Every year I have a plan, to get organised and to not wait until last minute. I’ll start studying for my exams from day one. Every year, this plan fails after a couple of weeks. Come exam time, my eyelids rarely get to close, my stomach has no idea when to expect food, a stable sleep schedule is a mythical utopia, there is no difference between the moon and the sun, and my poor coffee maker really gets to sweat. I feel stressed, exhausted, and angry at myself for allowing this to happen once again.

Procrastination is very stressful and it makes me feel awful, so why do I keep doing it every single year? Why do I never learn?

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Why do we procrastinate?

Procrastination is a common struggle that many individuals face in their personal and professional lives. It involves putting off tasks or decisions that need to be completed, often leading to unnecessary stress and decreased productivity. Procrastination is a complex behavioural pattern that can be maintained by various factors. The reason for its maintenance is varied depending on the person, but here are some general examples of what we typically see in the clinic:

  • High effort: as humans, we tend to do behaviours that require less effort, save energy, and give us pleasure. Studying is a behaviour that requires a lot of effort, therefore it is harder for us to initiate the behaviour and maintain concentration for a long time.
  • Perfectionism: sometimes we want our work to be as perfect as possible, something that will require an even higher effort to initiate and maintain the behaviour of studying. We therefore often find ourselves in a situation where we will do something perfectly to the last detail or to not do anything.
  • Immediate negative feelings: when we start studying, we will often experience immediate negative feelings, such as stress, boredom, feeling overwhelmed, or feeling that we are stupid for not understanding well what we read. If we avoid studying, we will not experience these negative feelings, something that makes it more likely that we will avoid it. Also, if we do something else instead, like watching Netflix, scroll on our phones, or hang out with our friends, we are immediately entertained, something that tends to win the competition when presented with the alternative of being stressed and bored.
  • Past learning experiences: many times, even though we have left everything to the last minute, we pass the exam or assignment. Therefore, we do not have the learning experience that procrastination does not work as we then in the end are not able to hand in the assignment on time, or to pass everything.
  • Excuse for not passing or obtaining a “bad” mark: if we really try our hardest to do well and to pass everything and in the end we don’t, that will probably provoke a lot of negative emotions, and maybe the feeling of failure, stupidity, or disappointment. If we leave our studying to the last minute, we can tell ourselves that the reason for not doing well is just because we started too late, not because we would not have been able to do better. This may soften the blow when receiving disappointing results.

Procrastination is something we often detect that we are doing, and it makes us feel very guilty as we know that we should be studying. So why do we not study then, when not studying also gives us negative emotions?

Chores, often we find genius ways of lowering the guilty feelings, none of which actually includes studying. For example, students never tend to have tidier flats or cleaner clothes that during the exam period. These are chores that are not fun to do but something that is necessary, so we feel better about procrastination as we spent our time doing something productive and essential, but that was not as bad as sitting down to study.

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“I’ll do a double study session tomorrow”. Instructions that we give to ourselves might also lower the guilty feelings we experience. I do not feel too bad about not studying today if I can make up for it tomorrow. A problem with this is that if it was too difficult to do a study session today, it is not going to be easier to do it tomorrow, especially not if I double it. The required effort will then be even higher and it will be even more difficult to initiate the behaviour, and therefore it is more likely we will procrastinate more.

When do I start studying?

Usually, when the deadlines or exam date are approaching, the more stressed we become. When the stress reaches a level where it provokes more stress in us to avoid studying than actually study, that is when we are finally able to sit down and get some work done. However, it does not tend to be a pleasant experience.

What can I do to lower the chance of procrastinating?

Organise your study space:

  • Make sure to have a clean study area without too many distractions like pictures, decorations, or things that you do not need for studying.
  • Leave your phone out of reach so you would have to move to get it. Often we pick up our phone without realising it, so it is good to increase the effort to do so, so that we do not do it automatically.
  • The only thing you should be doing in our study area is studying. You should avoid studying in bed, where you relax, or where you do fun activities, and you should also avoid doing fun activities or relax where you study. This will help you to associate the specific area with studying, something that will help you stay concentrated.

