Student procrastination is a widespread and serious problem, which affects students at all levels. It’s also a complicated problem, since different students procrastinate for different reasons, and they can therefore benefit from different solutions when it comes to overcoming their procrastination.
The following article provides a comprehensive and practical guide to the problem of student procrastination. Its goals are to first help you understand why students procrastinate, and then show you what students can do in order to stop procrastinating and start studying. This will be beneficial whether you’re a student yourself, or someone such as a parent or a teacher who wants to help students overcome their procrastination.
The problem of student procrastination
Examples of student procrastination
A simple example of student procrastination is a student who needs to sit down and finish their homework, but instead wastes time on the internet all day and only starts working late at night, even though they wish they could have gotten started earlier.
In addition, other examples of student procrastination are the following:
- A high-school student who puts off studying for a test for several hours, by browsing social media instead.
- An undergraduate university student who postpones writing a class paper for weeks until right before the deadline, by watching TV, playing games, and going out instead.
- An advanced graduate student who postpones working on a large research project or dissertation for an entire semester, by continually putting it off to a later date, while working on small and unimportant tasks instead.
How common student procrastination is
Procrastination is very common among students. For example, studies show that approximately 50% of college students say that they procrastinate in a consistent and problematic manner, approximately 75% consider themselves to be procrastinators, and approximately 80%–95% engage in procrastination to some degree.
Furthermore, research shows that procrastination is common among other student populations, including elementary-school students, middle-school students, and graduate students. 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.
Finally, note that the prevalence of procrastination also 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.
How procrastination affects students
Procrastination can cause a variety of issues for students, when it comes to their time management, academic performance, emotional wellbeing, and mental and physical health. Specifically:
- In terms of time management, procrastination can take up a considerable amount of time, and students often report that procrastination occupies over a third of their daily activities, usually in the form of behaviors such as sleeping, watching TV, or playing games. It can also cause them to experience other time-management issues, such as missing important deadlines, or rushing to complete assignments without enough time.
- In terms of academic performance, procrastination can lead to various issues, including worse exam scores, worse grades, more course failures, and more course withdrawals. Many of these issues can be attributed to issues that procrastination causes in terms of time management. For example, if students fail to manage their time by continually putting off studying for an important test, they will likely end up unprepared, and therefore earn a worse grade than they could have earned if they didn’t procrastinate.
- In terms of emotional wellbeing and mental and physical health, procrastination can lead to a variety of issues, such as increased stress and increased rates of illness. Many of these issues are associated with the issues that students experience in terms of their time management and academic performance. For example, if a student submits an assignment late due to procrastination and ends up receiving a bad grade, then they might feel anxiety, guilt, and stress over their behavior.
Given this, and given how common procrastination is, it’s unsurprising that many students say that procrastination is always or nearly always a problem for them when it comes to various academic tasks (e.g., writing papers and studying for exams), and that they want to reduce their procrastination on those tasks.
In addition, procrastination can also cause serious issues for students once they leave academia and enter the job market, since many of the above issues extend to adults outside academia, and since procrastination is associated with further issues, such as lower salaries, shorter periods of employment, a higher likelihood of unemployment, and lower financial success in general.
Why students procrastinate
Students procrastinate because issues such as exhaustion and anxiety outweigh their self-control and motivation.
Specifically, when students need to study or work on assignments, they rely primarily on their self-control in order to get themselves to do it. Furthermore, their self-control is sometimes supported by their motivation, which helps them do things in a timely manner.
However, in some cases, students suffer from various issues that interfere with or oppose their self-control and motivation, such as exhaustion and anxiety. When these issues are stronger than their self-control and motivation, they end up procrastinating, until they reach a point where the balance between these factors shifts in the students’ favor, or until it becomes too late.
This explains why many students procrastinate in a chronic manner even when they have the necessary motivation and truly want to study and get their work done. This also explains why many students always procrastinate on academic work until right before the deadline, at which point the increased motivation, often in the form of stressful pressure, finally pushes them to start studying or to start working on their assignments.
- Abstract goals, generally in terms of being vague about when and how the students intend to study or do their work.
- Feeling overwhelmed, often while being unsure of how to deal with the academic task at hand.
- Perfectionism, generally in the form of refusing to create work that has any flaws.
- Fear of failure, often due to concerns over how failure might reflect on the student’s abilities and skills, either in their eyes or in the eyes of others.
- Anxiety, often in light of potential negative feedback.
- Task aversion, especially in cases where the students find an assignment boring or unpleasant.
- Lack of motivation, often as a result of not caring about academic performance, feeling disconnected from their future self, or having rewards that are too far in the future.
- Physical or mental exhaustion, often due to a combination of reasons, such as a high academic workload together with lack of sleep.
- Resentment, generally toward the studying or assignments directly, toward their source, or toward something related, such as a parent pushing the student to do well in a subject that they’re not interested in.
- Sensation seeking, generally in the form of enjoying working on things right before the deadline, when there’s intense time pressure that can make otherwise boring assignments more challenging and exciting.
- Problematic work environment, generally as a result of having many distractions or temptations around.
- Lack of sufficient communication from instructors, for example when it comes to not having clear directions and due dates for a certain class project.
Other common causes of student procrastination include behaviors such as self-handicapping, which involves procrastinating so that if the student fails then they can blame their failure on procrastination rather than on their abilities, and self-sabotaging, which involves procrastinating as a result of a tendency to hinder one’s progress.
Furthermore, certain personality traits, such as distractibility and impulsivity, are associated with the tendency to procrastinate, meaning that people who are naturally high in these traits are more likely to procrastinate.
Overall, students procrastinate because issues such as exhaustion and anxiety outweigh their self-control and motivation. Common issues that lead to student procrastination include abstract goals, feeling overwhelmed, perfectionism, fear of failure, task aversion, resentment, a problematic work environment, and sensation seeking.
Understanding why students procrastinate is important whether you’re a student trying to overcome your own procrastination, or someone such as a parent or teacher who is looking to help a student stop procrastinating. As such, if you’re trying to help someone stop procrastinating, it’s worth spending time figuring out what’s causing this problem in the first place.
However, while understanding the root causes of a student’s procrastination can be beneficial, in many cases you can reduce procrastination even without fully figuring this out. As such, if you find that you’re struggling with this step, don’t worry, and don’t get stuck; simply move on to the next step, which involves trying out various anti-procrastination techniques, until you find the ones that work best in your particular circumstances.
Note: if you want to learn more about the psychology behind why people procrastinate, read the dedicated guide on the topic. Alternatively, if you want to learn more about procrastination in general, see the relevant overview article or the list of procrastination research.
Stopping student procrastination
There are two main groups of people who can help a student overcome procrastination: the student themself, and other people in the student’s life, who are usually authority figures such as their parents or teachers.
In the sections below, you will first see what students can do to overcome their procrastination, before seeing what others can do to help. If you’re a student yourself, only the first section will be relevant for you, unless you’d like to also ask someone for help. On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s trying to help a student or multiple students overcome their procrastination, you should read both sections, since they both contain information that can help you achieve this goal.
How to stop procrastinating on your studying
To stop procrastinating on your studying or schoolwork right now, you should identify the smallest possible thing you can do to make progress on it, and then modify your environment to make it as likely as possible that you will do it.
For example, if you need to study for an exam, the smallest possible step that you can take toward doing this might be to open your notes and go over just the first paragraph that you have written down. Once you realize that this is all you need to do, you can start modifying your study environment to help yourself achieve this, for example by going to a room with no distractions and leaving your phone outside.
In addition, there are various other anti-procrastination techniques that can help you stop procrastinating as a student, in both the short-term and the long-term. You don’t need to use all of these techniques, since some won’t be relevant in your case, and since you will generally only need a few of them in order to make significant progress toward overcoming your procrastination. As such, try skimming through this list, and finding the techniques that you think will work best for you, before giving them a try.
Improve your planning:
- Set concrete goals for yourself. For example, instead of a vague goal, such as “study for my upcoming exam”, set a concrete goal, such as “on the week of my upcoming exam, go to the library every day after I finish my last class for the day, and spend at least 2 hours studying”.
- Break your tasks into small and manageable steps. For example, if you need to write an essay, you can start with steps such as figuring out the title, creating a rough outline, and finding five appropriate academic sources. Note that if the project in question is large, then you generally shouldn’t worry about figuring out all the steps to it from the start. Instead, start by identifying only the first few steps that you need to take, and then identify new steps as you make progress, to avoid feeling overwhelmed or getting stuck.
- Set intermediate milestones and deadlines for yourself. If your instructor hasn’t done this already, or if they’ve only set a single major deadline at the end, setting intermediate milestones and deadlines for yourself will help you plan ahead, be accountable, and feel more motivated to make continuous progress.
- Identify your productivity cycles. Students vary in terms of when they’re most productive; for example, some work best in the morning, while others are more focused at night. You should take this into account, and schedule your study and work to times of day when you’re least likely to procrastinate.
Improve your environment:
- Change your environment to make it harder for yourself to procrastinate. For example, if you tend to procrastinate on writing essays because you keep browsing social media, turn off your internet connection on your computer before you get to work.
- Change your environment to make it easier for yourself to get started. For example, if you know that you’ll need to study for an exam tomorrow morning, organize all the relevant study material on your desk or in your bag before you go to bed.
- Change your environment to make it easier for you to keep going. For example, if you know that you’re likely to lose concentration if you get distracted while studying, go study in a quiet room and leave your phone outside.
Change your approach:
- Start with a tiny step. For example, if you need to write an essay, help yourself get started by committing to only write a single sentence at first. This can help you push yourself to get started on tasks, and often, once you do so, you’ll find it easy to keep going.
- Start with the best or worst part first. Some students find that starting with the most enjoyable or easiest part of an assignment helps them get going, while others find that getting the worst part out of the way first helps them avoid procrastinating over time. You can use either approach if you find that it works well for you.
- Add a time delay before you procrastinate. If you can’t avoid procrastinating entirely, try committing to having a time delay before you indulge your impulse to do so. For example, this can involve counting to 10 before you’re allowed to open a new tab on the social media website that you usually use to procrastinate.
- Use the Pomodoro technique. This involves alternating between scheduled periods of study and rest. For example, you can study for 25-minute long stretches, with 5-minute breaks in between, and a longer 30-minute break after every 4 study sets that you complete.
Increase your motivation:
- Make studying feel more rewarding. For example, you can gamify your studying, by marking down streaks of days on which you’ve managed to achieve your study goals, and potentially also giving yourself some reward once you reach a sufficiently long streak.
- Make studying feel more enjoyable. For example, if studying in your room is uncomfortable, try going somewhere more pleasant, such as the library.
- Visualize your future self. For example, you can visualize yourself being able to relax after finishing an assignment, visualize yourself being rewarded for getting a good grade, or visualize yourself having to handle the issues associated with not studying enough.
- Focus on your goals instead of on your tasks. For example, if you need to work on an assignment that you find boring, then instead of focusing on the assignment, try thinking about your academic goals and about the reason why you want to do well on that assignment, such as that you want to get a good grade in the class so you can have a stronger college application.
Change your mindset:
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re working on an assignment, accept the fact that your work likely won’t be perfect, especially at first. Furthermore, you can decide to start by just getting some initial answers written down, and then go over your work at the end to check if you need to make corrections.
- Address your fears. If you’re procrastinating because you’re afraid of something, try to identify your fears and resolve them. For example, if you’re afraid that your writing won’t be good enough, you can say to yourself that your goal is to just start by getting something written down, and that you can always improve it later.
- Develop self-compassion. Self-compassion can help reduce your procrastination, as well as various issues that are associated with it, such as stress. It consists of three components that you should promote: self-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
- Develop self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals. It can help you reduce your procrastination, as well as associated issues, such as anxiety. To develop self-efficacy, try to identify the various strategies that you can use to successfully study and complete your assignments, and think about your ability to execute those strategies successfully.
Keep in mind that anti-procrastination techniques are especially effective when they’re tailored to the specific causes of your procrastination. For example, if you procrastinate on working on your thesis because it feels overwhelming, try using techniques that will make it feel more manageable, such as breaking it apart into a series of small steps.
In addition, keep in mind that if you suffer from an underlying issue that causes procrastination, such as ADHD, depression, or lack of sleep, you will likely need to resolve that issue first, using professional help if necessary, in order to successfully overcome your procrastination.
Finally, there are two other important things to keep in mind:
- Most students need more than one technique in order to overcome their procrastination, so you generally shouldn’t expect a single technique to solve your procrastination entirely.
- Different techniques work better for different students in different circumstances, so just because a certain technique works well for others, that doesn’t also mean that it will work well for you.
As such, you should try out the various anti-procrastination techniques that are available to you, until you figure out which ones work best for you, in your particular situation. In addition, you can read the guide on how to stop procrastinating to learn more about how to use these techniques as effectively as possible.
Overall, to stop procrastinating on your schoolwork, you should identify the smallest possible thing you can do to make progress on it, and then modify your environment to make it as likely as possible that you will do it. In the long term, you should also figure out the causes of your procrastination, and use relevant anti-procrastination techniques, such as setting concrete goals, breaking tasks into manageable steps, and giving yourself permission to make mistakes.
How to help students stop procrastinating
When it comes to helping students overcome their procrastination, there are three main types of approaches that you can use:
- An externally led approach. This involves using relevant anti-procrastination techniques to reduce students’ procrastination, without actively involving them in the process. For example, this can involve setting a series of intermediate project deadlines for all students in a course.
- A student-led approach. This involves letting students overcome their procrastination with little to no external guidance. External guidance in this case might include something as minimal as mentioning the problem of procrastination and telling students about a relevant resource such as this article.
- A joint approach. This involves giving students external guidance while also encouraging them to 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, you should decide which one to use based on factors such as the number of students that you’re trying to help and the type of relationship that you have with them. For example, if you’re a teacher trying to help 200 students in a college course you will likely need to use a different approach than if you’re a parent trying to help just your kid.
Note that almost any type of relationship can be beneficial when it comes to helping a student overcome their procrastination. For example, if you’re a teacher, you’re likely in a good position in terms of your influence over the student’s academic situation. On the other hand, if you’re a parent, you’re likely in a good position in terms of your influence over the student’s home life.
Furthermore, note that you can reach out to other stakeholders who can help. For example, if you’re a teacher, and you think that a student’s parents might be able to help them stop procrastinating, you can reach out to them and discuss the situation.
In addition, an important factor to keep in mind is how independent the students in question are. In general, the more independent students are, the more they should be involved in the process of overcoming their procrastination, since this can increase their motivation and make the process more effective, while generally leading to more self-development and growth over time. This also raises the importance of giving students a sense of control, even if you’re the one guiding the process, which can be especially crucial when it comes to avoiding procrastination that’s rooted in issues such as resentment, rebellion, or lack of self-confidence.
Finally, the following is a list of specific things that you can do to help students stop procrastinating:
- Explain to the students what procrastination is and what it looks like, and help them understand that they engage in it themselves.
- Show the students why procrastination can be dangerous, when it comes to factors such as their academic performance, their career prospects, and their mental and physical health.
- Explain to the students what causes procrastination, and help them identify the causes of their own procrastination.
- Point students in the direction of resources that can help them deal with their procrastination, such as this article.
- Tell the student about relevant anti-procrastination techniques, and help them pick their preferred ones.
- Implement anti-procrastination techniques on behalf of the students, such as breaking apart large tasks into manageable steps and setting intermediate deadlines.
Overall, you can help students overcome their procrastination in various ways, such as by helping them understand that they’re procrastinating in a problematic manner, helping them identify the causes of their procrastination, and helping them choose and implement relevant anti-procrastination techniques. The specific approach that you should use depends on factors such as how autonomous the students in question are, how many students you’re trying to help, and what kind of relationship you have with them.