First: Why We Procrastinate
There's no clear-cut answer as to why people put off tasks until the last minute. The true reason varies from person to person, but research has shown that procrastination signifies deeper anxieties. "People tend to think that procrastination is a problem of time management or moral weakness," says Dr. Jane Burka, PhD, co-author of Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. "But we think people procrastinate because of some underlying worries about what it will mean to move forward. The main worries are fear of failure, fear of success, and fear of feeling controlled."
Generally speaking, most people want to be successful in some way, shape, or form. But people often self-sabotage as a way to value themselves by their potential, as opposed to their actual actions and output.
"If you procrastinate and don't do as well as you wanted to, you can always rationalize that you would have done better if you'd had more time," Dr. Burka says. "So the 'failure' is not really a failure of ability, it's a failure you can attribute to procrastination. And you can still live with the belief that if you'd had more time, of course you would have done brilliantly."
"You rely on procrastination to demonstrate your autonomy, your individuality, your indomitability." — Dr. Burka
There is, of course, a more simple explanation as to why we sometimes procrastinate. "Humans seek pleasure and avoid pain," says time-management expert and author Laura Vanderkam. "We also avoid the psychic 'pain' of figuring out how to do things. If we're uncertain how to do a task, it's very tempting to put it off and focus on the things we know how to do (thus making ourselves feel quite productive, if not necessarily effective)."
Sometimes, procrastination indicates something more serious at work. As Dr. Burka says, it can be a symptom of ADHD and depression. "With ADHD, it can be hard to focus, and concentration may bring frustration that people want to avoid. With depression, it can be hard to do anything. It's important to treat these problems directly."
"Trying to make something perfect is an invitation to procrastinate." — Dr. Burka
It can also be an act of intuition. "If you don't want to do something, maybe there's a reason you don't want to do it," Vanderkam says. "Maybe it's not the right direction for your career, or your life. You should probably think about that, and see if maybe there are ways to spend more of your time on things you want to do, and less time on things you don't want to do."
Most Importantly: How to Break the Habit
In more ways than one, procrastination seems like an inevitable part of the academic experience. The idea of a student strung-out on caffeine staying up all night to finish some large-scale project isn't just a stereotype, it's reality on nearly every campus. It's how I got through four years of high school and four years of undergrad, and if I hadn't finally realized that it was actually harming me, I would have lived that way the rest of my life.
In an effort to take some semblance of control over my life, I got our experts to tell me how I (and you!) can finally take accountability and break the cycle.
Tip No. 1: Give Yourself a Fake Deadline
Write down a fake due date on your planner or calendar in order to get work done ahead of time. Sure, it's a made-up deadline, but it allows you to take some control over bigger projects by establishing your own benchmarks.
Tip No. 2: Get Organized, Duh
Whether you start carrying around an agenda or add due dates with notifications to your iCal, plan out multiple time slots leading up to your deadline to sit down and actually work on it. "If possible, get an accountability partner," Vanderkam suggests. "Tell a friend you'll pay her $20 if you don't do the task at the appointed time. Sometimes the pain of losing money can be worse than the pain of doing the task you don't want to do."
Tip No. 3: Give Yourself 15 Minutes
"The best technique I have found to deal with procrastination is to get started by doing something you can accomplish in 15 minutes," says Dr. Burka. "You can stand anything for 15 minutes." In that quarter of an hour, you'll actually get started on your project. And, as any seasoned procrastinator knows, the beginning presents the biggest psychological obstacle.
Tip No. 4: Be Realistic
"Don't fall for perfectionism," says Dr. Burka. "Trying to make something perfect is an invitation to procrastinate." Take your time and your best work will follow.
Good luck, friends.