I’ll study for the exams tomorrow : procrastination at school

So it’s December. And after three months of class, we’re just starting to overhear that question we all love : « Have you started studying yet? ». Which is why, this month, we’ll be looking at the phenomenon of procrastination.

So what is procrastination? Simply put, it’s putting off the tasks that we are supposed to do, even when it’s counterproductive.

Most of us know that feeling, with work, internships, exams to study for, papers and presentations to turn in… And this is a particularly important problem for students. Past surveys show that many students (up to 70% or 95%, depending on the survey) procrastinate. A significant number of those do so regularly. Some researchers have tried to study the positive aspects of procrastination, but their ideas are often challenged, notably by the way procrastination tends to be negatively correlated with the grades you get, as well as with measures of stress and well being at school. There are surveys that show that students who procrastinate more tend to be less stressed in the short term, and report a better quality of life, but that the opposite becomes true in the long term. And this is enough to negate any previous advantages.

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« Piled Higher and Deeper » by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com

If it’s so counter productive, why do we procrastinate?

A number of factors are involved. Some of the most basic ones might seem obvious. For example, the more unpleasant the task is, the more likely we will procrastinate. Similarly,the more effort it requires, the more we will put it off. Avoiding unpleasant things is pretty universal. But after all, we do have to start working eventually.

So why do some people procrastinate more than others?

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« Piled Higher and Deeper » by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com

There are now some models of procrastination that are being proposed. For example, that procrastination is a (short term) strategy for dealing with stress. That is, when faced with work that seems hard, or overwhelming, we might respond with avoidance in order to regulate our emotions.

This ties to a theory that links procrastination and impulsiveness. According to this model, procrastination is a problem with self-control. And a study by Rabin et al. has found correlations between our executive functions, « initiation, plan/organize, inhibit, self–monitor, working memory, task monitor, and organization of materials », and procrastination.

But the original model adds an interaction with anxiety: people who don’t procrastinate start working when they start feeling anxiety, but people who do, ‘freeze’ when faced with anxiety.

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Figure 1 from Bui, N. H. (2007). Effect of evaluation threat on procrastination behavior,  The Journal of social psychology

Finally, another study has found an interaction between procrastination and evaluation threat. They found that, when given 15 days to write an essay that they would have to read to an audience, non-procrastinators finished their work sooner (11.1 days) than procrastinators (15.8 days). This in itself isn’t very surprising. The interesting this is that this was only true when the participants knew their work would be judged. When faced with low evaluation threat, procrastinators actually turned their papers in earlier than anyone else (9.2 days, vs 15.2 days for the non-procrastinators), and when there would be no evaluation at all, the time was similar in both groups (11.6 days, vs 12.3 days for the non-procrastinators). These results could be linked to the previous findings about anxiety, and perhaps to the theory of intrinsic/extrinsic motivation. Maybe one group relies more on external cues and motivations than the other? How else could we explain the way procrastinators in the low evaluation threat group were the fastest to finish, compared to all the other conditions?

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« Piled Higher and Deeper » by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com

With all that in mind, there are some ways we can avoid procrastination. With exams coming up, they might be helpful!

  • One long term strategy is to work a little bit every day. This will help advance your work, but it is helpful in other ways too. Even if you’re just starting with the easier part. Because even if you just spend five minutes reading or working on a project, doing it every day will help you create a habit. So try making yourself do a work related task everyday – even if it’s tiny! For many, getting started is the hardest part- making that as easy as possible can always help.
  • As we have seen before, procrastination can be a response to stress brought on by work that seems overwhelming. Sometimes, when we think about something we have to do, it seems very abstract. And making concrete goals, or visualizing the work as a set of concrete actions, can help. One way to do this is to break down your goals. Instead of planning to write the whole paper, divide the work up in sections : research and find sources, take notes, make a plan, write the first draft, review it, write the introduction and the conclusion, make the bibliography…
  • Write first and edit later. It’s so easy to become frozen in front of a blank page, not knowing what to write, thinking that what we’re writing sounds silly. So try writing as though you were making notes for a friend. Or telling you parents about what you learned. Forget about evaluation threat- this is only the first draft! Once you get everything you need to say onto the paper, then you can edit, re-write and re-phrase.
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« Piled Higher and Deeper » by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com
  • Some people work better at school, where there are few distractions. Or in the library, where it’s quiet and everyone is being studious. Or somewhere alone, without anyone to disturb them. Or with friends, who hold them accountable. Some avoid places with internet access, leave their cell phones at home, or download programs that block internet use on their computer. Some only work with a clear desk with nothing to distract them. The important thing is that we all have limited ressources in self-control. But we can counter that, by using outside help. By setting up an environment that helps you avoid your greatest difficulties, you make it easier to choose to work, and harder to procrastinate.
  • Finally, you can try to find meaning in your work. Maybe it’s boring, but it’ll help you help your patients/clients later. Maybe its hard, but also really interesting. Maybe you think it’s pointless, but you can get a good grade from it. Maybe you hate the content, but you can still use it as practice. Maybe you just don’t want to disappoint your teacher, And maybe none of that works, but at the very least, if you finish it, you’ll finally be free to do something else. Image how much better you will feel when it’s finished! The important thing is to find something that motivates you, and to focus on that. After all, intrinsic motivation is great, but not everything we do will be intrinsically motivating to us, so we need to work with what we have.

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« Piled Higher and Deeper » by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com

Good luck!

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