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Monday Master Class: Stop Procrastinating by Making it Easier to Procrastinate

July 14th, 2008 · 18 comments

The Student’s CurseWillpower

After spending years confronting the peculiar peccadilloes of the student set, I’ve learned that one problem, in particular, looms above the rest. I’m talking, of course, about procrastination. For many students, it’s the personification of academic troubles: “if I could only stop procrastinating on my work, I would be doing fine.”

My experience has revealed that there are two types of procrastination. The first, which I’ll call light procrastination, is the standard resistance to shutting down e-mail or turning off the TV that we all feel. I’ve posted before on hacking this issue; simple tricks, like working according to a regular schedule, starting early rather than late, and keeping yourself well-fed.

The real monster, however, is what I call deep procrastination. This is a state, reached by an alarming number of students, in which the pressure of starting at the absolute last minute becomes necessary to motivate any work. Students who suffer from deep procrastination pull frequent all-nighters and are often found begging for extensions on assignments they couldn’t bring themselves to begin before the deadline.

This is a serious problem, and I want to offer an unconventional solution — born from experience — for eliminating its worse effects.

The Roots of Deep Procrastination

The most common reason given for procrastination: work sucks. You assume you delay because the chore itself is brutal. But is this true?

Think back to the last assignment that you put off until the minute. Now imagine during the upcoming fall semester you have no courses to take. Your professor says he believes in your talent and that he wants you to complete this one assignment at your own pace.

For most students, the work would be rather enjoyable. Be it a research paper or a big chunk of reading, there is something very satisfying about mastering material over time. It makes you feel competent (one of our three basic psychological needs), and most people, when not under incredible pressure, actually enjoy learning new things.

The reason, then, that some students suffer from deep procrastination: their schedule as a whole is too demanding. Put simply, there is too much work and not enough time. Night after night they forced into a situation where they have to work, probably late, and this sucks. After a while a resentment grows toward their schoolwork — it is making their life miserable. And once they resent the work — and get none of the joys of competency and learning and mastery that classes could provide — their mind starts doing whatever it can to avoid getting started.

Curing Deep Procrastination

So what works? Stricter schedules and more intense productivity rules won’t cut it. The problem is not disorganization, it is, instead, a deep-seated antipathy to student work in general. If you want to cure deep procrastination you have to remove the source of resentment. And this means doing less; much less.

Student’s who shift to schedules with much more free time find themselves handling their workload without pain. Without the pain, they don’t grow to resent their schedules. And without the resentment, no deep procrastination will arise.

This is somewhat unexpected, as making your schedule lighter makes it easier to procrastinate in the sense that you can get away with more last minute heroics. However, for most students, the opposite occurs. The light schedule takes away their fatigue, and a true interest in their work blossoms again. Guess what? When you’re interested in your work, it’s not that hard to get started…sometimes even real early.

Are You a Deep Procrastinator?

If your procrastination has gotten to the point where your grades are starting to suffer, or you’re frequently working into the twilight hours to make deadlines at the last minute, seriously consider why this is happening, then ask yourself what you might gain by rebuilding a happy relationship with your schoolwork.

Here are a few past articles to help you get started:

  • The Zen Valedictorian
    Take a look at law #1 (underschedule) for a discussion of how and why to keep your schedule light.
  • The Radical Simplicity Manifesto
    No-nonsense advice for achieving an underscheduled lifestyle. It’s based on the Rule of One: one major, one course load, and one extracurricular.
  • How to Be Happy
    If you understand the science behind your happiness, you’ll be more likely to take you course load seriously.

18 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: Stop Procrastinating by Making it Easier to Procrastinate

  1. Daisy says:

    I so agree with this!

    I’m a recovering deep procrastinator. I guess it started back in high school when I felt pressured to go into the student grind. The resentment really does build, and changing the habit once it’s started is hard.

    Doing a lot better though; I only wipe out once a month or so. 😀 I guess I was just sick of how I inadvertently stressed myself out.