Prepare your studies:

  • Plan and organise your work and assignments. Prioritise what you will do depending on urgency or importance. It can be helpful to use calendars and lists to get a clear overview of what needs to be done.
  • Break down your tasks. Large tasks can feel overwhelming, something that may facilitate procrastination. Break the tasks into smaller, more manageable steps, and focus on one step at a time.
  • Change tasks, study method, or subject during your study sessions. The longer we sit with the same thing, the more tired we come. Making a change can help to stay concentrated for longer.
  • It is better to plan your studies according to time and not task. It is difficult to control whether we will finish writing an article or finish studying a unit, but we can control how long we sit down to study.
  • To help initiating your studies, implement a transition activity. If we go straight from a fun activity to studying, we might never get there. Do something more neutral before studying so the transition is not that hard (for example, go to the bathroom, get a glass of water, etc.).
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Time management:

  • Make sure to not overestimate how many hours you should sit down and study. As humans we have a maximum capacity of how long we can maintain our concentration. It is better to study fewer hours more often than to study many hours in one day. Quality is better than quantity!
  • To help initiating a study session, tell yourself “I only have to study 10 minutes”. This will lower the effort of sitting down, and when we first sit down it is easier to continue after the first ten minutes have passed. o Include breaks in your study sessions. A recommended pattern is 50 minutes studying -> 10 minutes break -> 50 minutes studying -> 10 minutes break -> 30 minutes studying. This may vary depending on the person, so it is important to find a pattern that is a good fit for you.
  • To help with time management, use alarm clocks. Then you do not have to pay attention to the time, something that can be quite distracting as well. Don’t forget to put an alarm for when the break is over also, this is an easy one to forget!
  • If one day you are not able to study as planned, do not add extra hours to the day after. If it was difficult to study a couple of hours today, it will definitely not be easier to motivate oneself to study four hours tomorrow, and we will probably procrastinate again...

Verbal abilities:

As humans, we have a great capacity to use language to motivate us, something we should take advantage of.

  • Anticipate positive consequences you will get if you sit down and study now. “if I study now, I will feel great as I’ll be up to speed with my work”, “If I study now I will be able to cross it off my list and do something fun afterwards…”
  • After you have studied, give yourself positive feedback for your studying behaviour. Do not focus on everything you did not get done or still have to do, but focus on your studying behaviour and everything you were able to do because of it.
  • Focus on the process, not the outcome. We cannot control how much we do or the results we get, but we can control our behaviour. Think of what you can do, not what you should have done.
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Rewards and gratifying activities:

  • Plan a reward/fun activity that you can only get/do if you sit down and study. It should depend on your behaviour (which you can control), not the results (which you cannot control). For example, you get to meet your friends for dinner if you have studied for two hours (not if you finish writing an article). It is important that you do not get the reward/do the activity if you were not able to study the time you had planned.
  • Make sure you always have something fun planned during the day you need to study. If you wake up with a plan of studying all day and nothing else, getting out of bed is going to be hard.

Avoid perfectionism

  • Perfectionism can make it trickier to get started or to move on. Sometimes it is better to get something down on paper even though it is not good, as we can always go back and change it later.
  • Set realistic expectations to what you can achieve. It might not always be possible to do your best or to get the best marks as life consists of more things than your studies, something that may compete with our attention.

If you notice that your procrastination is getting out of hand and you find it difficult to change, this is something we can work on in therapy. We would evaluate what is maintaining the procrastination in each specific case, and develop an individualised plan in order to help changing the undesired pattern.

About the author

Amalie Hylland is a health psychologist at Sinews. She specializes in behavior analysis and modification, working with adolescents and adults. She has experience working with a variety of issues, including anxiety management, phobias and ruminative thoughts, assertive and social skills development, self-esteem, procrastination, self-harm and obsessive compulsive behavior. Her orientation is behavioral therapy, integrating evidence-based techniques and tools to help change the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that cause us problems.

Amalie Hylland
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Amalie Hylland
Languages: English, Spanish and Norwegian
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