remind yourself that if you are moving towards your goals, even the indiscernible and inelegant steps are progress. Your effort is paying off.

Now get to work.


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