  2. Daisy says:

    Oh, and forgot to add that reevaluating your relationship with schoolwork and your priorities really does help. That’s what actually started my climb out of my procrastination habit.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I completely agree! As a teacher, I see so many students doing this — working several jobs while taking a full-time load in school. So much of the advice out there about procrastination amounts to “more discipline.” Still, most of my students have loads of discipline — just not much time.

    The sad thing is that for many, there isn’t an option other than to work full-time while in school. It used to impress people when I said I worked full-time while in grad school full-time (How rare! How disciplined! How tough!). Now it’s just normal.

    I love the manifesto as the start of a solution. Still, I think the long-term answer is that our current system (falling financial aid, more financial burden, greater competition for admission) has to give a little.

    I’m curious if others have more ideas on how students can simplify in the meantime?

  4. Study Hacks says:

    I love the manifesto as the start of a solution. Still, I think the long-term answer is that our current system (falling financial aid, more financial burden, greater competition for admission) has to give a little.

    I agree about fixing the financial situation. Something has the give there. I’m less optimistic about the competition aspect. I lesson I’ve learned from working with students is that you can’t force them not to be ambitious. You need, instead, to teach them how to follow ambitions in a sustainable way…

  5. Long Live Procrastination.

  6. nyrd06 says:

    Freshman year I chose to double major in anthropology and film and also get a TEFL certificate for 2 reasons: the subjects interest me; and, they are all stepping stones, both separately and conjointly, towards my ideal career. You see, my deepest passion resides in the culinary arts, and as going to culinary school was not an option (1. I did not have the money, nor could I afford to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt before the age of 30, and 2. my parents refused to pay for it), I chose the next best thing…a broad combinations of academic aspirations at a state university, something both affordable and practical. This decision made plenty of sense to me then.
    Now, however, I’m feeling the burn, and your articles coupled with several recent discoveries are driving home the reality of my situation. Just last spring, for example, I encountered my first-ever experience of, as you call it, deep procrastination. My case resembles that Amy’s. I would finish assignments (papers mostly) but skip out on some of the readings, reading one or two for a class and/or barely even skimming others. Most of my work barely met my standards for an A or B grade. I simply did not have time to be inspired or creative or to do my best, which invoked within me all kinds of guilt and stress. Also, I always felt behind schedule. Eventually, I realized that I had, at some point, formed an extreme dislike for school. Something that has NEVER occurred before… I mean…one of my favorite books is the L’Armour’s The Walking Drum for Ganesh’s sake.
    While spring semester is over residual deep procrastination habits remained when I took two very epitomic writing and reading intensive courses this past June. I worked and long hours but went no where. The grades were my worst ever. I don’t want to enter this fall with these habits or this outlook. I detest feeling this way, depressed, guilt-ridden…and (unhealthily) nostalgic.
    I want Fall semester 06 back…when I was a freshman and I liked all of my classes, when I made straight A’s piece o cake, when I didn’t have to worry about paying for 1-2 semester (2) without scholarship assistance, and getting and keeping a job all while maintaining GPA with the same course load and extracurricular responsibilities. I want the simplicity you talk about in your blog BUT I just don’t know how to get there. I don’t know how to go about choosing between/among a BA in Film, a BA in Anthropology, and a TEFL Certificate. I mean, I have talked myself into thinking that I need these things for almost 2 years now…and now I have to choose which one(s) to keep. It’s too hard, and no one can help me make this decision or give me career advice because most either have no clue what anthropology is or can’t offer potential job opportunities beyond the stereotypical (director, archeologist, or teacher). No one that I have talked to can give me any advice beyond the opinion that I should not have pursued either major in the 1st place…that instead I should have chosen something that will put me in a well-paying job straight out of school…like journalism, law, or biology (premed). But I don’t want those fields. Here’s what I do want ( in very simplified and concentrated terms)… experience as a chef ( not a cook, but a chef), the ability to direct/edit/ interpret films ( do I wanna be a pro director like Spielberg or Hitchcock? No, but I want to be able to be a cinematographer or PA at least), the experience of international travel for the purpose of/as a result of/ leading to the exploration of peoples, cultures, and languages, experience as a teacher/manager/leader. So… I guess my main question, besides a general plea for advice on my situation, is if you are a junior who is double majoring but considering dropping one BA…how do you choose?

