We all procrastinate at one point or another. It always starts with the the innocent thought of “well, I can just do this later, no big deal.” But in college procrastination becomes a real danger that can quickly hurt grades and contribute to a downward spiral that students find they can’t get out of. College holds a constant stream of work for students, so that “later” time when the work gets pushed off to also has its own work. Now the work has doubled, and if you procrastinate again, the workload is now tripled. Suddenly, you realize that you have so much work to catch up on that it seems like an insurmountable task, and that’s how things start to spiral out of control. When this happens, students start to get worried, feel anxious, and even start to panic from feeling overwhelmed about how much work they have to do. It’s this sense of feeling that catching up is impossible that causes students to lapse in to anxious avoidance. But there are some ways to head off the whole process, and that means targeting where it all begins: Procrastination.
Protect Your Focus And Concentration
Distractions can lead to procrastination by breaking our focus and concentration, both of which critical to learning and achieving. These are just words for “sustained attention,” and attention is the channel to our long-term memory. Attention allows us to complete tasks and intake information, it is the pipeline from the outside world to our memory, so it’s of paramount importance for studying and learning. When you stay away from distractions, the efficiency of your study efforts then becomes better, and you learn more in a shorter amount of time rather than just struggle for hours with half-attention to your work efforts. By avoiding distractions you’ll procrastinate less, stay more focused, and get more work done.
Ways to protect your focus and concentration:
Put yourself in distraction-free environments. We all need places where we can work that don’t drag us off track, and since we’re all different, our definition of these will vary. Some people need dead silence to work well, while others need a certain level of background noise. I’ve worked with students who said that complete silence is distracting for them, and I’m like that too, but you have to define for yourself what type of environment will work best specifically for you. Regardless of where you choose, make sure it eliminates temptation. Studying in your dorm allows people to interrupt you constantly, and procrastination will easily follow if you get invited to do fun things instead of work.
- Use earbuds or headphones in order to block out extraneous noise or distractions. If you’re watching a lecture video this can be a perfect strategy to use, and same is true if you need a certain level of music to focus. Keep in mind that even a low amount of noise can act as a filter to keep our senses from noticing distracting noises. For example, some people will deliberately run an air cleaner in the background since they adjust to that type of noise (called habituation), which ends up masking worse distractions.
Block off visual distractions and interruptions as well. This is why study cubicles are shaped the way that they are, they are meant to block any visual distractions by surrounding the person who is using it. If you don’t have access to these cubicles, then you can prevent visual distractions by choice of room, location, or even by standing up something like a three ring binder to surround yourself to improve focus. Study cubicles also prevent you from seeing classmates, since chatting with them can be a convenient form of procrastination. The point is that in order to focus, eliminating any type of stimuli that will break our concentration is a good thing.
Avoid Distractions, Eliminate Them If Needed
Campus life is filled with infinite distractions on a good day, and each can represent an opportunity to procrastinate. These can come in the form of friends, events, and the many other possibilities of things to do. But keep in mind that students sink or swim by their grades, so you need to be productive no matter what is happening around you. Some people have a hard time saying no to friends, or feel that they will be missing out on a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the reality is that thousands of students each year get a clear message from their college: You either keep your grades up, or we will ask you to leave. This is how important not procrastinating, staying focused, and keeping distractions at bay can be.
Ways to eliminate or avoid distractions that lead to procrastination:
Being able to effectively say “no” is an important skill for avoiding distractions. If you don’t want to say no to friends, you can instead say “I can’t right now, but maybe later.” If you think you’ll have your work done, you might even specify with “ in a couple of hours.” Or, if you aren’t confident in your ability to say no, you can just remove yourself from the situation or even avoid it even before they ask. It’s also fine to come up with an excuse like “I have a paper due” or that you’re studying for a quiz just to get basic homework done.
Don’t get involved in things that will consistently eat up your time. Sports teams, Greek life, student government, and similar activities will require that you dedicate a high number of hours each week to them. These types of commitments can be instant grade killers because they end up taking priority over your studies, so simply prevent them from dragging you away from your class work by simply eliminating any involvement. It’s better to participate in intramural sports than join a team since since the former are completely optional, so you can skip them if you have to get work done.
Get to the library right after class. Don’t even go back to your dorm or apartment, then put your phone on silent. This is a blatant avoid any possible distractions maneuver, and it works really well. It’s also OK to make up an excuse, like you have a meeting with classmates, or that you need to talk with a Professor, then go work at the library instead. Keep in mind that it’s your grades that are at stake here, and it’s easier to find creative ways to say no than it is to improve bad grades later.
