What is Procrastination?
It means putting off until tomorrow something that would benefit you to do today. It may be an assignment, studying for exams, a phone call, a visit to someone etc. Students say that they would be less stressed out and more productive if they could just stop procrastinating.

What causes procrastination?
Difficulties in being productive may stem from various sources and the causes of procrastination may be different for different people. Here are some of the most common reasons that make people procrastinate:

  1. People often put things off because they don't feel like doing them or because they are not in the 'right' mood. They believe that motivation precedes productive action, whereas in reality it is often action that leads to motivation, which leads to more action. As motivation plays a vital role in determining academic success, you can train yourself to work efficiently instead of waiting until you 'feel like it!'
    One way to improve your motivation is through goal setting. Try the technique SMART: 

    S - Specific. Get started by getting clear and specific goals. Put down a specific time and day that you are planning to do some study.

    M - Measurable. You need to measure progress towards your goal. For example, count pages or tick off items from a 'To Do' list.

    A - Action Related. Specify and identify the necessary steps required to accomplish your goal. If you have to write an essay, the first step might be to choose suitable books. The second step would be to do some preliminary reading on the subject, the third, to decide on a particular topic, and so forth.

    R - Realistic. Make sure that your study goals are realistic and achievable.

    T - Time Based. It is often best to work back from a deadline when planning your study. Incorporate some flexible time in your schedule.
    Other actions that will help to improve your motivation include:
    • Establish a study routine 
    • Finish your study by preparing for the next time.
    • Give yourself credit or rewards for accomplishing study goals.
  2. An unrealistic view of how a productive person really functions is a characteristic of many procrastinators. They believe that successful people always feel confident, easily accomplish their goals without having to endure self-doubt, frustration or failure; and furthermore they are likely to conclude that there is something 'wrong' with them and give up when things get tough. Adopting a 'coping model' of success is the alternative however. This means starting to view achievement as something that can be stressful, accept that life will be frustrating at times and that obstacles and failures are part of things.
  3. Fear of failure is another cause underlying procrastination. If success is overly important to someone, then instead of risking failure he/she may prefer to do nothing at all. People who are afraid of failure usually base their self-esteem on their accomplishments. If you think that failing at your work will mean that you are a failure as a human being, you need to confront this attitude and challenge certain cognitive distortions accompanying the fear of failure.
  4. Being a perfectionist contributes to procrastination. The underlying belief of perfectionists is that they should always try to do things perfectly. They put enormous pressure on themselves and subsequently feel so stressed that they procrastinate and do nothing at all. A healthy concern for quality and excellence differs from compulsive perfectionism. In the former case, one is enthusiastic about the creative process itself, gets a sense of accomplishment by his/her efforts, and does not feel that he/she has to 'earn' self-esteem by impressing people with success. On the other hand, perfectionists are usually motivated by a fear of failure, are never satisfied with their accomplishments and feel that they must always be successful to be loved.
  5. Procrastinators usually put themselves down and discount the value of their efforts. They tend to think about their work in a critical, negative way, telling themselves that what they did 'wasn't good enough'. They make themselves feel unappreciated and unmotivated. It is important to give credit to yourself for what you do and this in turn will make you feel more excited and involved in your work.
  6. People who procrastinate often tell themselves 'I really should get started'. 'Should' statements, however, are usually ineffective as they make one feel guilty and resentful so one avoids the task on hand. Every time you tell yourself 'I should do X', try to replace 'should' with 'could' or with a phrase such as 'It would be desirable for me to do X'.
  7. People sometimes procrastinate when they feel annoyed or upset with people, but avoid expressing these feelings openly and directly. They may deny how they feel by pushing 'negative' feelings out of their mind and say 'I will just forget it'. To become more aware of the cause of your procrastination you can ask yourself if a family member, friend, lecturer feels frustrated because of your procrastination and if so, ask yourself if you feel annoyed or upset with them as this could also cause your procrastination.
  8. Many people procrastinate because they agree to do things they don't really want to do, but find it hard to say no in the first place. Of course, there are times we all do things we don't want in order to help others, but being too nice means that we may compulsively say yes in order to please everybody and meet their expectations. If this is the case for you, you may consider the development of assertiveness skills.
  9. Finally, one of the most common causes of procrastination is genuine lack of desire to do whatever it is that you're putting off. A task or goal that you don't really feel committed to or ready for may result in your putting it off. Admitting this to yourself will help you to re-examine whether a certain task is right for you. You may have good reasons to procrastinate and becoming aware of them may help you to see things from a different perspective.

