As much as 75 percent of college students procrastinate, according to Verywell Mind.
Whether it’s for that big paper coming up, or putting off reading the syllabus until halfway through the semester, procrastination can be a big part of being a student.
“I would definitely say I procrastinate a lot,” says Humberto Sanchez, a graphic design major at Salt Lake Community College.
But, when there’s stress elsewhere in his life, Sanchez says he procrastinates more.
“Say I have a big essay coming out, but I’ve also got stuff at work and home, I tend to put the essay stuff off. I’ll destress by drawing or something, then I usually can come back and get that essay done,” adds Sanchez.
When stress piles up, students become more impulsive, and that gives them more of a tendency to procrastinate. According to SLCC psychology professor Justice Morath, impulsivity and genetics play a major role in procrastination.
“There are a lot of variables that lead to procrastination, but a major one is impulsivity, or lack of self-control,” says Morath. “Some of this is actually linked to genetics.”
Stress plays a major role in Sanchez’s procrastination.
“More often than not, the stress of getting a project done pushes me away from it,” says Sanchez. “It ends up feeling like another big responsibility and then you think about the rest of them and you start spiraling.”
Sanchez also says that he needs to step away and forget about it for a bit or he feels like he’ll “just explode.”
That stress, according to Morath, is a key for getting things done.
“If you don’t have enough of what we call facilitating anxiety, then you procrastinate,” says Morath. “If you have too much anxiety, it becomes debilitating and you then procrastinate. You want a sort of happy medium- where you are nervous enough about the outcome to be motivated to complete it, but not so nervous you instead become motivated to avoid the task altogether.”
Sanchez, and many other students, are hampered by the latter part of Morath’s statement.
Often students will let the anxiety of getting a project started cripple them to the point they just never begin. However, some students use that anxiety to push them toward completing projects instead. For others, the weight of the upcoming deadline is too much to bear.
Psychology professor Tom Hanson provides a biology-based approach to why we procrastinate.
“If you explore procrastination from an evolutionary perspective, an outcome has to be desirable and worthwhile enough to justify the amount of calories burned to attain the goal – as well as justify the possibility of failing in that pursuit,” Hanson says.
For example, a large predatory cat takes a big risk when chasing prey because if it fails, then thousands of calories have been wasted, according to Hanson.
“If a certain task – taking a math exam, cleaning out your garage, sprucing up your resume – has no inherent value, then you’ve already set yourself up for procrastination,” says Hanson.
Hanson explains that, even if one consciously believes that a project is important, deeply-ingrained, reward-seeking motivational systems may not have “bought into” this belief.
The less buy-in a student has toward a specific project, the less likely they are to do it.
“Sometimes other stuff is just more important to me,” says Sanchez.
Saniyyah Zahid, a SLCC nursing student, takes a different approach.
“I use the stress of having projects to get them done as fast as possible, so I don’t have to worry about it down the roads,” says Zahid.
Hanson says the practice Zahid uses is very normal.
“Fear serves as an adaptive function that protects us and promotes our survival,” says Hanson.
For Zahid, it is a strong source of motivation that can help facilitate reward-seeking behavior or immobilize us. For example, envisioning oneself failing miserably in a job interview can be motivation to be well prepared, or it can leave one paralyzed with anxiety and unable to actively prepare for the interview.
“It’s interesting to note too that people who procrastinate by opting for immediate, more fun activities, often report that those experiences were not enjoyable, nor worth ignoring the big term paper they have been avoiding,” says Zahid.
Fear and anxiety are a major reason why students procrastinate. At the same time, they are two things, that if used correctly, can be helpful.
Alison Arndt-Wild, a communications professor at SLCC, also says that procrastination affects professors as well.
“It does create more work if students ask for an extension,” says Arndt-Wild. “I try really hard to keep caught up on grading, so students can know where they stand. So, when I have students turning in late work, it makes it harder for me to stay caught up as well.”
So, what are students to do? How can you avoid procrastination?
Zahid’s solution is to get her work done as soon as possible; Morath, however, takes a scientific approach.
“Definitely break major projects down into smaller parts,” says Morath. “Instead of having this looming thought of ‘I have this big project due in four months,’ break it into smaller components and set deadlines for each. That means research done by Day X, rough draft by Day Y and so on. You have to stick with it — just telling yourself this will not be that effective.”
Morath suggests setting up rewards for completing tasks on time. He even mentions punishments for not meeting goals.
“Social accountability can help tremendously. So have your friends, family, classmates help you by holding those rewards and punishments for you,” says Morath.
Another key according to Morath is taking time off.
“Breaks are critically important. It may seem counter-intuitive, but intentionally taking a day off to go snowboarding, or a couple hours to read for pleasure or hike with your dog, and you are going to be more efficient and effective when you are working,” says Morath.
Arndt-Wild offers a similar approach to avoid procrastination: long-term planning.
She urges students to use the course calendar and plan ahead. The worst thing that can happen is to have a bunch of classes pile up all at once. Arndt-Wild tries to minimize that for her students by offering in-class time to get projects done.
“I always give lots of in-class time to try to help students stay caught up,” says Arndt-Wild.
Students at SLCC who struggle with procrastination aren’t the only ones who struggle though, according to Arndt-Wild.
“Wouldn’t it be great if I could follow my own advice?” says Arndt-Wild. “As I said, I try to stay caught up on grading, but it rarely happens. I tend to fall behind on updating classes. I have a big assessment project right now that I am behind on, so I relate.”
With finals just a few weeks away, it’s important to remember to set goals, manage your time, and manage your stress in order to succeed at the end of the semester.