by Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler
Between now and the end of the school year is usually a crunch time, when girls feel pressured to do nightly homework while also finishing projects, writing papers, and studying for final exams. But many are honest enough to admit that they make this stress even worse by procrastinating. Instead of getting down to work when they get home from school, or right after dinner, they find a trillion “reasons” (read: excuses) to put off opening the books: “I’ve got to clean my room before I can do anything else,” or “I’ll just watch one show to relax first.” Most often, it’s “I’ve got to check my Facebook updates for a minute….” Of course, what usually happens is: “But then I got sidetracked by looking at everyone’s pictures. Before I knew it, an hour had passed…”
It’s human nature to procrastinate. We do it for various reasons: when we’re tired, we don’t feel like doing something, or we’re distracted by other thoughts and feelings. Sometimes certain tasks make us anxious or totally bored.
So we get involved in something else—or opt out by taking a nap. Either way, we keep from feeling bored, annoyed, frustrated, or afraid. Procrastination is just a fancy word for avoidance!
The problem, however, is that it’s not a particularly good coping strategy. As soon as we face up to what we have to do, those same feelings return—with a vengeance. Now we have even less time to get things done, putting additional pressure on us. Even while engrossed in playing a computer game or shopping online, you’re probably aware of that huge To Do list hanging over your head. That only worsens the stress. Plus, procrastinating often makes us feel bad about ourselves.
The good news is that you can learn to stop procrastinating—or at least to do it less. First, figure out the cause(s). Then you can find solutions that work.
Use this mental checklist to understand what’s making you put off ‘til later what you can finish now:
Sleepy? After a long day of school, you’re probably tired (especially if you didn’t sleep enough last night). But before you take a quick power nap that turns into a 3-hour sleep-fest that makes you groggy (and keeps you wide awake tonight), try these strategies:
- Listen to upbeat music. That’ll perk you right up.
- Switch your routine. New and different experiences cause a rush of brain chemicals that make you more alert. If you usually sprawl across your bed when you work, sit cross-legged on the floor.
- Get active. You’ll be more awake if you’re moving than if you’re sitting still. A 10-minute walk will boost your energy for up to 2 hours. (BONUS: Taking your dog might earn you brownie points.)
Hungry? Our brains need fuel, especially when we’re stressed. Avoid raiding the junk food, which will probably make you sleepier. Instead, boost your brainpower with a high protein snack such as a handful of nuts, some cheese, hummus, or yogurt.
Mentally exhausted? Is your brain on overload?
- Make a list. Write down all tasks and due dates in order of priority. Enjoy crossing them off.
- Pace yourself. Alternate easy and hard tasks—or ones that take you the most and the least amount of time.
- Take breaks. Play a quick game on your iPhone to have fun and activate brain cells. WARNING: Make that ONE game—or set your phone alarm to go off in 5 to 10 minutes.
- Breathe deeply and exhale fully. This will get rid of excess carbon dioxide so you get more oxygen to your brain and feel more mentally alert.Do whatever works. Spend 10 minutes doing whatever relaxes you.
- Work out. Exercising in the early afternoon or up to two hours before bed lowers the stress hormone and releases feel-good endorphins.
- Do whatever works. Spend 10 minutes doing whatever relaxes you.
To avoid procrastination, the best strategy is using self-discipline. That’s when we make ourselves do things even when we really don’t want to. It’s not easy, but well worth the effort. Research shows the most successful, confident people aren’t necessarily the smartest, but they’re persistent and self-disciplined.
Roni Cohen-Sandler is the author of Stressed Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure. To sign up for Dr. Cohen-Sandler’s free e-newsletter, Parenting 21st Century Teens: Issues and Solutions, visit www.RoniCohenSandler.com.
I recently had one of my readers, Maya*, ask me to write about procrastination. Now I’ll be honest with you, (please don’t hate me), when I was in college I was that girl who had her paper written at least a week before the due date. I always did things way ahead of time, and never stressed about homework. Seriously, never.
And no I’m not some huge super-nerd.
I just felt so accomplished after getting things done early, and chased that feeling. And doing things ahead of time ensured I never had to turn down hanging out with friends, never did homework past 8pm, and always turned in the high quality work that only time can produce. This recipe ensured many 100% on essays and tests, and A’s for life.
Yep, I mostly got 100’s on my tests. And trust me, I’m not a super genius (see my SAT/ACT/GRE scores). However, if I can study for a test I will ace it. And I will not give up my social life. And I will enjoy the process. And you can too.
So if you’re still reading and haven’t gagged in your hatred of my non-procrastination I thank you. I only say all this because I want to help those who want to end their procrastinating ways.
Maya is one of those rare and wonderful students who actually want to their overcome their procrastination. And I’m guessing you’re one of those too or you wouldn’t have gotten this far.
Maya asked me about tips to help her stay motivated and not procrastinate, and explained one of the issues she struggles most with is:
“I find excuses why I don't have to study right at that moment. It's like I trick myself into believing that I'll eventually get it done and it'll be fine, but it never is. Because of this, I end up just giving up on trying to get things done on time because I feel like such a disappointment when I give myself goals that I don't accomplish.”
