- Dr Paul Penn
Having problems with procrastination when studying? Here’s why!
"Procrastination is like a credit card: it's a lot of fun until you get the bill." - Christopher Parker
Rarely have truer words been uttered than those in the above quotation! Rozental and Carlbring (2014) captured the essence of procrastination very concisely by defining it as: “One’s voluntary delay of an intended course of action, despite being worse off as a result of that delay” (p. 1488). The last part of that definition is important, because putting something off is not always maladaptive. Indeed, it can be necessary when we must prioritise one of several tasks or self-regulate our expenditure of effort.
Research in Psychology has indicated that most of us have wrestled with procrastination. Students appear to be particularly vulnerable. It’s not uncommon to find research featuring undergraduates in which 70% or more of the sample self-report having problems with procrastination (e.g. Klassen, Krawchuk & Rajani, 2008). Anecdotally, most of us can recall an “Oh crap!” moment or two upon realising that watching yet another hour of TV will do nothing to offset a few weeks of neglected revision for an exam now due in a matter of days! Annoyingly, no amount of self-reprimanding seems to be effective in preventing us from doing the same thing at some point in the future. So why is procrastination such a slippery foe and do we have any hope of defeating it?
To stand any chance of beating procrastination you first need to understand what makes it more likely to happen. That’s what we’ll briefly overview here. Contrary to what you might think, procrastination is not synonymous with laziness, nor is it a personality trait. The reason it is so pervasive and difficult to conquer is because it has numerous ways of getting its claws into you. Oh, and would you believe it, some of the characteristics of studying gives these claws a generous purchase on you.
First, procrastination feeds on doubt. If you have something to do and aren’t especially confident in your ability to do it well, as is the case when you are learning something new, then you’re more likely to put the task off for fear of confirming your own suspicions. Research consistently shows that perceived self-efficacy is a reliable predictor of procrastination (e.g. van Eerde, 2003). Second, if the task you must do isn’t especially enjoyable then you’re more likely to put it off because, of course, aversive tasks are inherently less appealing than ones that are fun (well, duh!). It’s not so much the characteristics of the task per se that are to blame, though; it’s more about the feelings they evoke (i.e. the interaction between task characteristics and personal preferences etc). Research by Blunt and Pychyl (2000) suggests that we are most likely to avoid tasks that engender feelings of boredom, frustration and resentment (in that order). Now, if you’re one of the majority of individuals who rely on rereading (or other ineffective study strategies) as their ‘go to’ approach to learning, guess what feelings you’re most likely to encounter and how you will respond to them? Yep, it ain’t rocket science, folks! Third, procrastination can call on distractions to make you bend to its will and it has no shortage of help in this regard thanks to the internet and mobile technology. Sorry folks, I’m sure you’ve already figured out this intuitively (and then ignored it) but alternating between Facebook, Instagram, e-mail, twitter and ordering the latest impulse buy from Amazon really isn’t helping you learn. The jury isn’t out on this one: multimedia multitasking is not good for studying (May and Elder, 2018) That’s a problem when you’re a student, because the very thing you’re using to do your studying is also a gateway to a world of on-line bargains, selfies in need of an Instagram filter and cat videos.
As if the above three vulnerabilities didn’t make you procrastination prone enough, I’ve saved the best one for last: you have an inbuilt tendency to favour goals that offer small rewards but can be achieved in the near future over those that offer much bigger rewards that can only be realised further down the road. The technical term for this tendency is ‘Hyperbolic discounting’. It was demonstrated in undergraduates by Schouwenburg and Groenwoud (2001). They took measures of self-reported motivation to study and resistance to temptation associated with five common study distractions (e.g. an unexpected invitation to go out with friends in the evening). They also monitored the hours the students spent studying over a 12-week (84 days) build up to a course examination. Sure enough, motivation to study, resistance to distractors and studying hours all increased with proximity to the exam. Here’s the alarming thing: they didn’t increase steeply until the last 14 days of the total study period of 84 days. Furthermore, the steepest rises in motivation, resistance to distraction and hours of study occurred just a few days before the exam. The revision scenario typifies one of the key things about studying: there is usually a fairly long delay between the effort you put into it and its ultimate returns on your investment. In contrast, that latest episode of your favourite TV programme will give you a smaller reward, but you'll get it then and there. No contest.
In the next blog, I’ll tell you about one effective way to fend off procrastination. For now, I’ll just point out that improving your approach to studying can help you defeat procrastination by: increasing your self-efficacy; making learning more enjoyable; turning sources of distractions into assets and making the rewards for your efforts more tangible and proximal. You can learn how to defeat procrastination in chapter two of my book: ‘The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree’. Find out more about this book and order a copy today using the following link.
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Blunt, A. K., & Pychyl, T. A. (2000). Task aversiveness and procrastination: A multi-dimensional approach to task aversiveness across stages of personal projects. Personality and Individual Differences, 28(1), 153-167.
Klassen, R. M., Krawchuk, L. L., & Rajani, S. (2008). Academic procrastination of undergraduates: Low self-efficacy to self-regulate predicts higher levels of procrastination. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33(4), 915-931.
May, K. E., & Elder, A. D. (2018). Efficient, helpful, or distracting? A literature review of media multitasking in relation to academic performance. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(1), 13.
Rozental, A., & Carlbring, P. (2014). Understanding and treating procrastination: a review of a common self-regulatory failure. Psychology, 5(13), 1488.
Schouwenburg, H. C., & Groenewoud, J. (2001). Study motivation under social temptation; effects of trait procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 30(2), 229- 240.
Van Eerde, W. (2003). A meta-analytically derived nomological network of procrastination. Personality and individual differences, 35(6), 1401-1418.