Academic procrastination is a phenomenon where students unnecessarily postpone academic assignments, like studying for a test or working on a school project. This is a common problem, which can lead to issues like worse academic outcomes and increased stress.
The following article contains a comprehensive overview of academic procrastination. Its goal is to help you understand what academic procrastination looks like, what issues it leads to, what causes it, and how it can be dealt with successfully, based on relevant research on the topic.
Examples of academic procrastination
An example of academic procrastination is a student who has a week to study for an exam, but ends up postponing their studying unnecessarily until the night before, even though they keep wanting to get started. Another example of academic procrastination is a student who delays working on an important project for an entire semester, until right before it’s due.
In addition, other examples of academic procrastination include the following:
- A high-school student who wastes hours browsing social media before they finally manage to get started on a homework assignment.
- An undergraduate student who puts off studying for a test by doing unimportant chores, such as cleaning their room or baking snacks.
- A graduate student who delays for several days each time they need to work on their thesis.
Furthermore, academic procrastination can involve various other dilatory behaviors, such as sleeping, watching TV, or playing video games, and students often report that procrastination occupies over a third of their daily activities.
Prevalence of academic procrastination
Academic procrastination is common among students, as a large portion of them procrastinate often and to a significant degree. For example, when it comes to college students, studies show that approximately 80%–95% of college students engage in procrastination to some degree, approximately 75% consider themselves to be procrastinators, and approximately 50% say that they procrastinate in a consistent and problematic manner.
Furthermore, additional studies have found procrastination in various other student populations, including those in elementary school, middle school, high school, and graduate school. In fact, procrastination is so common among students that the tendency to procrastinate on tasks until right before they are due is sometimes referred to as the student syndrome.
Note that the prevalence of academic procrastination varies based on the task involved. For example, a study on students in an introductory psychology course indicated that ~46% of them always or nearly always procrastinate on writing term papers, ~30% procrastinate on reading weekly assignments, ~28% procrastinate on studying for exams, ~23% procrastinate on attendance tasks, ~11% procrastinate on administrative tasks, and ~10% procrastinate on school activities in general.
Dangers of academic procrastination
Academic procrastination is associated with various negative effects, such as worse academic performance, worse emotional wellbeing, and worse mental and physical health. Accordingly, academic procrastination is often detrimental to those who engage in it.
Specifically, the following are the key issues that are associated with academic procrastination:
- Worse academic performance. For example, procrastination is associated with a wide range of academic issues, like lower quality work, worse exam scores, worse grades, increased academic misconduct and dishonesty, increased course failures, increased course withdrawals, and an increased likelihood of dropping out (rather than graduating).
- Worse emotional wellbeing. For example, procrastination can lead to various negative emotions, like guilt, shame, and sadness.
- Worse mental and physical health. For example, procrastination can lead to various mental health issues, like stress, as well as physical health issues, like lack of sleep and exhaustion.
Many of these issues are interrelated. For example, when academic procrastination leads to increased negative emotions, it can also lead to increased stress at the same time. Similarly, when academic procrastination leads to increased stress, this can, in turn, lead to issues such as exhaustion, which increases the likelihood that people will procrastinate on academic tasks, and consequently suffer from worse academic performance.
In addition, the tendency to engage in procrastination is associated with a variety of issues from a career perspective, including lower salaries, shorter periods of employment, and a higher likelihood of unemployment. This can affect students who are employed while engaging in academic studies, as well as students who enter the job market after graduation.
Procrastination by academic professionals
Procrastination is a common problem among academic professionals, like high-school teachers and university faculty, just as it is among adults in general. It can cause various issues for these professionals, like worse job performance, increased stress, worse emotional wellbeing, and lower job satisfaction.
Examples of this procrastination are a lecturer who unnecessarily delays preparing lesson plans for an upcoming course, and a professor who unnecessarily postpones writing an important grant proposal.
This behavior is sometimes called “academic procrastination”. However, this term is mainly used to refer to student procrastination. Procrastination by teachers and other academics is usually more accurately categorized as a form workplace procrastination, or as a more specific form of it, like teacher procrastination and professor procrastination.
Causes of academic procrastination
Academic procrastination occurs when issues like anxiety and perfectionism outweigh students’ self-control and motivation. That’s why students often postpone academic tasks even when they want to get them done, and why they often only manage to start shortly before the deadline, when the increasing pressure finally pushes them to do their work.
- Anxiety, for example when it comes to being anxious about studying in general.
- Fear of failure, for example when it comes to worrying about failing an upcoming exam.
- Perfectionism, for example when it comes to wanting to write an essay draft without any flaws.
- Task aversion, for example when it comes to wanting to avoid dealing with a homework assignment that’s perceived as boring.
- Sensation seeking, for example when it comes to finding assignments more exciting to work on assignments when there’s intense time pressure.
- Feeling overwhelmed, for example when it comes to being unsure about how to handle a large research project.