    1. Andy says:

      I recognize your crisis was — hopefully — resolved a few years ago, but in the interests of someone who might be reading this post a few years from now, I have a little advice as someone in a remarkably similar situation.

      I’m a head chef now, and an Anthropology major dropout (I did 2.5 years and then chose to expatriate rather than matriculate). My parents weren’t paying for anything, and I was struggling in college due to money more than academic capability (working full-time night shift and classes full-time during the day wasn’t working).

      I didn’t have any ambition per se to get into the culinary industry — it’s just that I needed a full-time job when I expatriated, and cooking was the most lucrative compatible job for someone who didn’t have a college degree. I had a bit of natural skill and experience as a home cook, a strong work ethic and an ability to learn fast, and I read Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’ for the rest. The industry in the city I expatriated to was very robust and dying for cooks, so not being a total fuck-up was basically all I needed to get my foot in the door. Then I worked like a dog.

      I would advise you, as a future ‘chef’, not to look down on ‘cooks’, especially since you’ll be one for a good while before you get a ‘chef’ position. This distinction is largely semantic in my experience, since in the US, ‘chef’ tends to indicate the boss or someone with managerial duties; in my part of Canada at least, ‘chef’ could be the boss, and/or was an indication of having journeyman papers/qualifications from a culinary programme; and in my part of Europe, everyone’s a ‘chef’ and you’d be ‘cheffing’ for a living even as a line cook grunt on the starters station.

      What you need is not a bachelor’s degree, period — in Film, Anthropology, or anything else. TEFL would be nice, given that I’m going to assume you’re in the US and many, many cooks aren’t Anglophone Americans, but definitely not critical. What you need is a job in a restaurant, especially if you don’t have any experience working in a restaurant and still think you’d like culinary school. You need knife skills, a thick skin, a dogged ridiculous work ethic and the ability to learn. Get a job in the best restaurant you can, work like a dog. After awhile, find another job or get promoted. Work your way up like this for a couple of years, and kiss goodbye your evenings and weekends. If you’re smart with how you spend your money, after a couple of years you should be able to better afford sending yourself to culinary school (assuming you need to at that point), or you will have burned yourself and run screaming from the industry. If you go to culinary school, the real-life experience you have by that point will put you head and shoulders over most of the unrealistically starry-eyed kids in your programme. Then — if you’re really ambitious — take your qualification and go get a visa to work in France, and start from the bottom as a kicked-around grunt in a better kitchen, work your way up again.

      I don’t have any formal culinary qualifications, but I do have more than ten years experience working in the industry and the ability to climb the ladder a bit higher every time I bounced into a new job. It’s a hard industry, but work and skills matters more than the piece of paper.

  7. Study Hacks says:

    So… I guess my main question, besides a general plea for advice on my situation, is if you are a junior who is double majoring but considering dropping one BA…how do you choose?

    There’s a lot going on in there! Two points, one, if you are feeling pretty overwhelmed or down about your situation, go talk to someone on campus. They’ll know your school, and it’s particular demands, well, and you’d be surprised by the relevance of their advice.

    Second, in terms of your major choice, here’s my thought: it doesn’t matter which one you choose. No job is going to require either. Select the one whose remaining courses seem most interesting to you, minor in the other, and stop sweating it.

  8. Dottywine says:

    I don’t know. I dropped my schedule down A LOT last semester. I took only 13 hours. I felt very dumb, but also very relaxed. And I was happier. Free time out the whazzo. Almost didn’t know what to do with it. However, I still caught myself doing a lot of deep procrastination. Maybe I just suck at school in general. I don’t know.

