Procrastination in College: Why We Do It and How to Stop

A lot of people procrastinate from time to time, but 20% of people do it chronically. I am one of the latter. In college, I was the girl who waited until midnight the night before a paper was due to begin writing. I’d stay up drinking a combination of coffee and Swiss Miss and show up to class at 9 a.m. with bloodshot eyes and a paper I hadn’t had time to review properly. Thankfully, all of the research I did leading up to my papers usually paid off—I somehow walked away from college with an A average. Unfortunately, every time I received a good grade on a procrastinated assignment, I unconsciously gave myself permission to do it again the next time around. Yes, I ultimately completed all of my assignments on time, but I am here to tell you that I would have been a much happier person had I not procrastinated in college. You will be too.

A girl listens to music as she deals with procrastination in college

Yulia Grigoryeva /

What are the side effects of procrastination?

According to the Association of Psychological Science, “Putting off important tasks causes stress, and this additional stress contributes to negative psychophysiological impacts on the body which increase our vulnerability for illness. Previous research has linked chronic procrastination to a range of stress-related health problems such as headaches, digestive issues, colds and flus, and insomnia.”

When I read this statement, a lot of things about my college life seemed to make sense. All of the anxiety, guilt, and sleep deprivation that precluded each of my papers made me more susceptible to sickness (and I was sick often). Additionally, I didn’t like who I became when I was frantically working toward a fast-approaching deadline. I didn’t have the time or energy to be present with my friends, and I beat myself up for not learning my lesson from the last time I procrastinated. Check in with yourself. What are your tendencies when you procrastinate? How do you feel physically and emotionally after your finish a project last minute or miss a deadline? Identifying the negative side effects of procrastination is the first step toward making a change.

Why do we procrastinate?

Like most behavioral issues, psychologists say that the way we are raised lays the groundwork for our chronic procrastination tendencies as adults. However, before you start blaming your parents for being highly critical, overly attentive, or insufficient in helping you develop self-discipline, remember that you can’t change the past. Opening old wounds is unlikely to help you heal in the present (and if you still need to work through them, there are resources at your disposal).

What you can do is acknowledge that there is a reason you have continued this pattern of behavior into your adult life. In some way, it is serving you. According to Dr. Pamela Wiegartz, there are many benefits of procrastination. Some of these include the following:

  • Instead of doing something you don’t like, you get to take part in an enjoyable activity.
  • A resolution may be made by others before you give any effort to solving the problem.
  • You get to push off feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and discomfort that the task is likely to bring up.
  • A knight in shining armor may come to the rescue and do the task for you.
  • Your responsibilities may be taken away because you spent too long dillydallying.

I can easily point to the reason I procrastinated: I was a perfectionist who was afraid of failure. When I did try to work, I overthought everything and started to doubt my abilities. I felt I needed the pressure of an impending deadline to focus and work quickly. Deep down, I also knew that if I didn’t get a good grade on the assignment, I could blame it on lack of time and not on my own talents or knowledge. In some way, procrastination was helping me avoid dealing with a larger issue. A 2014 study of undergraduate students by Dr. Nader Hajloo confirmed what I thought to be true: low self-esteem and procrastination go hand in hand.

How do we stop procrastinating?

The first step is to decide you actually want to stop. As I said before, there are benefits to procrastination, and you need to weigh them against the downsides. The best way to do this is to make a chart and compare the results. Yes, I am talking about a pros and cons list. It might sound silly, but it will be a good reference when you are debating whether or not to write a paper or go to a friend’s party. It will help you decide if you are ready to commit to a different lifestyle or if you would prefer to keep things as they are.

You may have noticed that I said lifestyle in the last sentence. I want to emphasize that not procrastinating is likely to affect your life in many ways, and changing your behavior will take some work. If you are ready to commit, here are some things you can actively do to stop procrastinating:

  • Downplay the alternative choice and find your reason for getting to work. If you are tempted to go to a show with a friend instead of studying for your biology final, reframe your options. First, think through going to the show. What are the downsides? Besides not getting enough sleep and perhaps doing poorly on the exam, find things that may bother you about actually leaving your dorm or apartment. Do you have to drive and you really don’t want to? Would you have to find a new outfit? Convince yourself that not going to the show is appealing. Then, focus on why doing well on your biology final is important. Is your goal to become a doctor? Do you want to understand the material so you can talk about it with friends? Not failing the course is a good motivator, but if you are like me, dwelling on that too much might cause anxiety. Instead, think about why understanding biology is important to your future goals and how it will help you develop a more positive sense of self to understand the material more fully.
  • Break down the assignment into small tasks. If we know something is going to take a lot of effort, we are more likely to procrastinate when it comes to doing it. Unfortunately, the important tasks in life are often the hardest. Make your assignment feel less daunting by breaking it up into manageable tasks. Write them somewhere where you can see them (perhaps a whiteboard or in your planner), and check them off as you go along. Reward yourself every time you accomplish one of the tasks, even if it seems menial. I have a grad school friend who had a paper due right before the holidays. He wanted to put it off to watch all of Love Actually, but instead he chose to write one paragraph at a time followed by only 10 minutes of the movie. By the end of the day, he had watched the entire film and finished his paper. Win, win!
  • Tackle the underlying issues. If you are procrastinating because you doubt your abilities, are afraid of failure, and/or don’t think you deserve success, you need to take some time to address your negative core beliefs and practice self-compassion. Negative core beliefs are ideas like “I am unworthy,” “I am incompetent,” and “I am wrong” that are deeply engrained in our psyche. Working with a counselor at your school or therapist with a private practice can help you find the source of these beliefs, begin to break them down, and replace them with positive core beliefs. If you need help finding a therapist that accepts your insurance and practices in your area, use Psychology Today’s therapist search tool. Additionally, consider reading up on self-compassion. I recommend for all people who are afraid of making mistakes, rate their self-worth based on accomplishments, and are highly critical of themselves.

Chronic procrastination is not an easy habit to break. It is often the side effect of other underlying issues which take time to address. However, the sooner you do, the happier you will be later on. As you get older, you will have more and more responsibilities (bills, medical issues, child care, full-time job, etc.) and the consequences of not completing tasks on time are great. I am almost 30 now. I am working full-time, going to grad school, and paying rent in New York City. My anxiety escalates tremendously if I procrastinate on anything. I still have days when I fall back into old behavior, but I have given myself the tools to break the cycle before it gets too bad. I hope you will take the time to do the same for yourself. Best of luck and take care!

About Megan Reynolds

Megan loves listening to podcasts while doing all of her favorite things: researching, cooking, taking long road trips, and running in freezing temperatures. Curious to a fault, Megan thinks her personality is best suited for teaching so that she can constantly learn alongside her students. While she pursues a master’s degree in New York City, she hopes to share her strategies for conquering admissions and financial aid with all students who are interested in pursuing higher education. Stay tuned to see if she can break her undergraduate habit, formed at Emerson College, of pulling multiple all-nighters fueled by a mixture of coffee and Swiss Miss—the poor student’s mocha.

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