Whether you’re writing an assignment or revising for exams, getting started can be hard. Fortunately, there’s lots you can do to turn procrastination into action.
Procrastination – unnecessarily delaying tasks that we need to do – is a complex issue. It isn’t necessarily a sign of laziness or poor time management skills. Neither does it mean that we don’t care about our work. Quite the opposite, in fact. Procrastination often stems from fear of failure, which is why we can end up putting off the very tasks that matter to us most. Sound familiar?
Because the causes of procrastination are many and varied, there’s no single magic solution. But psychology research is providing fascinating new insights that can help us understand ourselves better and identify the strategies that are most likely to spur us into action.
Tackling the causes of procrastination will help you become more productive in your studies and build good habits for your future working life.
So the first step is to pinpoint why you procrastinate. Then you can start exploring different strategies to overcome the issue. Here are eight tried and tested tips to get you started.
1. Forgive yourself
Self-criticism might be our natural response when procrastination strikes, but research suggests that getting angry with ourselves simply adds more negativity to the shame and guilt we already feel. Being kind to ourselves is far more effective in tackling procrastination.
So instead of dwelling on the time you’ve wasted, let it go. Treat yourself with compassion and simply resolve to start where you are.
2. Break it down into chunks
University assignments can seem overwhelming if we think of them as single tasks. The key is to break them down into steps.
If the first step still feels daunting, keep breaking it down until it feels manageable. Try starting with a super-simple two-minute activity like reading the abstract of a journal article. Once you’ve done that, you’ll often feel motivated to do a bit more.
3. Establish milestones
Distant deadlines can create the illusion that we have all the time in the world. Setting more imminent mini-deadlines creates a sense of urgency that’s far more likely to inspire action.
So work backwards from the real deadline and identify some milestones – dates when you're going to complete key stages of your assignment or revision. Then start working towards your first milestone.
4. Clarify your ‘implementation intentions’
Knowing what we need to do is important, but researchers have found that we’re more likely to achieve a goal when we also specify our ‘implementation intentions’: where and when we’ll do what’s needed.
Implementation intentions can be formulated as ‘if–then’ statements. The ‘if’ part is a situational cue and the ‘then’ part is a concrete action that you'll carry out whenever that situation arises. For example:
‘If I’m revising, then I’ll switch off my phone for the duration of the study session.’
‘If I’m on campus and have an hour or more between lectures, then I’ll go to the library and work on my dissertation.’
5. Make it easy for yourself
Don’t rely on willpower – it's more limited than we like to think. Instead, minimise the need for willpower by planning ahead to remove practical obstacles.
For example, if your goal is to go swimming, have your swimming kit ready by the door. Likewise, if you’re trying to start an essay, download the reading material, create your document and lay out everything you need on your desk. Make sure there’s nothing left to do but the actual work.
6. Relate it to your identity
Connecting a task to your identity can be a great way to boost your motivation. When you think of yourself as ‘a guitarist’, you’re more likely to practise the guitar because that’s what being a guitarist means.
So try focusing not on what you have to do but on what you want to be – a psychologist, a linguist, a mathematician, an engineer, etc. Reaffirming your identity in this way might just change your attitude towards that upcoming assignment or exam.
7. Find an ‘accountability buddy’
Do you hate letting other people down? Then use this to your advantage!
An accountability buddy is someone that you check in with regularly and update on your progress. They don’t have to be studying your subject. What matters is that you know someone is watching you!
8. Embrace imperfection
Perfectionism and procrastination can go hand in hand. If perfectionism is an issue for you, give ‘free writing’ a try. This involves setting a timer and getting your ideas down as quickly as you can.
Don’t worry about style, accuracy or structure – you'll edit your writing later. The aim is simply to produce a rough first draft that will get you past that ‘blank page’ feeling.
You'll find more tips in our post on How to manage academic perfectionism.
"The 'ladder method' is my go-to for beating procrastination. When I struggle to start a task while watching TV or being distracted on my phone I use this method. By gradually working my way up, I spend the initial 15 minutes studying while watching my favourite TV show.
Soon enough, I find myself so engrossed in my work that I no longer feel the need for entertainment, and I become productive in my studying. It’s all about making the start!" (2nd Year Politics and International Relations student and Skills Co-Creator Helena)
Find out more
You can explore these and other procrastination-busting strategies via the links below.
Everyone can learn to overcome procrastination, so keep experimenting with different approaches and discover which ones work best for you.
This series of short videos was created as part of a research project in collaboration between Bowdoin College (Dr Tina Chong) and University Paderborn (Prof. Dr Katrin B. Klingsieck).
Prof. Fuschia Sirois and Dr Ian Taylor discuss practical insights from their research in this BBC Radio 4 programme recorded at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2019.