Maya is not a lazy slacker. She obviously wants to succeed and wants to accomplish her goals, but her motivation dies in the middle of the semester and she said she finds herself still cramming at the last minute, especially in the midst of the disappointment she feels when she doesn’t meet her goals.
So below are my top 10 tips for Maya and for you to stop procrastination from limiting your life and your potential.
1. Analyze the consequences
What are you procrastinating that’s actually limiting your life, draining your energy, and keeping you from a 4.0? If you procrastinate picking your clothes up off your bedroom floor but it doesn’t bother you, then it’s not really a big deal. However, if you aren’t getting the grades you want, missing opportunities, or disappointing yourself and others, then it’s time to seriously change your habits.
2. Know your excuses
Pay attention to the excuses you make to continue your procrastination. Excuses are those little voices inside your head that tell you it’s okay to put something off. Recognize any of these?
“I work best under pressure”
“I’m too tired”
“I’m not in the mood”
“I’ll do it tomorrow”
“Procrastination is a natural part of college”
“I can write this paper in one draft”
“I’ll live with a C”
“I won’t get an A anyway so why bother”
“This won’t take that long – I’ll have plenty of time later”
“I’ll start this after…”
“This won’t be that hard”
“I’ll eventually get it done – I always do”
I’m sure you could add many more to this list. Notice your excuses and label them as excuses, not comforts. Stop that little voice and replace it with action.3. Take control
When you procrastinate you may think you are controlling your homework by putting it off until the last minute, but in reality, when you procrastinate your homework controls you. Deciding to complete a project ahead of time allows you to control the timeline and your grade.
4. Break it down
The first thing I do when I consult with students about time management and procrastination is for them to show me their to do list (if they even have one). Most lists say things like “English essay” or “read Huckleberry Finn” This is the worst possible way you could write a to do list.
First of all, if you look at “English essay” all you’re going to think is “ugh I do not want to write a whole essay right now.” It is much easier to begin a task if it says “write 1pg. English essay outline.”
All projects should be broken down and divided over a timeline you create (i.e. you are in control, and you can create pressure for yourself if you do work best under pressure). But of course, tasks can only be broken down if you create your plan AS SOON AS YOU GET AN ASSIGNMENT.
Every item should start with a verb (e.g. write, read, outline, do) and then be as SPECIFIC as possible and represent a task that would take you no more than 2 hours. So for example, “read Huckleberry Finn” should be: “Monday: read pgs 1-30 in Huckleberry Finn.” Suddenly this task doesn’t seem so daunting.
5. Schedule study time in a productive environment
Especially when you commute to college your instinct is to schedule your classes as close together as possible so you can drive, go to class, and then leave. Resist this urge and schedule your classes far apart and make that time your designated daily study time.
Find a great spot in the library (avoid studying in your room at all costs), sit down and create a to do list JUST for that scheduled time, do NOT open Facebook, and then don’t stop until the time is finished.
6. Stay motivated
Maya mentioned she knows breaking tasks down and time management are important, but she finds what is most difficult for her is maintaining momentum and motivation through the end of the semester. She makes plans to get ahead and then falls behind and then feels so disappointed.
To stay motivated, write out your short and long term goals for your life and post them on the inside of your binder or book. Remind yourself why you’re in school and where you want to go in lifeconstantly. If you don’t have that clear picture yet, start searching now.
If you don’t have a clear goal and are not excited about what school is going to help you accomplish, then it will be almost impossible to muster up motivation to do things ahead of time.7. Be accountable Get a mentor or a friend to keep you accountable with your procrastination during a semester. Buddy up with someone in your class. Find a college adviser or mentor and tell them your goals for overcoming procrastination and ask them to follow up with you.
Surround yourself with people who care about school and who do not take pride in procrastinating. These kind of people will help you stay motivated and will not distract you.
8. Don’t be hard on yourself
Maya said she often felt disappointed in herself when she didn’t reach her short-term anti-procrastination goals. Don't be too hard on yourself – it doesn’t work and only serves to deflate your motivation even further.
Do not punish yourself, but instead when you find yourself cramming and are wondering how you got there, make a plan to avoid this next time. Figure out what went wrong and instead of slapping yourself on the wrist, promise yourself you’ll implement a new plan for the next test. And when you do, reward yourself and compliment yourself.
9. Take one day at a time
Remember procrastination is a habit and like all habits it is hard to beat it overnight. However, you’ll never beat it if you don’t start today.
10. Eat That Frog
Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy is one of the best books on procrastination. You can preview the concept in this short 1:28 video and/or buy the book here.In short, Tracy says you should do the hardest thing you have to do as early as possible because it will give you huge dose of energy. If you had a frog on your plate and just ate it and got it over with, you would be able to enjoy the rest of your meal. However, if you put it off, it will drain your energy and you will slowly be filled with dread and stress.
Stress causes so many problems, and believe it or not, college does not have to be stressful. In fact, done right, it shouldn’t be stressful. If it is, talk to someone and change your habits. Thanks Maya – I hope this helps!
*name has been changed for privacy