Science Scene: Bad Habits | Procrastination

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Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

When an assignment deadline on Canvas reads 11:59 p.m., many will log on with just minutes to spare.

Most college students are familiar with the practice of procrastination. A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Psychological Studies claims that about 80–95 percent of college students engage in procrastination.

Rhetoric and writing professor Patricia Roberts-Miller, who leads a Writing Center workshop on procrastination every semester, said boredom and anxiety motivate people to procrastinate. She said because people associate procrastination with ineffective time management, they erroneously frame procrastination as a fault of character and view the habit as harmful and unproductive.

“If procrastination is putting something off until the last minute, sometimes that’s an effective time management strategy,” Roberts-Miller said. “If I’m having people over for dinner, I don’t set the table until the last minute. If I set the table earlier, I’d have to reset it because my cats would sit on the plates.”

However, some students feel procrastination hampers their overall productivity or hurts the quality of their work. An ongoing online poll conducted by Procrastination and Science found that almost 50 percent of respondents consider their procrastination harmful, while only 2 percent viewed it as a helpful habit.

Panic brought on by approaching deadlines forces people to work without fixating on perfecting details. This short-term incentive encourages procrastination but can be damaging in the long run.

“Most of us panicked our way through our undergraduate degree,” Roberts-Miller said. “But panic can’t work us through longer assignments. It becomes an unsustainable habit.”

It doesn’t help that changing a procrastination habit can be hard. According to Roberts-Miller, strategies such as positive thinking or self-chastising do not help students deal with time management issues.

Effective strategies include a more realistic consideration of obstacles and objectives and a plan of action that includes reasonable deadlines and goals. John Perry, former professor of philosophy at Stanford University, wrote in an essay that people can use their procrastination tendencies to their advantage. Through a process he calls “structured procrastination,” the procrastinator becomes productive by working through lower-priority tasks.

When dealing with tedious tasks, Piers Steel, one of the leading researchers on the science of motivation and procrastination, recommends setting goals and working for a small period of time. After the process goal is met, he advises introducing a reward, such as five minutes of free time or a snack.

If handled well, procrastination can become a tool instead of an obstacle. But, if it becomes obstructive, the best way for students to manage procrastination and foster healthy time management practices is to identify the motives behind the habit. 

Follow these links to read the science behind avoiding other bad habits such as not sleepingtest anxiety and eating poorly.