Procrastination or putting things off – these are terms that you know too well? The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) presents the most frequent causes of procrastination and gives advice on strategies to help you get the ‘I’ll do that tomorrow’ problem under control.
Most of us have experienced this at least once: We know that we should study or complete a task and we are constantly putting it off. Sometimes, the last-minute energy pushes us to meet a deadline just in time with a show of strength, though usually with a worse result than would have been possible. In other cases, we do not submit the seminar paper or we do not take the exam. Often, we are then at odds with ourselves, we blame ourselves and we resolve, once again, to do everything completely differently the next time and to start early enough.
If you have been grappling with procrastination and self-management for some time already and you have already tried many tips without really succeeding, it is worthwhile to take a close look at the possible causes of procrastination. Actually, there are different causes of procrastination. Depending on what is behind it, you need different strategies to make your work a success.
The most frequent causes of procrastination and what to do about them:
- Bad time management: Most of the common tips on fighting procrastination are related to the topic of time management. Here, you can find many tips and strategies for managing your working time efficiently.
- Lack of clarity: In many cases, we do not even start because we do not have an overview. It is hard to decide on an item to start with, especially if we have to work on many tasks. Here, it helps to bear in mind all the things to do in detail. If everything is ordered clearly in front of you, it is easier to pick one thing and start with it. You can find tips for prioritising and structuring work here.
Especially here, you can fall into a typical procrastination trap: racking your brains over the lists and plans forever but never getting started with the actual work. If this is the case, the real cause of procrastination often lies in the fear of making mistakes and of consequences. These fears result from different experiences:
We are often setting ourselves very high standards for important projects. We want to perform particularly well. This is exactly the reason for a mental block. To be able to continue work, you have to silence your inner perfectionist voice. Here are three tips for making this work:
- Write ‘shitty 1st drafts’: You could even write first drafts by hand because this ‘raw’ version can contain mistakes, it does not have to be in line with the rules of orthography and grammar and it can be written in dialect or spoken language. Nevertheless, you can obtain feedback on the content of this first text draft from your fellow students.
- Study in a question-led way: Try to answer questions that you have not studied yet. Then, look for the answer instead of learning all details by heart at first.
- Set yourself 3 goals: First, define 1. the best version, 2. good performance and 3. the absolute minimum. Then, start with those parts that are necessary for the absolute minimum.
Fear of negative consequences
The worse our fears, the harder it gets to work on a project. In this case, you need to find courage: Face your demons. Here are 3 tips in this regard:
- Stock up your mental security: Deliberately remind yourself of a previous successful experience for 10 minutes or imagine how it will feel when you have completed the task well or passed the exam. This boosts your courage and provides security.
- Think in a solution-oriented way: Besides writing to-do lists, write have-done lists as well. This shows your progress, no matter how small it is. Combining it with a reward will also increase your motivation.
Powerlessness: it is really too much
If everything is important and urgent, you simply do not have enough time and energy to cope with everything. Additionally, you might feel helpless and controlled by outside factors. Here, procrastination is a protective mechanism that saves us from sheer exhaustion. If you suddenly have the feeling that you are putting off more and more important and urgent things, this is a good alarm signal to take crucial steps to prevent a burn-out:
- From “must and should” to “want and make”. Try to prioritise your tasks differently: Do no longer ask yourself if something is important and urgent for others but, instead, how important and promising it is for you personally. This means: making your own decisions instead of being commanded by others.
- Train your willpower. Begin with the smallest and easiest items that guarantee immediate success. This way, you can be happy about every little completed task. This is the source of motivation to start with an unpleasant task afterwards.
- Practise saying “no”. The following interventions might seem paradoxical, but are usually successful: Delete 10 of the things from your to-do list, which you certainly will not tackle this week. You can also write a list of ‘things that I will postpone today’ containing tasks that you deliberately postpone to a later date.
Fighting procrastination with peer pressure: Another strategy to combat procrastination when writing an academic thesis is the CTL writing marathon (website in German). During this marathon, you produce and revise as much text as possible together with fellow students in a week. Good luck!