By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP
A few months ago, we published Ten Commandments (and Then Some) for College Success, one of which was Thou Shalt Not Procrastinate. This got us thinking about doing an article on procrastination among college students, and after putting it off for several months, here we are, and we just can’t wait to tell you what we’ve learned.
The “how much” of procrastination among college students
The most oft-cited study in this field was published in 2007 by University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel, who found that 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinate with regard to their studies. A decade earlier, Kathy Green of the University of Denver had found that procrastination was among the primary reasons doctoral students fail to complete their dissertations. Graduate students tend to be more organized and self-disciplined than undergrads, so the implications are obvious.
The “why” of procrastination among college students
Self-doubt is an important contributor to procrastination among college students. Other prominent factors include an inaccurate estimate of the time required for a task, an overly optimistic belief in one’s own motivation, and misjudgment regarding the frame of mind necessary for the project. The Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology concludes that procrastination involves “failures in self-regulation and volition, processes commonly regarded as executive functions…” Low initiative, poor planning and organizing, weak self-monitoring, and inadequate organization of materials are all associated with procrastination.
According to Psychology Today, “Procrastination in large part reflects perennial struggles with self-control as well as the general human inability to accurately predict how we’ll feel tomorrow, or the day after. ‘I don’t feel like it’ takes precedence over goals; however, it then begets a downward spiral of negative emotions that deter future effort.”
Some students also believe that they perform better under pressure. The Steel study gave the lie to this: Procrastination correlates with low test scores and low overall GPA. It also is connected with health problems late in the term, as deadlines loom, according to a study by Dianne M. Tice and Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State. Needless to say, it promotes anxiety.
As we said in Ten Commandments, “Procrastination tends to compromise performance by causing work to be done hastily and sloppily once time is short and the task is no longer avoidable. Perhaps more importantly, it creates an underlying uneasiness and sense of dread that undermine the enjoyment of life and the performance of other tasks. Procrastination is a cancer that metastasizes to the entire scholastic organism.”
Tim Urban holds forth on writing assignments, procrastination, anxiety, self-loathing, the Panic Monster, and the Instant Gratification Monkey:
If anything, procrastination among college students probably has worsened since Steel published his findings in 2007, as the further advances of the digital age have brought new distractions and exacerbated some of the old ones. Psychologist Lisa Dissinger, in a 2018 Psychology Today article titled “Procrastination: The Hidden College Epidemic,” remarks that “academic tasks require sustained attention and effort, and an ability [for students] to not get distracted by their phones and social media.” In 2007, when Piers Steel published his findings. most of our students were using flip phones, and most of today’s social media were in their infancy if they had been invented at all.
It does appear that some people thrive on procrastination, though this might be a matter of differences in terminology. Jin Nam Choi of Seoul National University determined that some people are “active procrastinators” and that “procrastination characterized by these four effects—outcome satisfaction, preference for pressure, intentional decision, and ability to meet deadlines—is beneficial for individual well-being and performance.” However, psychologist Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University warns that “[d]elay and procrastination are not the same things. Let’s not confuse deliberate, thoughtful delay of action with the lack of self-regulatory ability known as procrastination.”
The roots of the problem
Prevention should begin early in life, according to Dissinger:
It is so important to manage…distractions, perhaps by making sure you have your child “park” their phone outside their room until they have finished their assignments or studies. If we do not encourage our kids to practice this in middle school and high school, they will not be able to do it in college and will end up getting easily distracted and procrastinating on important academic tasks…If your student does not develop time-management and planning skills by the end of middle school, it is imperative to get your high-schooler help before they go to college. Finding an executive function coach or study skills tutor would be one way to ensure your student develops effective strategies for planning and organizing academic tasks. Another option is to make sure your student gets connected to the learning support services when they arrive at college.
How to kick the habit
What if you’re already in college when you finally decide to tackle the problem?
In our own words: “The wise selection of a field of study can be helpful in this arena–we are less likely to procrastinate if the task we face is one for which we have some aptitude and in which we take an interest–but in almost any field of endeavor there are times when we must heave a deep groan of the spirit and simply get down to some unwelcome business.”
Here are a few tips to help you do the groaning and getting down a bit more promptly:
Get organized. Whatever tools and materials you need, make sure they’re ready to hand and that you don’t have to look for things or move things around. It’s much easier to get down to work if you don’t have to move piles of detritus out of your chair and off your desk, pull books and papers out of a stack, or fish around for a writing instrument.
Use a planner and make lists. Instead of keeping a mental record of what you have to do and when—which involves repeating the mental process every time you need to call up your responsibilities—write down your tasks and deadlines in a place that’s easy to access at any time.
Break up big tasks into smaller components. This makes everything seem more manageable, provides a meaningful sequence instead of leaving you feeling like you’re responsible for everything at once, and affords you rational intervals at which to take breaks.
Get the hardest things out of the way first, if possible. Everything else seems easier once you deal with the thing you probably dread most.
Give yourself rewards/incentives. You do your job and you pay yourself with some sort of pleasant experience.
Get at the underlying reasons. According to Psychology Today:
There’s more than one flavor of procrastination. Arousal types, or thrill-seekers, wait until the last minute in order to reap a euphoric rush. A second type, avoiders, put off tasks because of fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them. Then there are decisional procrastinators, who are unable to make a decision; not making a decision absolves them of responsibility for the outcome of events.
You have a reason for procrastinating. Find out what it is.
Getting into the college of your choice and finding the wherewithal to pay for it is wonderful. That’s what The Coaching Educator is here to help you do. But that’s not the only reason we’re here. We also try to be expert in all things related to college success, and to pass that knowledge on to our student/clients and our readers. The quest for college success begins with the college search process and continues until you take your diploma and shake hands with the president.
To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.
Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.
Recommended Reading About College Success
Culp, Paul. “Getting to Grips With Test Anxiety,” The Coaching Educator, 28 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/28/getting-to-grips-with-test-anxiety/
Culp, Paul. “More Than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why,” The Coaching Educator, 8 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/08/more-than-half-of-american-college-students-leave-without-a-degree-heres-why/
Culp, Paul “The Myth and Madness of Multitasking,” The Coaching Educator, 18 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/18/the-myth-and-madness-of-multitasking/
Culp, Paul. “Ten Commandments (And Then Some) for College Success,” The Coaching Educator, 19 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/19/ten-commandments-and-then-some-for-college-success/