Getting stuff done


Our student has now decided on a long-term goal. They've broken their goal down into a number of smaller sub-goals and are attempting to build effective study habits that will help them to reach their goal successfully It's now Wednesday and our student has been handed an essay question to be completed by next Wednesday. Armed with a new sense of purpose and an acute understanding of what is required, our student responds with I'll do it tomorrow'.

Tomorrow comes and goes and the essay isn't done; in fact, it hasn't been started or the instructions read since Wednesday. The weekend arrives and there are friends to spend time with, a party to attend on Saturday night and the latest episode of their favourite television show to catch up on. 'I'll get it done on Sunday,’ says our student. Sunday comes and goes. Back at school on Monday, our student has other deadlines to meet and the essay becomes just another something that needs doing. They grab a couple of spare hours on Tuesday and finally begin the essay that is now almost a week old.

We might be tempted to accuse our student of laziness, while at the same time recognising our own behaviour in this scenario. The behaviour itself is caused by a complex interaction of both internal predispositions and environmental cues, together contributing to an outcome with the power to prevent us from recognising our goals. Hanging out with friends will result in immediate feelings of pleasure, while cracking on with the essay probably won't. Indeed, apart from the relief of finishing the work, our student may have to wait several days before the results of their toil will be known. The positive benefits of time with friends, on the other hand, are immediate, as is watching the season finale of their favourite television show.

What is procrastination?

We tend to use the term procrastination to describe this behaviour. We are all guilty of procrastination to some extent, be it something relatively minor such as fixing that leaky tap or something more vital like meeting an important deadline. But do we really understand why we procrastinate? Furthermore, do we know how to prevent it?

Procrastination is often an emotional driven response related to our concept of self. Negative emotions arise because we might feel that the task we are putting off represents something that we aren't prepared to handle. We might think of the task as too difficult or the prospect of failure too high. These negative emotions deactivate the desire to begin the task or lead to half-stepping, the nonchalant kind of attitude were we don't expend much effort on the task.

Procrastination appears to increase with age and is more prevalent in males than females (although much of this research remains inconsistent). There also seems to be a link between procrastination and wider psychological distress and suicidal proneness (see Cerino, 2014). Robert Klassen found that 57 per cent of Canadian college students spent three or more hours a day procrastinating, indicating that such behaviour is certainly prevalent in academic settings (Klassen et al., 2010). Again, from an academic standpoint, people with higher levels of procrastination also display lower conscientiousness (see Chapter 4) and lower levels of self- efficacy (Chapter 11).

Predictors of procrastination

In a 2007 meta-analysis, Piers Steel identified four predictors of procrastination:

  • • Dislike of the task
  • • Characteristics of the task
  • • Individual differences (such as self-efficacy and depression)
  • • Conscientiousness.
  • (Steel, 2007)

These predictors imply that both internal and external factors play a role in whether or not someone will actively delay completing a task. Many of the tasks students need to complete are not those that would be attached to intrinsic types of motivation and may, therefore, rely more heavily on extrinsic rewards. However, it could be that as students become more skilled at a particular task, levels of procrastination drop. Take, for example, learning to play the guitar. Learning scales and perfecting chord changes are far from enjoyable for most novice guitarists, yet as these skills are honed, the more competent the students becomes and the more enjoyable the experience.

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