The Counselling Centre

Procrastination

Procrastination is the avoidance of doing a task which needs to be done - postponing until tomorrow what can be done today. It not only affects a person's work/school, but also commonly involves feelings such as guilt, inadequacy, self-disgust, stress and depression. Often people try to disguise their avoidance by being very busy doing things that may be interesting, and even useful, but don't contribute towards the main goal - even doing something we normally hate - rather than writing, for example, just before an essay deadline!

Why do people procrastinate?

  • Poor time management, often associated with a distorted sense of the time available
  • An inability to prioritize
  • Overload of tasks at a specific time
  • Anxiety about the task, so time is spent worrying rather than doing
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Not knowing what is required
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the task(s)
  • Concern about failing or not meeting your own standards
  • Fear of success and its possible consequences
  • Perfectionism, often associated with unrealistic standards
  • Negative feelings - e.g. "I'm stupid", "nothing ever goes right for me"
  • All-or-nothing thinking, where one setback is seen as a total catastrophe
  • Being bored by the task
  • Never having learned how to work or sort out problems while at school or living at home
  • Avoidance of things which are disliked or difficult.

How to overcome procrastination

Overcoming procrastination usually involves both better organizational and time-management skills as well as a clearer understanding of its personal or emotional meaning.

The former skills can be learned and improved with practice. Although there are some useful tips that can help you improve, it is primarily a matter of finding the ways of working that best suit you rather than trying to rigidly follow someone else's model.

Counselling can help you to understand and change the personal or emotional aspects to your procrastination.

Here are some suggestions to help you get started:

  • Accept that there is no magic wand: you will have to do the task!
  • The words that we use to ourselves in thinking or talking about the task matter! They have feelings attached to them which colour our anticipation and experience of the work. Try changing the words "have to" and "can't" to "choose to" and "choose not to" - this won't always be true, but it will probably be more honest most of the time. After all, you don't have to do this work - you probably chose to come and do this course, research or job, and you could choose to leave it!
  • Take account of the sort of person you are, of your values and your expectations. Assess whether these "fit" with the way in which you are trying to tackle the task - do you need a new approach with which you will be more comfortable? Patterns of working vary from one person to another, and so do the desired outcomes.
  • Recognize self-defeating behaviour and its associated thinking. Try to work out why you procrastinate: what do you gain from it? Find out how to overcome such behaviour. You might choose to sort it out yourself, to refer to a self-help book or leaflet, or to consult the appropriate person, such as your tutor, supervisor, director of studies, manager, colleague or a counsellor.
  • Identify goals and make realistic decisions about how to do the tasks, and prioritize.
  • Ensure that you have the right equipment, information, etc. to help in tackling the task. Some time spent in preparation and planning is vital - but not to the extent that no real work gets done. So set a time limit for the planning stage(s). Plan a small section and then work on it.
  • While spending time planning is very useful, here's a word of warning to those who make very detailed plans which go wrong within an hour and are then ripped up in disgust - plans need to be flexible! Don't plan all the hours in the day; leave plenty of unplanned times and spaces - to allow for things taking longer than expected, and for you to have extra time for relaxation when they don't!
  • Break down tasks into manageable bits. Set yourself small goals - to read one chapter; to write 1 page; to work for 45 minutes, take a 15 minute break and then do another 45 minutes work.
  • Boost your motivation. Dwell on your strengths, on tasks you have accomplished and feel good about, in order to remind yourself that you can be successful.
  • Give yourself rewards when you accomplish something.
  • When you are getting stuck, rather than just stopping work, try a different strategy - take a pencil and an old, half-used piece of paper out of the bin, and scribble unplanned and unstructured notes and ideas to yourself for the task in hand. Or start on a different section of the piece (you don't have to work from the beginning to the end), doing the easier parts first.
  • Quite often procrastination is connected to anxieties about the quality of the work you hope (or fear) you will produce! At times like this, it is worth remembering that it's better to produce something rather than nothing!

Materials adapted from Cambridge University Counselling Services

The Counselling Centre offers individual and couples counselling to help with these issues. For more information, call The Counselling Centre at 902-420-5615 or drop by our office on the 4th floor of the Student Centre.