Stop procrastinating … now!

Research shows the college tradition of procrastination can have annoying real-life effects.

John Grimley

Around 9 oâÄôclock on a Monday night, sitting at Caribou Coffee while frantically trying to come up with the conclusion of a paper that was assigned three weeks ago, one question keeps coming up: Why?

Why do we do this to ourselves again and again? Procrastination is an ugly word, and it can be an ugly habit. Most college students realize that procrastinating almost always makes things worse but still willfully ignore this fact. Instead of starting an upcoming homework assignment, we check Facebook one more time or get lost in the Twitter-verse for a couple minutes … or an hour.

According to Hara MaranoâÄôs Psychology Today article, “Ending Procrastination,” 70 percent of college students identify themselves as procrastinators.

Unfortunately for us, the college scene is an ideal place to take up this bothersome habit. Students have so many different things to do at all times, letting some things slip through the cracks is almost inevitable. Luckily, itâÄôs never too late to stop procrastinating.

We can all recognize the decisions that lead to procrastination: going to The Library Bar in Dinkytown instead of Walter Library. Seeing a show at First Avenue instead of attending a study session at Coffman Union. Watching a movie instead of braving the frigid weather on a trip to the Recreation Center. Procrastinators put off things they know will need to be done eventually.

Psychologists say there are a myriad of reasons behind why college students âÄî and people in general âÄî become adept procrastinators. One reason is that procrastinators are optimists. “Ah, IâÄôll study for the midterm tomorrow. After all, itâÄôs three weeks away; thatâÄôs plenty of time.” Replace that “three” with a “two” … then a “one” … oh, and change the word “weeks” into “days.”

Another problem is that procrastinators are very good at convincing themselves that something they donâÄôt want to do will not take very long. Whether lifting weights at the Rec. or finishing a chapter at Wilson Library, procrastinators tend to believe that “future them” will be motivated and productive. So it makes a lot of sense to leave that set of calculus problems alone for now and check out whatâÄôs going on in Dinkytown instead.

Chronic procrastinators will also lie to themselves over and over. ItâÄôs easy to say “tomorrow” is the day to finally buckle down and attack that project.

This is a vicious cycle in which tasks continually get shuffled off into a limbo of the “tomorrow” that may or may not ever turn into “today.”

So most procrastinators are lying, unrealistic optimists. Can we change?

One thing about procrastination to take heart in is that itâÄôs a learned habit as opposed to one with which people are born. Like any bad habit, such as smoking, people can unlearn procrastination. But learned habits have their downsides. The more someone procrastinates, the more likely he is to become a repeat offender.

Of course, talking about kicking the procrastination habit is a lot easier than actually doing it. Luckily there are tricks to help.

A relatively painless way someone can stop constantly underestimating time is to double the time one expects each activity will take. This helps the sunny optimist see projects more realistically and will give a nice incentive to start on something a little earlier than he usually would have.

Another way to fool yourself into starting things earlier is to break them into chunks.

Instead of just setting a goal like, “stay in Walter until this paper is finished,” try breaking it into a lot of less-ambitious goals. Divide said paper into smaller, easier tasks. “Come up with a title” or “write the introduction” is a lot easier to start on than beginning something with the mindset that the paper needs to be finished before you can call it a night.

Procrastination is something that everyone must do, to some degree or another. ItâÄôs impossible to start and finish every project as soon as it comes up. But a lot of college students chronically procrastinate on tasks that would take minimal effort and time to finish immediately. ItâÄôs hard to keep track of how many times StumbleUpon has stolen an hour that had been set aside for studying.

There are several reasons to try to cut back on the procrastinating. A large reason is the undue amount of stress that comes when the realization hits: The project will not go away no matter how many times itâÄôs put off. Attempting to finish a major project two days before itâÄôs due will never be an easy feat. Neither is trying to get into beach shape a week before spring break.

Research also shows that each time a person indulges in procrastination, he tends to feel guilty. Although watching TV instead of spending an hour sweating at the Rec. is the easier choice in the short term, youâÄôll get less enjoyment from the TV than normal. The conscience loves to nag, and procrastinating gives it a perfect excuse never to shut up.

Procrastinating can also make students physically ill. A 2002 study linked procrastination to weakened immune systems and a whole lot of sleep loss. It turns out that all-night cram sessions eventually take their toll.

It may seem that procrastination is a harmless tic, like cracking knuckles or biting nails. Unfortunately it affects us a lot more than we usually realize, both mentally and physically.

The good thing is that it is possible to cut back on procrastinating. Finishing things on time makes life easier in the long run.

 

John Grimley welcomes comments at [email protected]