Getting Around To It: Causes and Cures for Student Procrastination
I had to laugh at myself. While thinking about doing an article on procrastination, I looked like a classic case. I got up early to get to it. Really I did. But I figured I first had to pay my monthly bills. Then I started dinner in the slow cooker and sponged off the kitchen counters. A long phone call with my daughter was followed by throwing in a load of laundry and washing some dishes that had been left to “soak” last night. (Apparently the son who had kitchen duty never got around to it. Grrr.) I think I’ll get another cup of coffee.
Am I procrastinating? Actually, no. My behavior of the last few hours is a case of things looking the same but being very different in cause and effect. In my case, the futzing around is a kind of incubation period. I did the research I needed for this article last week and have been thinking about it ever since. There is no deadline to rush to meet. I’m not inconveniencing anyone, risking disapproval from my editor, or pressuring myself. In fact, as I scrub a pot, or sort the laundry, or get another cup of coffee, I’m thinking about just what I want to say and the words I want to use to say it. Even my conversation with my daughter included trying out a few ideas. Now that I’ve finally turned on my computer, writing a draft will be, if not easy, at least well thought out.
If you are like me, and have a working style that rarely puts you in a bind, don’t let people accuse you of procrastinating. Tell them you’re “incubating” and just keep on keeping on. Why fix what isn’t broken?
True procrastination looks much the same but has an entirely different feel. It is self-defeating, stressful, and anxiety-producing. Instead of incubating a person’s best work, it provides excuses for doing work that isn’t up to their own standards or for avoiding it altogether. Often it is accompanied by shame, resentment, lowered self-esteem, and exhaustion. Putting things off to the last possible minute is qualitatively different from taking one’s time or engaging in a productive work style.
Different people have different reasons for procrastinating. That is why general advice for getting on task and staying there so often fails. If the “cure” doesn’t match the motivation, it simply won’t work, no matter how conscientiously it is done. Most procrastinators know they are procrastinating. Most know it isn’t good for them. Most have tried to defeat it by doing such things as learning better time management, making lists, setting up rewards and punishments, or enlisting a buddy at one time or another. But unless a person understands and works on their individual motivation for self-defeat, none of these tactics is likely to be successful or successful for long.
Common Motives and Helpful Strategies
Procrastination’s twin: Perfectionism.
Consider my online student, Jim. His work always comes in one minute or less from the time the assignment will shut down and shut him out. Although his contributions in class chats are insightful, even brilliant, his papers are consistently a B+ instead of an A. I know he can do A work. When asked about it, he sullenly admits that he hates getting less than an A but suggests that I’m the one with the problem because I insist on a deadline. Never mind that he has weeks to do every assignment or that everyone else in the class meets that same deadline. My guess is that Jim is a perfectionist. He really wants to do excellent work. He wants it so much that he rewrites and revises his work until there isn’t time to clean it up and make a final draft. He says to himself, “If I’d had more time, I could have. . .” which of course can’t be challenged. And another B+ gets entered into the grade book.