- Physical or mental exhaustion, for example when it comes to being tired due to a demanding academic workload.
- Lack of study or organizational skills, for example when it comes to not knowing how to set an effective study schedule.
Many of these issues can be attributed to negative past experiences. For example, if someone does badly in a number of course assignments, they might feel anxious when it comes to future assignments or exams in that course, which can cause them to procrastinate. However, this isn’t always the case, and lack of experience can also cause procrastination, for instance when it leads to low self-confidence.
Various personality traits can also influence the likelihood that people will engage in academic procrastination, as well as the ways in which they do so. For example, increased conscientiousness is associated with reduced procrastination in general. On the other hand, extraversion can lead to academic procrastination when students prioritize spending time with their friends over doing schoolwork, while neuroticism can lead to academic procrastination when it causes students to stress over an upcoming project that will have a significant effect on their grades.
Finally, certain underlying issues can also lead to or exacerbate academic procrastination. For example, general anxiety and depression can make students more likely to engage in rumination, in the form of repetitive negative thoughts, which can in turn increase their tendency to engage in procrastination. Similarly, issues such as low self-esteem or low self-efficacy may also lead to increased academic procrastination in some cases.
- Poor study environment, for example because this environment is overly loud or filled with distractions.
- Unpleasant assignments, for example because an assignment requires students to use only a limited range of skills, which makes students more likely to perceive it as boring, and consequently more likely to be averse to it.
- Lack of clear directions or expectations, for example because the explanation of how a paper will be graded is incomplete, vague, or ambiguous.
- Lack of clear due dates, for example in terms of when the first draft of an essay should be submitted.
- Lack of communication, for example in the case of an instructor not responding to a student’s requests for clarificati0n.
- The instructor being too lax, for example by never enforcing any deadlines in their course.
- The instructor being too harsh, for example by providing unnecessarily unpleasant feedback on assignments.
External issues can sometimes lead to or exacerbate internal ones. For example, an instructor being too harsh can lead to fear of failure in a student who wouldn’t have it otherwise, or it can increase anxiety in an already anxious student.
Solutions to academic procrastination
Academic procrastination can be reduced by analyzing the situation, in terms of factors such as the number of students involved and the causes of their procrastination, and then implementing an appropriate solution, which consists of interventions such as intermediate deadlines, automated reminders, and self-regulation training.
The sub-sections below contain more information on the topic. Specifically, they first outline the general types of approaches that can be used to deal with academic procrastination, and then provide examples of specific interventions and techniques that can be used as part of these approaches.
Note that the information here focuses on resolving academic procrastination in students. Some of this is also relevant when it comes to solving procrastination among academic professionals, such as teachers and professors, but in some cases, it will be more effective to view their behavior as workplace procrastination instead, and to deal with it accordingly.
There are three main types of approaches for dealing with academic procrastination:
- Student-led approach. This involves students taking most of the responsibility for reducing their academic procrastination, with little to no external guidance. External guidance in this case might include something as minimal as a lecturer mentioning the problem of procrastination and giving students a link to a relevant guide on the topic.
- Externally led approach. This involves stakeholders, such as educators or administrators, using relevant anti-procrastination techniques to reduce students’ procrastination, without directly discussing the issue of procrastination with the students. For example, this can involve an instructor setting a series of intermediate deadlines for all students in their course.
- Joint approach. This involves using both external guidance and having students take an active role in their attempts to stop procrastinating. For example, this can involve going over relevant anti-procrastination techniques with students, and helping them choose and implement their preferred ones.
None of these approaches is inherently superior to the others. Accordingly, the optimal approach in a given situation should be selected based on relevant considerations, such as effectiveness, cost, and practicality. For example, it’s important to take into account the number of students that you’re trying to help, since an approach that’s practical when it comes to helping a single student might not be practical if you’re trying to help dozens of students.
In this regard, an important factor to consider is how independent the students in question are. The more autonomy they display, the more they should generally be involved in the process of overcoming their procrastination, since this can increase their motivation and make the process more effective, while also contributing to their long-term personal growth.
This also highlights the importance of giving students a sense of control, even if they’re not the ones guiding the process. You can do this, for example, by helping students set goals for themselves, in terms of when and where they plan to do their work. This can not only increase their engagement and commitment to the work, but also help avoid academic procrastination that is rooted in issues such as resentment, rebellion, or low self-confidence.
Finally, note that the approaches for handling academic procrastination can be categorized using additional criteria. For example, one review of the topic states the following:
“Approaches in decreasing academic procrastination found in the literature can essentially be categorized into three groups; 1. therapeutic treatment, 2. therapeutic prevention, and 3. instructor/teacher intervention. The first two approaches are similar in that they employ therapeutic interventions to decrease procrastination. They differ regarding when the intervention is administered. Therapeutic treatment methods seek to intervene after a student has demonstrated procrastinatory behavior, e.g., late submission of first course assignment, whereas therapeutic preventions aim to prevent the negative effects of procrastination from the outset, e.g., therapeutic courses offered to students at the start of the semester… The third approach attempts to recruit the instructor of the course to provide nontherapeutic methods of decreasing procrastination tendencies among student participants.”