  9. Danielle says:

    Although I agree with the majority of the information on this site, this article does not seem fully correct to me.

    I was a hard-core procrastinator in high school, NOT because I had an aversion to school work or was sidetracked by email or the TV. In my case, and in the case of several other people I know, my results when I worked on projects in advance were actually less satisfactory than when I worked “under the gun” so to speak, usually the night before the project was due. Since I only ever benefited from postponing assignments, a sleepless next day was only a small price to pay.

    Now I should make it clear that the only projects I did well on when I waited to the very last second were ESSAYS. And after several years, I have finally figured out why this is the case: I am a perfectionist. Usually perfectionism and procrastination do not go hand in hand, but in my case, they always have. The caliber of the assignments and especially written assignments which I hand in is invariably extremely high.

    However, my perfectionism causes me to agonize over ever word choice and turn of phrase until my essays and reflections are cumbersome and unwieldy both in size and scope. Only when I am rushing at the last minute, (and usually a fair bit tired at this time) can I turn off this aspect of my mind. When I do, my brain goes on autopilot, but past writing experience ensures that the result is satisfactory to me.

    Like I said, this phenomenon only occurs with “creative” processes such as writing or designing. Although I wish I knew how to force my brain to go to the autopilot mode automatically, by experience I know that it is the pressure, sense of urgency and the mental tiredness that brings it on.

  10. Study Hacks says:

    And after several years, I have finally figured out why this is the case: I am a perfectionist.

    This is a really useful addition. Thank you for sharing. Indeed, I recently visited Harvard’s student advising offices, and they told me that perfectionism was actually one of the big problems that tackled.

  11. Nick says:

    In reply to nyrd06:

    I have been in a somewhat similar position to you. I just finished a Joint-Honours (rough British equivalent of double-mayor, I presume) degree in Anthropology and Religious Studies, and was rather (read: utterly) unsure of what to do next. I knew I wanted to go on to further study, but found so much of both Religious Studies and Anthropology interesting to the point of wanting to focus on it.

    So, I ended up choosing what to do next somewhat arbitratily. I thought of all of the things I particularly enjoyed, and for which I was more motivated to actually write great essays (that is not procrastinate quite so deeply), and essentially just chose one. I know that anything from that list I’d get on great with, so I’m not sweating it. I’m glad now to be focusing on one field in particular, to the point that I can devote far more time to really mastering it.

    Of course you’ll have to do the difficult job of working out how such a philosophy would apply to your situation.

    Also, as Cal has written about before, once you make the step to focus on one path, you get the time to find interesting events / people related to it, and from there comes motivation, new ideas, and opportunities. In particular, I suggest you try not to worry about jobs you’ll get from various study combinations. Focus on one field, and the excellence and contacts you’ll make there will set you up much better than having a ‘perfect’ qualification to present to an organisation who don’t know you as you’ve been too hard studying to work / talk with before.

    Also, regarding your interest in TEFL, that does sound like a good way to get to do some of the things you want to. However if doing it at your university is prohibiting your other studies you might consider dropping it for now, and perhaps taking an intensive course afterwards or in the holidays. That option may be a little more expensive (I don’t know how your university has things set up), but might be better for you. Do a bit of research first though; some TEFL certificates are more useful than others, and at the end of the day you need to feel able to teach by the end of it.

    I hope this is helpful; feel free to email me at nyrd06rep@njw.me.uk if you want to discuss any of this further.

  12. Will says:

    I am definitely a deep procrastinator, but my problem is that I can’t fix it using your chosen solution. I’m still in high school and so I don’t really have a choice of having fewer classes. Any suggestions for helping me quit my procrastination problem?

  13. Study Hacks says:

    Any suggestions for helping me quit my procrastination problem?

    Start with the 18 articles here:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/category/tips-fighting-procrastination/

    They won’t all apply to High School, but they’ll help frame the problem for you.

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