For the second Intro Psych class session of the term, I wear this shirt to class: “Procrastinate today! Future you won’t mind the extra work.” I use that as a launch point for a discussion on why students procrastinate doing course work and strategies for how to avoid procrastination.
In small groups, have students start by sharing the reasons they – or people they know – procrastinate. After discussion dies down, ask each group to name one reason they identified; they cannot repeat a reason previously given by another group. Write the reasons on the board as you go. Talk a bit about the psychology behind each reason to provide a little taste of what students will be learning in the course.
Here are some common reasons my students give for procrastinating.
- “I have plenty of time to do it.” The planning fallacy tells us that projects frequently take longer to do than we think they will.
- “Going out with my friends is more fun than reading my textbook.” There’s no better time to talk about the power of immediate, positive reinforcement.
- “My friends and family don’t understand how much work college is. They pressure me to spend time with them that I really should be using to study.” This is commonly mentioned by first generation college students whose friends and family often have no experience with college. I talk about the concept of negative reinforcement – it’s easier to give in to them just to get them off your back – but the first week of class is not the best time to introduce the term “negative reinforcement.” Or if you’d rather talk about social pressure here, that’s a perfectly fine angle, too.
- “I don’t really understand the assignment, so I play a game on my phone instead.” Emotion-focused coping addresses how we feel. Another round of negative reinforcement – playing the game temporarily takes away the anxiety of not understanding.
- “I keep waiting until I feel like doing it.” If you’re not excited about doing it, you may never “feel like” it.
Return students to their groups to discuss strategies for overcoming procrastination. Again, groups report out.
Here are some common anti-procrastination strategies students identify.
- “I use a calendar to schedule when I’m going to study.” Setting aside time in a calendar can reduce stress. Instead of periodically panicking throughout the week about having to study, you know exactly when you are going to do it. [Bonus tip 1: put away the electronics. Since task-switching eats up a lot of time, don’t let text messages and social media take away your dedicated study time.] [Bonus tip 2: it’s okay to commit to small chunks of time, like 20 minutes. Think Pomodoro technique.]
- “I use going out with friends as a reward for doing the studying I promised myself I was going to do.” Back to positive reinforcement.
- “When I don’t understand an assignment, I email the professor.” Problem-focused coping addresses the problem head-on. It goes a long way toward making progress on an assignment.
A strategy that few groups identify, but I always mention is eliminating barriers.
If you want to reduce a behavior, put up more barriers between you and the behavior. Want to eat less candy, get the candy off your table. You can eat as much candy as you want, but it you have to walk down to the corner store to get it, you’re going to eat less of it.
If you want to increase a behavior, remove the barriers between you and the behavior. If you’re going to get to the gym tomorrow morning, pack your bag the night before. It’s easier to go if all you have to do is grab your bag and walk out the door. In the case of writing a paper, if you’re not ready to commit to doing it just yet, at least do the prep work. Wherever you’re going to write, open your book to the chapter you’re going to reference. Print the articles you’re going to use, and set them out. Open a blank document, and type the topic (if you don’t have the title yet), your name, the course it’s for, and the date. If you have ideas for the sections of the paper, type those out. And now you get to leave. Go for a walk. Watch a TV show. When you come back, it will be easier to get started writing since all you have to do is sit down and start typing.
My students really take the eliminating barriers tip to heart. At the end of the term, it’s not unusual for students to say that they started using it, and it made a real difference in how much they were procrastinating. In a recent class, one student said he had just used this that morning. He needed to practice his instrument, but he didn’t feel like it. He got his instrument out, set up his music stand, pulled out the music he was going to practice and put it on the stand. And then he left to take a walk with friends. When he came back, he just picked up his instrument and practiced.
The biggest benefit of having this discussion about procrastination and how to avoid it may be normalizing the experience. Students get to see that they are not alone in this struggle. If other students who are just like themselves have found successful coping strategies, so can they.