While light from the sunrise started to seep into my window, I quickly scrambled to gather old crayons and Sparknotes. I was a seventh grader racing to complete my project–due just a few hours after I started–on The Pearl, by John Steinbeck. The reason I recall this particular morning vividly is that it perfectly exemplifies my history of procrastination. From middle school book projects to my Undergraduate Mathematics Seminar in my junior year of college, I felt physically incapable of mustering up the discipline to work on tasks as they were assigned. Only the cortisol-inducing pressure of a rapidly approaching deadline could motivate me to start chipping away at my responsibilities. Upon the end of my first semester of senior year at university, I realized that something needed to change–and by my second semester, I had actually successfully stopped.
Spending six or more years in a bad habit and coming out of it within a semester is hard, but not as difficult as it sounds. Even though I only realized this while my undergraduate journey came to a close, I aspire to assist current students with starting assignments when they are assigned. By discussing a study and then telling my own story, I will paint a picture of how knowing why you procrastinate is key to ridding the bad habit.
I used to say “I procrastinate because I am lazy.” How could I not be? If I had a month to do a project but refused to get started until the due date, then I must have been too lazy to begin my work on earlier days–right? Not necessarily.
Immediately ascribing procrastination to laziness is often a copout; there are numerous reasons that students treat the due date like the “do date.” In fact, a 2013 journal article by Carola Grunschel, Justine Patrzek, and Stefan Fries in the European Journal of Psychology of Education cites nine categories for reasons to procrastinate: internal reasons (such as anxiety and frustration), mental and physical states (such as burnout and sickness), cognitive (rumination), personal beliefs (such as believing that work needs to be perfect or that everything will work out in the end anyway), personality (such as low self-esteem), competences (lack of study skills, self-regulation, or organization), previous learning experiences (such as negative experiences and learned behavior), perceived task characteristics (such as thinking the work is not urgent or not interesting), and external reasons (such as too many exams and disorganized lecturers). Finding out why one procrastinates is the first step to beating it.
I personally held different reasons for procrastinating in middle school, high school, earlier college, and later college. In middle school and earlier college, I figured that I still achieved the grades I wanted when I procrastinated; in turn, I thought “if I don’t need to work on my assignment a little every day, then why should I?” I forwent the fact that I still should have been building good habits that would serve me later. In high school, I clung to limiting beliefs–like the false notion that since only people more intelligent than myself were in my courses, I was not going to perform well even if I did try hard and even if I did not procrastinate.
In later college, I procrastinated because of despising the idea of not immediately knowing how to do something. Starting my assignments on time reminded me that I did not know how to approach them, which stressed me out more. When I procrastinated, I felt that I at least had the time pressure to override the feeling of incompetence. For reference, I switched my major from Mathematics and Economics to Mathematics and Computer Science, because I decided I would rather work in the tech sector than the financial sector. Although I generally performed well in Mathematics, I felt Computer Science was far more difficult. This clashed with what many people told me when I discussed my major-switch. I would always hear “If you can do Math, you can definitely do Computer Science!” I did not feel this way. To me, my first ever programming course, the easiest one I would have to take, felt more difficult and time-consuming than my hardest Economics upper-division course–the hardest Economics class I would have had to take.
I had some wise high school friends tell me that pursuing the Computer Science major was more about resilience and tenacity than about innate intelligence. I also got an Engineering internship and a Product Management internship in the summer and fall before and of my senior year, and mentors from those experiences confirmed the same thing. Only after I finally placed that my procrastination was about my pride and my hating the idea of feeling like I did not know how to do something, I internalized and followed these people’s advice. I finally understood where the people who told me “if you can do Math, you can do Computer Science” were coming from. I had not felt incompetent in Math, since I had been doing it for years–but I had felt incompetent in Computer Science, since I had not been doing it for years. Instead of aiming to “solve my procrastination,” I aimed to solve my feelings of incompetence–and the only way to solve incompetence is to tackle the material and practice. In turn, focusing on the root of my procrastination equipped me with the wake up call that I must swallow my pride and must become okay with seeing myself not instantly know how to do things.
Once I became okay with seeing myself be incompetent, I saw no point in starting assignments late. After all, the only way to gain competence in the subject matter of the assignment was to familiarize myself with the assignment and to give myself ample time to work on it. Curbing my stubbornness to not want to see myself not knowing how to do something killed two birds with one stone–it erased my bad habit, but it also taught me the important lesson that a lot of mini-failures will help me avoid larger, more impactful failures. Sure, spending two hours to code something that ended up having fifty bugs was a blow to my self esteem at first–but it was better to experience that for weeks and then finally ace the final programming project than it was to temporarily run away from the feeling of incompetence but then perform poorly in the end. Of course, while my procrastination was caused by hating to see myself mess up, everyone has different reasons for procrastination–and your story in ending your procrastination may look different than mine. Ultimately though, the moral of my own journey is to identify your own reasons for procrastinating, and to fight those reasons at the root.
I urge you to take a look at the journal article I mentioned above. Comb through the categories and reasons for procrastinating, find the ones with which you identify, and start making a plan to tackle those. Procrastination is always a result of something, and you will find it far more effective to fight what creates that result rather than attempting to fight the result all by itself. You can train yourself to become okay with seeing yourself mess up. You can train yourself to not let your previous learning experiences and results dictate your present ones. You can train yourself to gain self-esteem. Once you address your root cause, you should no longer even have a reason to procrastinate. You can, and will, stop procrastinating and start flourishing.