The science of procrastination

Scientists have been studying how people study so that you can study better

Know the science. Stop procrastination. Image: Lynn Friedman

Know the science. Stop procrastination. Image: Lynn Friedman

A recent study done by YouGov and published by RateSetter found that adults in the UK spend an average of 218 minutes procrastinating every day. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for an essay due in the next morning, or panicked about the lack of revision you did over Christmas, you’ll know the feeling all too well. Procrastination is a big problem, especially among students.

Some of you will say that you work better under pressure. Well, that’s not always true. A study at Utah State University found that students who did their work earlier got higher grades than those who left it until the last minute. The students had to take an online test that was made available a week before the deadline. On average, the students’ scores increased by 2.7 per cent for each day they accessed the test before the deadline. Over the space of a week, that could make a whole grade’s difference! The benefits of not procrastinating are clear, so how can you stop?

Michael Wohl et al (in a 2010 study) found an important factor in overcoming procrastination: self-forgiveness. Students who had forgiven themselves for procrastinating on their first exams ended up procrastinating less and doing better on their next set of exams, while those who still felt bad about it didn’t improve. So if you didn’t do as well as you wanted in your January exams, there’s still hope for the Summer Term, if you can forgive your past mistakes and move on.

You might not think that a perfectionist would be the sort of person to put off work until the night before, but perfectionism and procrastination often go hand in hand. The fear of your work not being good enough can paralyse you into not doing it at all. Identifying the reasons behind your procrastination can be a big help in overcoming it. If you know you’re a perfectionist, try to accept the fact that the first draft of your essay might not be perfect, and at least if you do it now you’ll have more time to edit it than if you leave it too late.

Sometimes, getting started is the hardest part, but once you’re past that initial hurdle you’ll realise that it’s not so bad. Short bursts of effort can be what you need to start work. Set a timer for just five minutes and make yourself work for the whole time. That’s hardly any time so you can easily stick to it, and once you get going, you might not want to stop when the time is up.

Writing down what you need to do and when you’re going to do it can make you more likely to actually do it. In a 2011 study, employees at a firm were offered free flu vaccinations and they were more likely to turn up if they’d got an email encouraging them to write down the time and date they planned to go, as opposed to one that didn’t ask them to write anything down. The same tactics might work for studying. Write down what time you want to start working, and it’ll help you remember to do it and stick to your plan.

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