Find Your Work Spaces
Avoiding procrastination to be productive means finding places where you know you can work effectively. Many students typically do the old routine of heading to the library, only to find out that it’s too crowded and noisy no matter what floor they try. But this doesn’t change the fact that they have to get work done. If you’re a bit nosy you might find many other places on campus where you can work, and some of these might surprise you. Dormitory lounges, empty classrooms, or empty labs can be useful places to work and are empty most of the time. You’ll have to be curious and check out places that you may not have been to on campus, but you might have some pleasant discoveries.
Tips for finding work spaces on campus:
Larger colleges often have libraries that are dedicated to certain departments, such as Engineering or Law libraries. These are often quiet because they are only known to people in that major. They can make excellent places to do reading or other work, and are usually not restricted to students within that department.
Some colleges have small art galleries that are tucked away in quiet corners of the campus. They can have comfy couches, and are usually nice places where you can get reading or other work done between classes. Because they are little known, only a few people may use them each day, which means that they can be quiet places for getting work done.
- If you prefer a some level of activity or noise in the background while you work, coffee shops or student lounges can also be good places to check when looking for places to work. These can be good if you need to use a laptop, since they reliably have electrical outlets that students can use.
Always keep in mind that, if you’re testing out a new place and worried about being asked to leave, most locations around a college understand the simple excuse of “I’m just looking for a place to work” from students. Have courage, and check out new places to get work done, the worst that will happen is that you find out that you can’t use it.
Prevent Your Own Procrastination
In order to not procrastinate, college students need to take basic steps that work against it. For example, many say that they have trouble working in their dorm room or apartment because there are too many distractions and temptations that make them waste time. If this happens to you, the antidote of course is to simply extract yourself from a time-wasting environment and get to places where you can work. Many places can give one a feeling of actually wanting to work – like if you see other students also working, the feeling is almost contagious. These places can also help you to focus better, hold less temptations or distractions, or otherwise are more conducive to you getting in the mood to work.
If you’re having trouble getting away from procrastination at home:
Break up “removing yourself” from your dorm room or apartment in to steps, with the final step being one simple action: To leave. For example, pack up your books or whatever you need in to your book bag then leave it by the door, which is an easy step one.
For step two, plan where you would want to go to work. Have a handful of places to choose from and double check their open hours, which is usually right at their website. Keep in mind that certain hours can be more busy for them than others, such as lunch time at coffee shops, so you may need change locations once or twice depending on how busy it gets because of the accompanying noise.
Step three is a swift and decisive one: When the right mood strikes you, even for a moment, grab your prepared book bag and just leave. Don’t think twice about it, get out of the building and look forward to heading out and being productive. In fact, if you feel it will help, don’t tell anyone when you leave, you can text them once you are out. Once you leave an environment where you know you’ll procrastinate, your mood will start to change, which increases the odds of doing work. Entering a “work” environment, such as the library or other place where other students are working, can further improve your mood and make you feel more in “work mode.”
Deal With The Damage From Procrastination
Procrastination happens, and falling behind on work tends to feed upon itself. If you’ve already procrastinated, you may feel like you’re in a bad place already, which can lead to even more procrastination. So you need to stop this chain in its tracks by acting to correct what you already put off. This way you’ll feel that things are manageable, and that you can catch up, rather than slide down in to the dark hole that anxiety-driven avoidance can become. Now is the time to work on fixes to get you back on track.
If you have procrastinated, some things you can do to mitigate the situation include:
- Action is the antidote to procrastination and all the woes that it can bring. If you’re behind, you have to start somewhere, so pick some small assignments that you can have success with: Manageable pieces that you can actually complete and turn in ASAP. This will show the Professors that you are working on the backlog, not just giving up on the class.
Talk with or email each Professor individually, apologize for missing any deadlines, and ask for an extension. Many will appreciate it if you are honest with them if you tell them that you’ve been having a lot of stress lately (you don’t need to necessarily tell them why!). Ask for an extension of a day or two, which is a reasonable request that many Professors routinely approve. Don’t ask for longer than that, because if you do, you increase the odds of just procrastinating again. The goal is to catch up on work, not to make more for yourself.
Plan to sacrifice the coming weekend to catch up on work. That’s right, your precious weekends, you’ll need to give one up if you’re behind. Tell your friends in advance, apologize to roommates, or tell whomever you need to that this coming weekend you’re occupied with catching up on work. If you’re able to, heading home for the weekend can be a good move if you feel you’ll be able to get a lot of work done. Keep in mind it’s always far better to tell friends that you have to do work instead of having to tell them later that you have to move out because your grades fell too low.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A. is an Educational Consultant based in Pittsburgh, Pa. He holds a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology, and has been helping students to reach graduation since 2001. Jeff specializes in helping to uncover and address the reasons why students do poorly in college, and has helped many students to achieve their higher education goals. He is also credentialed as a college Advisor, and works at the national level to help students across the U.S.