Dave Dillon and Linnea Spitzer

“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.”

– Michael Jordan

There is a difference between a goal and a wish. A goal is something that requires action to complete. A wish is something we hope will happen without doing anything to achieve it. Students often confuse goals with wishes due to the expected probability of the outcome. For example, a student might say that owning a Ferrari or becoming a movie star were wishes, not goals, because the chance of them happening is slim. We could debate about realistic goals for a long time, but for the purpose of this lesson, the probability of a goal is irrelevant. Think of it like this: the chances of winning the lottery may in fact be slim, but we have no chance to win the lottery if we do not purchase a ticket. Purchasing a ticket requires action, and that distinguishes a difference between a goal and a wish.

When we apply this to education, there are many areas that require action in order to be successful. If I wish for good grades, but spend my time at parties instead of studying, I may not get my wish. But if my goal is to attain good grades, and I take action to achieve them by studying, reviewing, being prepared, etc., then I am much more likely to accomplish my goal.

One of the challenges many students face is being over committed. Some are working full-time, going to school full-time, and have other responsibilities as well. Students may additionally be taking care of children, siblings, parents or have other commitments. It can be difficult to take action to complete goals when there are so many areas competing for our time. And sometimes we cannot “do it all.” Sometimes we need to prioritize, let something go, adjust and reevaluate what the most important things are to us. Building a weekly schedule that includes school, work, and self-care can be a useful  strategy to analyze if time-related challenges are due to over commitment, procrastination or other reasons.

Many students struggle because college does not have as much structure as what they may have been used to in high school. Why should I start a homework assignment now when I don’t have anything I have to do for the next three days? This mindset usually leads to the student waiting until the last minute to start the assignment and as a result, the quality of work is not as high as it could otherwise have been.

Procrastination

“Do or do not – there is no try.”

– Yoda

Procrastination is the act of putting something off. It’s doing something that’s a low priority instead of doing something that is a high priority. We all procrastinate sometimes. But when we procrastinate on an assignment or studying for an exam until there is little or no time left, our grades suffer and it can be stressful. Learning about why we procrastinate can help us overcome.

Reasons We Procrastinate

There are many reasons for procrastination of schoolwork or other things. Reasons may range from having commitments of greater urgency and importance to task averseness, perfectionism, fear of success, and fear of failure.

  • Task averseness. “I don’t feel like it. I would rather play a video game, watch TV, hang out with friends, sleep, etc. than start my assignment.” (The problem is – you might never feel like starting it.)
  • Perfectionism. “I want to do it perfectly and there is not enough time to do it perfectly so I am not going to do it at all.”
  • Fear of success. “If I study my tail off and I earn an A on an exam, people will start to expect that I will get A’s all of the time.”
  • Fear of failure. “I can’t do the assignment well, no matter how much time or effort I put into it.”

These reasons for procrastination do not come out of nowhere. Having a diagnosed or undiagnosed disability can make students feel as though the task is too hard, or that even with a lot of work, it still won’t meet their professor’s expectations. Also, completing tasks in English if you don’t feel confident in your grammar or phrasing might make writing an essay or preparing a presentation seem too hard to manage. Finally, in predominantly white institutions, students of color are often made to feel like their ideas don’t fit or aren’t welcome. It can be hard to motivate if you feel like your professors won’t understand or care about your experiences or your way of expressing yourself.

  • These reasons often keep some students from completing assignments and studying for exams. Do you procrastinate? Why

Whatever the reason may be, procrastination is not a good idea. It often leads to stress. It can be stressful in trying to complete something if we have left it to the last minute. It can be stressful to know that we didn’t submit work that was our best. And stress can take a toll on the health of our bodies.

Despite these negative effects, almost everyone procrastinates! In fact, there are many examples of how American society understands and makes space for  procrastination. FedEx and Amazon are built on the fact that people need something immediately and in many cases, they have procrastinated past when regular mail would have gotten it there on time. Post offices stay open later on Tax Day because they know people procrastinated getting their taxes done. Stores offer sales days before Christmas because they know people have procrastinated their Christmas shopping. During finals week, many university libraries are open 24/7, to provide space for students doing last minute studying for their exams, and writing centers offer expanded drop-in services for students looking for last-minute help on their final essays

Tim Urban’s Ted Talk shines a light on procrastination.  He argues that we are all procrastinators to some extent. Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

Video: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator, Tim Urban TED Talk

So how do we avoid procrastination?

