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Why do we procrastinate when it’s time to work and study?

Are you the kind of person who will guiltily binge-watch an entire TV series when you know you’ve got work to do? Sounds like you might be a procrastinator. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Procrastination is a common issue. Professor David Mellor, Associate Dean in Deakin University’s Faculty of Health, says procrastination has been ‘associated with elevated levels of stress, guilt and severe loss of personal productivity, as well social disapproval for not meeting responsibilities or commitments’. Procrastination also accounts for lower levels of academic success, he says.

When preparing to take on a remote arrangement like working from home or studying online, it’s common to worry about whether you’ll have the self-motivation to cope – especially if you’re a self-identified procrastinator. If you took the quiz about what type of online student you’d be and got ‘procrastinator’, you probably relate to this. The good news is, there are ways to tackle your vices and avoid letting procrastination get the better of you.

The procrastination personality

Procrastination may depend on the kind of person you are. If you’re a perfectionist, it’s likely you’re a procrastinator, putting things off for fear of an imperfect result. Or you might not be the most conscientiousness person, and your goals are out of control because you lack self-discipline.

According to Prof. Mellor, ‘research indicates that a positive relationship exists between an individual’s tendency to procrastinate and specific traits such as identity style, perfectionism and self-consciousness’.

Once you know you have a procrastinator personality, you’ll want to get to a place where you can be self-conscious, self-aware and more in control of your goals. ‘Setting up a work and break schedule and committing to adhere to it may be helpful, or creating a set of rewards for task completion might reinforce the resistance to procrastinate,’ Prof. Mellor advises.

The procrastination situation

Surprisingly, it might actually be the situation you’re in, not your personality, which leads you to procrastinate. If you’re studying, it might just not be a high priority for you if you’re also juggling work and family commitments. It might even be that you simply avoid the task to delay dealing with it at all.

Prof. Mellor suggests that ‘procrastination is fostered by context-specific factors that promote negative emotions such as fear of failure, evaluation and test anxiety, and feelings of incompetence or task aversiveness’.

Your situation could mean you want to escape these emotions, so you put the task off in order to avoid it. And if you’re under the illusion that you perform better under stress, Prof. Mellor says that ‘psychologists believe that, while stress can be a positive motivator, there is a point at which stress has a negative impact too’.

'Research indicates that a positive relationship exists between an individual’s tendency to procrastinate and specific traits such as identity style, perfectionism and self-consciousness.'

Prof. David Mellor,
Deakin University

Beating the procrastination bug

Jessica Bell, who studied a Bachelor of Psychological Science at Deakin Univeresity, claims to be the biggest procrastinator of all: ‘I tend to put things off till the last minute and then do it all under the pressure of a stress-induced panic. To minimise this issue, I started setting myself the task of doing a small amount of an assignment each day; even though it didn’t seem like I was doing much, I would have a fair bit of progress. I would also remind myself of why I started the course and what my overall goal was.’

Another online graduate, Deb Lee-Talbot, studied a Bachelor of Arts online and said ‘making short-term and long-term goals help’. She reminded herself that ‘the work is going to remain if I procrastinate so I may as well get a move on.’ Other suggested ways to beat the procrastination bug include:

  • blocking out chunks of study time
  • giving yourself small rewards on task completion
  • making a study plan, and
  • regulating your emotions through mindfulness and meditation.

Remember, if you leave something to the last minute, you’ll have less time to spend on it! ‘This means that the finished work may be rushed and of lower quality than if it was completed in good time and can be reviewed and reworked as necessary,’ Prof. Mellor says.

So if you find yourself tempted to binge-watch again, thinking ‘everything usually works out okay in the end,’ consider Lee-Talbot’s advice: ‘Make a study plan and be realistic! Small goals will help the most to stop procrastination – and don’t forget to reward yourself for a job well done’.

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Professor David Mellor
Professor David Mellor

Associate Dean, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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