You can see by now that different components contribute to procrastination. You can thus look at procrastination problems by examining separately each of the components, Affect (emotions and sensations), Behaviour (actions) and cognitions (thoughts and beliefs), by using the ABC method:

Affect as emotion (eg: joy, anger, fear) can by experienced as positive (pleasant), negative (unpleasant) or somewhere in between. Affect as sensation (e.g. feeling tired, relaxed) can be either positive or negative. At times our emotions or sensations can be over-reactions to a situation such as heart palpitations when asked to speak in class.

Behaviour refers to actions that can be observed. As most behaviours are learned, one can modify them through practice.

Cognitions are the thoughts, ideas and beliefs that reflect our view of ourselves, others and the world. They can be positive as in thinking how great it will be when a goal is accomplished, or negative as in dwelling on a part failure. A common error is to confuse affect and cognitions. For example, the statement 'I feel stupid' is more accurately express as 'I think I am stupid'.

While Affect, Behaviour and Cognitions can be examined separately they are interconnected aspects of the whole person, and each component is constantly interacting and influencing another.

How to eliminate procrastination

  • Identify it - Identify one activity you are currently putting off needlessly and want to start doing.
  • Understand it - Using the ABC method ask yourself what feelings/affect (A) are supporting the procrastination. Does the activity cause you anxiety/tension? Are you annoyed at having to do it in the first place? Then ask yourself what thoughts/cognitions (C) are contributing to the procrastination. Do you believe that you work best under pressure and so you will wait until the last minute? Maybe you think that you are going to fail. Finally ask yourself what behaviours (B) are contributing to your procrastination. You may be substituting some other behaviour (competing behaviours) for the one you need to do. The competing behaviour may be a behaviour that is easier to do or you may receive immediate reinforcement for doing it. For example talking to your friend instead of going to the library.
  • Observe the ABC interaction, determine which component is the trigger and in what order the other components follow. For example, you may think you are inadequate and feel anxious about starting an essay and then delay it. In this case the firing order is CAB and C begins the interaction.

By identifying the trigger for procrastination you may begin to change it. If A was the problem, relaxation and other stress management techniques may enable you to sit with the feeling and proceed with the task. If C is the problem, substitute your negative thoughts that are causing the procrastination with positive self talk. Finally, if the difficulty is at B, use rewards to encourage the behaviour that you are avoiding make it worthwhile to complete it. Promise your self that you can have a half hour break when you are finished or that you can watch a television programme etc.

Further suggestions on how to deal with procrastination

  • Make it meaningful: Ask yourself what is important about the job you have been putting off. List all the benefits of completing it, including how you will feel when the task is done.
  • Take it apart: Break big jobs into a series of small ones eg: if you have a long reading assignment, divide it into two or three page sections. Make a list of the sections and cross them off as you finish them.
  • Write an intention statement: On a card, write, for example: 'I intend to complete the first two paragraphs of my essay by 1 pm.' Put the card up in your study area where you can see it.
  • Tell everyone: Tell your flatmates, classmates, family etc. what you intend to do. Make them your support group, they will ask whether you have completed your aim.
  • Reward yourself: This is only if you complete the task. If you don't, withhold the reward.
  • Settle it now: If you notice yourself procrastinating, dive right in. Do it now! Just like getting into the cold sea, it is often less painful to leap in.
  • Befriend your discomfort: Acknowledge your discomfort by speaking it aloud, and stay with it without judging it as good or bad. This acceptance can rob the thoughts of their power over you.
  • Sweeten the task: By changing your environment, sit in a sunny corner, for example.
  • List the payoffs and costs of procrastinating: Weigh the payoffs of procrastinating against the costs.
  • Do it later: Soome tasks are best left till later when you have gathered all the necessary information. This, however, should be incorporated into your schedule and not used as an excuse to procrastinate.
  • Say no: If you realise that you really don't intend to do something, stop telling yourself that you will. Just say NO. Then you are no longer procrastinating and you don't feel guilty about an undone task.

The National University of Ireland, Galway Student Counselling Service wishes to thank the Counselling Service of The University of Limerick for granting permission to reproduce this fact sheet.