You might have the best success avoiding procrastination by trying to understand what is making you procrastinate in that moment. Does the task feel too hard or too big? Or, is it an assignment or a topic you’re not interested in, that you don’t relate to? Have you had previous negative experiences with a similar assignment, class, or professor? Do you have too much going on outside of school that is distracting you mentally or emotionally? All these reasons might result in procrastination. Ultimately, you will have to pick and choose the strategies that will work best for you and your unique situation. Here are a few tools to use:

  1. Get Started. It is the hardest part to do and will have the biggest effect on defeating procrastination. The way you start can be simple: skim the chapter you have to read, think of a title for your paper or schedule an hour for when you will study. Tell yourself, “I will spend 15 minutes working on this project right now, before I do anything else. The rest of it will be easier once you get started.
  2. Break up the assignment into smaller parts. Choose one little thing to work on at a time. It can be as small as reading a paragraph, writing two sentences, or doing one math problem. Take a short break to reward yourself after each accomplishment, and then set a new goal.
  3. Break your time into smaller parts. One method, called the Pomodoro method, suggests breaking the time you spend focusing on your tasks into small, manageable chunks. For example, 25 minutes uninterrupted work time, 5 minute break. You repeat this pattern four times and then take a longer break (and reward yourself!). If I’m having a hard time starting something, I always tell myself, “I can do anything for just 25 minutes!” Before I realize it, the 25 minutes have gone by and I’ve made some progress on the task.
    Here’s a video illustrating how the Pomodoro method can help with many of the causes of procrastination:
  4. Make a schedule. Figure out what works best for you. Take some time to make a plan, list, or outline that allows you to see what you will do and when to complete your assignment or goal. It might be setting aside time early in the morning or waiting to watch a movie until after you’ve finished an assignment. Set your priorities and stick to them.
  5. Make appointments. Make an appointment with your professor, the TA, learning center, or writing center before the project is due. Have a goal for how much you want to finish by this time. Having an external deadline can help with accountability and can get you help before the last minute.
  6. Evaluate your support network. Do you have the support you need? If studying seems way too hard for you, it is possible you have an undiagnosed disability. Visiting the Disability Resource Center at your college can get you accommodations in your classes or special kinds of support that might help you with reading, writing, note-taking, or studying. Support can also be friends. Look around you, and ask yourself: Who is your study group? Do you hold each other accountable? How do you motivate each other to complete tasks on time? If you don’t have a study group, are there people in your classes who you might be able to connect with?
  7. Recall SMART Goals. Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Setting SMART goals can help prevent procrastination and help you keep yourself accountable.

Estimating Task Time

One of the biggest challenges I see college students have is accurately estimating how much time it will take to complete a task. We might think we’re going to be able to read an assigned chapter in an hour. But what if it takes three hours to read and understand the chapter? Having the skill to know how long a homework assignment will take is something that can be developed. But until we can anticipate it accurately, it is best to leave some time in our schedule in case it takes longer than we had anticipated.

We have a limited amount of time. Most of us cannot complete everything we wish to complete—either in a day or in a lifetime. We hear people say, “I wish there was more time” or “If there was more time, I would have done this.” We have enough time to do many of the things we wish to do. People run into difficulty when they spend time on things that are not the most important things for them.

When you are planning out your schedule for the day or the week, take a minute to ask yourself:

  • What am I doing that doesn’t need to be done?
  • What can I do more efficiently?
  • What am I procrastinating? Can I do one thing to move that task forward?

Have you ever felt compelled to take a little bit of everything at a buffet or a family gathering, then all of a sudden felt fuller than you expected? In situations like this many people claim, “my eyes were bigger than my stomach.” This is also true with planning and goal setting. It may be that your plan is bigger than the day. Experiment with what you want to accomplish and what is realistic. The better you can accurately predict what you can and will accomplish and how long it will take, the better you can plan, and the more successful you will be.

Licenses and Attributions:

Content previously copyrighted, published in Blueprint for Success in College: Indispensable Study Skills and Time Management Strategies (by Dave Dillon), now licensed as CC BY Attribution.

Urban, Tim. “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator.” TEDTalks, February 2016. Located at: https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator
License: CC-BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.

How to ADHD. “How to Get Stuff Done When You Have ADHD.”  Uploaded by How to ADHD, 23 Mar. 2016. Located at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLkOZhROvA4. Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Adaptions: Reformatted.  Minor additions and deletions for accuracy and cultural relevancy.  Deleted Laura Vikram video, added How to ADHD video.

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Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon and Linnea Spitzer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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