How to Stop Procrastination At University – Our Top Tips

woman resting her head on a pile of books in the library

Are you always putting things off? Do you sit down at your laptop, fully intending to start that essay, only to write the title before immediately losing an hour on TikTok? Do you suddenly get the urge to clean the fridge just as that assignment deadline is looming?

Congratulations, if your room is never as tidy as when you have something really important to do, then you are a fully-fledged procrastinator! A common misconception is that people who procrastinate are just lazy, but this isn’t the case, it’s often a sign of stress, and most people do it.

You’re also in excellent company, Leonardo da Vinci was a famous procrastinator; it took him 16 years to complete the Mona Lisa, and most of his famous pieces remain unfinished. Handmaid’s Tale author, Margaret Atwood, admits that she spends a few hours procrastinating each morning, before finally settling down to writing at around 3pm in the afternoon.

So, we thought we’d take a proper look at procrastination; finding out what causes it and how we can beat it. But first we’re going to look at what it actually is, so pause that cat video and let’s see what we can find.

What Is Procrastination?

There’s a quote about procrastination that really sums it up: “Procrastination is when we can muster up the courage to tackle absolutely anything, so long as it isn’t the work that we should be doing.”

In short, it’s when we make ourselves busy doing other tasks, just not the one task we should be doing.

But it’s not always easy to recognise that’s what we’re doing. We re-package it, telling ourselves things like: ‘I work better nearer the deadline’, ‘I’ve got loads of time, or ‘I deserve a break’. Procrastination isn’t laziness, as most of the time when you’re procrastinating, you’re actually doing lots of things; just not the right things.

A persons hands holding a spray bottle and cloth cleaning the fridge

What Causes Procrastination?

There are often very good reasons why we procrastinate, it’s our brain’s way of helping us cope with things we find overwhelming or stressful, and it’s really common, particularly in students; stats show that it affects 85 – 90% of university students, with 50% of them seeing it as a problem.

It can often be broken down into different areas:

  • You’re not sure what your goals are – if you’re not sure what you want to achieve it can be hard to understand why you’re doing something, which in turn makes it hard to feel motivated.
  • You’re scared of failing – nobody likes to fail, and if you don’t start the thing you’re worried about, then you can’t fail at it.
  • You’re feeling overwhelmed – if you have a lot of uni work to do, and it’s all due in around the same time, it can be hard to know where to start.
  • You’re feeling anxious – there could be a lot hanging on this particular assignment, or you might just be feeling anxious in general, or burnt out, or just plain exhausted, which makes it hard to focus.
  • You’re bored – you might not enjoy the topic you have to write about for an assignment.
  • You’re distracted – you could have too much going on around you, both physically and mentally.
  • It’s about control – sometimes, when people feel that things are out of their control, they use procrastination to take back some of that control in other areas of their lives.
  • You like the thrill of working to a deadline – some people get a rush of adrenaline when they leave things to the last minute
Man or boy at his desk, leaning his head on a pile of books in front of his laptop with a note on a notepad saying "help"

When Procrastination Becomes a Problem

Everyone procrastinates at some point, but it can sometimes cause issues, for example, it could affect how you learn to manage your time, and this is a valuable skill that you’ll need in your working life. It could also affect your academic performance; if you keep putting off starting your revision, then you won’t be as prepared and may end up with a worse grade.

If you’re continuously feeling like you’re behind, or rushed, then there could be an impact on your mental health, particularly if you’re not getting the grades you want/need, which can then lead to more procrastination. This can limit your self-belief, making you doubt yourself more, which can be frustrating and confusing.

If you do find yourself feeling overwhelmed, take a look at some apps that can help look after your mental health, there’s also some great advice out there from charities such as Save the Student, Student Space and Student Minds about managing stress.

Of course, if you think there could be an underlying physical/mental reason, or you feel it’s having too big an impact on your studies, then it might be an idea to go and see a healthcare professional.

But here are some small changes that can help break the cycle.

A tomato shaped timer next to a keyboard

How To Beat Procrastination – Our Top Tips

  • Be honest with yourself – the first step is to admit it and recognise that you’re avoiding something; if you don’t acknowledge it, you can’t address it.
  • Get Organised – use a scheduling app on your phone to keep track of assignments, or use a good old-fashioned calendar, it’ll give you a clear idea of what needs to be done and when. Sort your books etc out ready to start working the next day and break tasks down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Remember, lists and coloured pens are your friends! We have some tips for writing a dissertation, that can help make it feel more manageable.
  • Set yourself reasonable goals – while you can’t determine the deadlines for assignments etc, you can set yourself smaller, intermediate deadlines which will give you a boost every time you hit one.
  • Take breaks – try to make sure you take time away from your work area, whether that’s a desk in your uni room, or a laptop on the sofa, maybe even get some fresh air. Some people use breaks to get some exercise in and go for a walk or a run. You could easily spend half an hour scrolling through social media, why not use it for something that will benefit you instead, it’s often easier to focus when you’ve had some fresh air and exercise.
  • Remove distractions – put your phone on silent, switch off notifications and ‘let’ yourself look every half an hour. Get rid of all the clutter around your desk/work area.
  • Reward yourself – you could give yourself two pages of a textbook to study before you watch another episode of your favourite Netflix show. Buy yourself a nice bar of chocolate, facetime a friend, or promise yourself that t-shirt you’ve had your eye on, anything to associate getting work done with positive things.
  • Know yourself – identify when you’re most productive. Are you a morning person who likes to get going first thing? Or do you work better mid-afternoon? Maybe you’re someone who doesn’t get going until later in the evening.
  • Have a change of scene – if you can’t stay focused where you usually work, try somewhere else, maybe the library if you prefer to work in silence, or a coffee shop if you’d rather have background noise. You could even work with a friend. While it’s great to be able to work in your room, it sometimes helps to have clearly defined ‘work’ and ‘relaxation’ areas.
  • Work with someone else – do you have a friend who also struggles to focus? You could work together and have set times to stop and have a chat, you could even put together a study group.
  • Visualisation – visualise yourself finishing your assignment, or getting a good grade, it really can help.
  • Meditate – this is a really good way to clear your mind so you can focus on the task in hand, and there are some great meditation apps out there.
  • Try the Pomodoro Technique – we don’t mean nip down to your local Italian restaurant; The Pomodoro Technique is a way of managing your time by breaking your work time into intervals, usually around 25 minutes, separated by short breaks. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, it’s named after the tomato-shaped timer he used when studying.
  • Be nice to yourself – This is the most important thing to remember. Understand that this is just how your brain works and recognise it as a sign that you maybe need to evaluate how you’re working and work with it; accept that you don’t work well first thing in the morning, so move your studying times around, and if you do find that you’ve just spent an hour reading your horoscopes, forgive yourself and move on.
Person reading a book with an iced coffee in a cafe

Most people procrastinate at some point and it’s okay to put things off from time to time; the key is to recognise it for what it is and not be too hard on yourself. As we’ve seen, there’s no single solution to procrastination, but there are a few things you can try. Procrastination often becomes a habit, but once you start feeling the satisfaction of finishing something on time then you can start to break that habit, and this can be a useful tool all through your working life.

If you’re looking at something sensible while you’re taking a break (like reading this article), then it can’t technically be called procrastination, so why not have a look at student insurance. There are many benefits to having student insurance, but it’s mainly for the peace of mind you get from knowing insurance can go some way towards replacing your items if the worst were to happen.

In the meantime, channel your inner da Vinci, put that internet quiz down, and get your masterpiece finished, the fridge can wait.

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