— From “Academic interventions for academic procrastination: A review of the literature” (Zacks & Hen, 2018)
As such, from both a theoretical and practical perspective, if you find that you need to categorize the different types of approaches, you can do so based on the criteria that are most relevant and helpful in your particular circumstances.
Various techniques and interventions have been shown to help reduce academic procrastination. This includes, for example, teaching students motivation-regulation strategies and time management skills, or having them undergo interventions rooted in acceptance-based behavioral therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. This also includes various educational interventions, such as regular quizzes that motivate students to study continuously rather than wait until right before final exams, automated reminders to complete assignments, and personal communication with the instructor to build a plan for avoiding late assignments.
In general, it is best if the chosen anti-procrastination techniques and interventions are tailored to the specific needs of the students. For example, if a certain student is procrastinating because the only deadline they have is far in the future, then it will be helpful to provide them with a series of intermediate deadlines in order to prompt them to work. However, this isn’t always possible in practice, for example if there are many students involved, all of whom have different needs.
Nevertheless, when deciding how to deal with academic procrastination, it is beneficial to understand its root causes among students, as listed in the previous section. This can also help you identify common issues that should be avoided, such as unclear deadlines or overly harsh feedback.
From a practical perspective, the following are general things that you can do to reduce academic procrastination:
- Explain to students what procrastination is and what it looks like, and help them identify when they engage in it themselves.
- Show students why procrastination can be dangerous, when it comes to factors such as their academic performance, their career prospects, and their health.
- Explain to students what causes procrastination, and help them identify the causes of their own procrastination.
- Tell students about relevant anti-procrastination techniques, some of which are listed below, and help them pick the ones that are likely to help them the most.
- Implement anti-procrastination techniques on behalf of the students, for example by breaking apart large tasks into small manageable steps.
- Point students in the direction of resources that can help them with their procrastination, such as this article.
In addition, the following are some specific anti-procrastination techniques that you can use to reduce academic procrastination:
- Give clear directions. For example, consider a situation where students are assigned a paper to write. In this case, the instructor can provide clear directions and expectations by explaining what style of paper students should write, and what criteria will be used to grade it. From the students’ perspective, they can set clear goals for themselves by doing things such as deciding where, when, and how long they plan to work on the paper.
- Set intermediate milestones and deadlines. For example, consider a situation where students are assigned a research project. Instead of having a single deadline at the end of the semester, at which point the students have to turn in the entire project, it can be beneficial to scaffold the project, by setting intermediate milestones and deadlines throughout the semester, such as a point by which they have to decide on their topic, a point by which they have to create a project outline, and so on.
- Incentivize and reward progress. For example, from the instructor’s perspective, this can involve saying encouraging things to a student who previously procrastinated, but who now managed to submit multiple assignments on time. Similarly, from the students’ perspective, this can involve gamifying the studying process, for example by marking down streaks of days on which they successfully managed to achieve their study goals.
- Find ways to make studying more enjoyable. For example, an instructor can pick humorous examples to use in their homework assignments. Similarly, a student can decide to go somewhere pleasant to study, such as the library, and listen to energizing music while doing so.
- Give permission to make mistakes. For example, an instructor can emphasize to students that it’s okay to make some mistakes, especially on initial attempts and early drafts. Similarly, students can emphasize the same to themselves.
- Identify and resolve fear and anxieties. Figure out what students are afraid of, and resolve those fears. For example, if students are anxious because the feedback they receive on assignments is too harsh, an instructor can give feedback that is less unpleasant, while a student can try to find ways to avoid taking this feedback personally.
- Promote self-compassion. Self-compassion can help reduce procrastination, as well as various issues that are associated with it, such as stress. It consists of three components: self-kindness, which involves being nice to oneself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting one’s emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
- Promote self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals, and it can help reduce procrastination. To develop self-efficacy, students can try to identify the various strategies that they can use to successfully study and complete their assignments, and think about their ability to execute those strategies successfully; instructors can promote self-efficacy by helping students do this.
Furthermore, keep in mind that if a student suffers from underlying issues that cause procrastination, such as lack of sleep, depression, or ADHD, they will likely need to resolve that issue first, using professional help if necessary, in order to successfully overcome their procrastination.
Finally, there are two other important things to keep in mind when it comes to handling academic procrastination. First, most procrastinators need more than one technique in order to overcome their procrastination. Second, different techniques work better for different students in different circumstances, so just because a certain technique works well for some students, doesn’t mean that it will work well for others.
In addition to the present article, there are several important resources that can help you learn how to deal with academic procrastination: