Hi, I’m a serial procrastinator! I have been procrastinating ever since I started school. It’s a lot easier to do in highschool, harder to do in undergrad, but it’s impossible during grad school. Trust me, I’m a seasoned procrastinator and I know what I’m talking about: I wrote full 20-page essays the night before during undergrad and destroyed myself doing that. No matter how good you think you are at getting things done at the last minute, you won’t be able to procrastinate like that in grad school because the expectations are on a whole different level. I knew this coming into grad school, so I’ve been working on learning tips and tricks for overcoming procrastination.
Here are a few tricks that have helped me:
1. Break big tasks down into a series of smaller steps.
Looking at a big assignment or task can be totally overwhelming. Like, how am I supposed to write a 25-page paper?! Instead of looking at it as one giant task, take the time to think about what steps are required to achieve that task. Whenever I am assigned something, I will think through everything I have to do and write it down as a list of steps. Take the example of writing a paper: you start by finding 5+ academic sources, then read the sources, then create a structure for your paper, do the data section, then write other sections, etc. It’s so much easier to conceptualize the task of finding 5+ peer-reviewed articles for your paper than to conceptualize writing a massive paper. So break things down into small steps to make a big project feel less daunting.
2. Start small.
After I’ve figured out what steps I need to take in order to complete a big task, I like to start with the small and easy steps. Starting small can help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and give you the motivation to keep accomplishing tasks. For me, this is usually creating a document. I always start with opening a word processing document, saving it with an accurate title, and creating a skeleton structure (putting in the titles of sections, like Introduction, Background, etc). It’s such a simple thing to do, but it’s the foundation of your project and shows you that all you have to do is fill in the sections! It’s also an easy thing to cross off of my tasks that need completing. So start easy and gain momentum from a small accomplishment!
3. Make lists and prioritize.
This ties in with 1. of creating a list of steps it will take to achieve a bigger task. But I find it helpful to do this with all the things you need to achieve in a day/week/etc so that you can literally see everything you have to do. When you cross things off your list, it also shows how much progress you’ve made! I like to colour-code my lists so that I can easily see which readings and assignments are for which task, or whether it’s a task regarding a particular project. I also include life things on my lists, like buying groceries or sending emails. I find that writing lists helps you to prioritize which tasks are most important and need to be done first. Whether that’s a numbered list where you do the thing at the top first, or a list for what needs to be accomplished by the end of the day, etc. Listing out what you need to accomplish helps you see how much there is to do, and it helps you prioritize what tasks must get done.
4. Make a schedule with achievable goals and reward success.
A big thing for procrastinators is not “finding the time” to get work done early. So try scheduling in periods of time to work on projects early! Use your calendar, reminders on your phone, or sticky notes to tell you when you should work on a project. Make a goal for this period of time that’s achievable and make sure to do your best to achieve that goal during the set time. This could be a goal of spending 15 minutes uninterrupted reading a textbook chapter, or it could be a goal of completing 2 pages of an essay over a 3 hour period. Whatever your goal is, make sure it’s specific and achievable within the time period. Personally, I struggle with achieving benchmarks, so I set my goals as working on a project for an uninterrupted period of time. And if you do achieve your goal? Reward yourself! I like to buy myself a latte if I have done a good job achieving my goals throughout the week. If it’s a thing I really really don’t want to do or it’s difficult, I give myself bigger rewards for completing it! So schedule in time to work, set achievable goals for that work period, and reward yourself for achieving your goals! But remember: don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve those goals, just try harder next time.
5. Show yourself compassion, let yourself take a break to recharge.
Showing yourself compassion when you fail to achieve your goal is very important. The more you beat yourself up over small failures or guilt of slacking off when you should be working, the less energized you’ll be to do work. Often, procrastinators feel extremely guilty about procrastinating and will criticize themselves for not working sooner. We may think that self-criticism helps inspire us to get things done, but it has the opposite effect. Self-criticism drains your energy and encourages you to keep procrastinating. The best way to overcome this is to forgive yourself for failure or procrastination, and then to see it as a chance to recharge your batteries. So what if you watch 3 episodes of your favourite show on Netflix? Remember that you need that time to recharge and rest your brain. Instead of making yourself feel guilty about watching your favourite show, think about how you’re letting your brain relax so that you’ll be energized and ready to start working after the episode is done! It’s a simple way to reframe your thoughts, but endlessly helpful. If you don’t punish yourself for relaxing, you will actually feel more relaxed and ready to work again. So be compassionate toward yourself when you fail or procrastinate, and instead think of procrastination as a chance to relax and recharge your batteries so that you can return to work refreshed!
6. Act upon ideas and inspiration.
When you’re a procrastinator, it’s hard to motivate yourself to start work. That’s why it’s so important to act upon any moments of inspiration to start your project! If you get an idea for your essay or figure out how to overcome a problem, tackle it immediately. Use that idea and moment of motivation to start on your work. Once you write down the idea, you may be inspired to continue working on it or improving other parts of the project. If the document is already open and you have a good workflow, why not keep going? I find this really helpful and will drop anything I’m doing when inspiration or motivation hits because I know that it fades quickly. So if you have an idea, inspiration, or motivation to work, use it as soon as possible to get some of your project done
7. Trick yourself with early deadlines.
This works really well if you keep a calendar and know your deadlines for projects a few months in advance. As a student, I take the syllabi for all my classes and write down the deadlines in my calendar for the entire term. Then, I write in fake deadlines a few days or a week before the real deadline. This way, I freak out a bit when I see the false deadline and start working on the project a few days or a week earlier than I normally would. Alternatively, you could write in reminders that you have a project due in two weeks, in one week, etc. Or, you could try scheduling in time to work on the upcoming projects before the night-before-it’s-due procrastination work time. So use scheduling to your advantage and trick your future self, or set up reminders!
8. Practice productive procrastination.
Procrastinating things can create a lot of anxiety which builds and builds and builds until you finally break down and complete the project you’ve been procrastinating. The only way to get rid of anxiety from procrastination is to work on whatever is being procrastinated. One way to help with this is to tackle smaller projects while you’re procrastinating a bigger project. This will help to relieve anxiety more effectively than watching extra Netflix episodes, and it will also cross things off of your list. This might be doing the pile of dishes in your sink, organizing your calendar for the week, doing the easier project you have due, or writing the reflection paper that’s actually kinda fun. I always try to be productive when I’m procrastinating because even if I don’t get the big thing done, at least I’ve used that as motivation to cross off smaller tasks on my list. Am I writing this blog post right now to procrastinate writing a statistics paper? Absolutely! Do I feel productive even though I’m still procrastinating? Absolutely! So use procrastination to motivate yourself to be productive in other areas! You’ll get things done and also relieve some of your anxiety. This is great especially if you keep a list of things to do because you’ll watch as things keep getting crossed off that list, proving to yourself that you are successful and that you are accomplishing things.
9. Keep things in perspective.
Finally, I think it’s important to keep things in perspective. When you’re procrastinating, it often feels like the thing that you’re avoiding is massive and that it will be the end of the world if you don’t get it done in time. But you know what? The world won’t end if you watch one more episode of a show. The world won’t end if you email your professor asking for an extension. The world won’t end if you submit a partially incomplete draft. The world won’t end if you hand in your project a day late. You will be okay, life will continue going, and the consequences are very manageable. In the case of school assignments, professors are often very understanding, or you’ll suffer a small late penalty. It’s not the end of the world and grades do not define your self-worth. I find it helpful to remind myself of these things and that something doesn’t need to be perfect, or that it’s okay to ask for help when you’re struggling. Sometimes remembering that it’s not the end of the world makes procrastination easier to overcome because it’s no longer such a big deal. So remember to keep things in perspective regarding your life and what you need to get done. Ultimately, nothing in school will be the end of the world and you will be okay.
These are my 9 tips and tricks for how to overcome and deal with procrastination while in school (especially grad school). I’ve researched ways to deal with procrastination and experimented with so many different suggestions; these are the things that I’ve found to work best. The key is to stay organized, plan, be kind to yourself, and remember that it’s not the end of the world. I’ve been a lot happier with school now that I reward myself for success rather than punishing myself for failure.