Countless students spend tons of time constructing elaborate schedules, making “to do” lists, and recording assignments in planners.  While all of these practices are a necessary part of meeting semester goals, these good habits don’t always lead to success. Why?  Well, utilizing these time management practices and setting academic goals makes students feel good.

They convince themselves that they’ve accomplished something; at the very least, they’ve organized themselves. Unfortunately, some students who get pretty far with time management practices and goal setting, fail to follow through on the master plan they’ve set up.  Procrastination behaviors and faulty attitudes get in their way.

Consider these three major components to procrastination:

  • Fearing failure
  • Engaging in replacement activities
  • Lying

In many instances, students will procrastinate because of self-doubt. They keep their secret fears hidden. They “catastrophize” by feeding themselves negative thoughts, “Why should I bother to attempt my math homework? I’ve never been good in math and no matter how hard I try, I know I’ll still fail.”

Such negative thoughts lead procrastinators to avoid subjects they fear or dislike and find replacement activities.  Replacement activities may include watching TV or playing video games, spending too much time on social media or hanging out with friends.  These replacement activities are the easiest ones to recognize because they are not necessarily productive.  Other replacement activities, however, are masked by productivity and not as easy to identify.  Cleaning, for example, is a productive replacement activity and leads to self-deception.

Consider this scenario:

Mary goes to her room in between classes. She tells herself that she can’t possibly study in her room until it’s spotless.  As a result, she cleans her room from top to bottom and is proud of what she’s accomplished.  She’s worked so hard on her cleaning she tells herself that she deserves a break or a reward before she gets down to studying.  She flits off to her neighbor’s room for a visit and ignores the work sitting on her desk.  Before she realizes it, two hours have passed. 

Or this scenario:

John has a paper due in English the following day.  He hasn’t even started it.  John loves his math course; so although he’s completed his homework, he continues to do practice problems and is proud of how many he gets right. His roommate is struggling in math and John helps him; his roommate begins to understand the material, which makes John feel good.  John tells himself that it’s ok that he hasn’t started his paper, “Even though it’s 10 PM, I still have plenty of time; the paper isn’t due until tomorrow afternoon.  My professor seems like a nice woman.  Maybe I’ll tell her my computer crashed and I can’t retrieve my document.  She’ll buy that story and it will buy me more time.  At least I’m doing well in math and I even helped my roommate.”

Procrastination can lead from self-deception to outright lies. In both scenarios the students convince themselves that because they are being productive, it’s okay to avoid priorities. This is where the lying component of procrastination emerges.  When students procrastinate, they put themselves in the position of lying to themselves or lying to others.  Ultimately procrastination is a form of lying.  Mary told herself that cleaning was more important than math, thus she should clean first.  John cornered himself into the position of spinning a lie to feed to his professor.

Replacement activities that are masked by productivity are very difficult to recognize.  What can students do to keep their priorities in the forefront of their minds and combat procrastination?

  • Tip #1: Above all, students must learn to tune in to their self-talk and tune out the negative thoughts that keep them from tackling their work. At one time or another, we all have that negative tape recorder playing in our minds.  Successful people tune out negative thoughts and persevere in the face of failure.
  • Tip #2: Fearing failure is natural. At this stage in their academic careers, students already know what subject areas make them anxious or nervous, which naturally leads to avoiding that source of anxiety. A solution to this avoidant behavior is asking for help. Colleges and universities have academic support centers, including tutoring services, to help students overcome procrastination. An appointment with a tutor is the first step to tackling the fear of a particular subject head on!
  • Tip #3: Students must also identify their replacement activities and determine if they are a way of avoiding the work at hand. Are they socializing to avoid writing that paper? Are they watching Netflix to escape the math homework? Instead, students should use their replacement activities as rewards. After a chapter of reading is completed, students can reward themselves with an episode of the latest series they are hooked on.

While implementing time management practices can certainly aid in combatting procrastination, it’s definitely not the cure all. Students need to recognize the secrets and lies that lead to procrastination. Each day, they should ask themselves two key questions.  What do I want to accomplish today?  Is what I am doing right now getting me closer to that goal? Getting honest with themselves and answering these questions truthfully will help them overcome procrastination.

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