How to Stop Procrastinating and Start Studying

The words how to stop procrastinating are at the top of the graphic. Underneath is a drawing of a man with two thought bubbles, one depicting a stack of books, the other a mobile phone.

We’ve all been there. The clock is ticking down to an urgent academic deadline and for some reason your brain decides that now is the perfect time to embark on an internet spiral that starts with googling “How to stop procrastinating and start studying,” and ends four hours later with watching a real-time video of the earth from space.

This may even be how you’ve stumbled across this post. If so, welcome!

Procrastination affects nearly everyone at some stage, but it doesn’t need to consume you.

This post will help you to understand why we’re tempted to procrastinate and what’s going on in your brain when you do. We’ll also learn some tips for tackling procrastination to allow you to work effectively and efficiently. If you want to skip straight to the tips, click here.

This post is part of my mindset series. You can check out the full series below:

  1. PhD Burnout: Managing Energy, Stress, Anxiety & Your Mental Health
  2. PhD Motivation: How to Stay Driven From Cover Letter to Completion
  3. How to Stop Procrastinating and Start Studying (this part!)

What is Procrastination?

For anyone who’s been following the blog for a while you’ll probably know that I’m a big fan of Tim Urban and his blog Wait But Why.

Before we dive into my tips for how to stop procrastination, I’d suggest watching Tim’s excellent TED talk which delves into the mind of a master procrastinator.

Why Do Students Procrastinate?

As Tim covers in his TED talk, procrastination is not logical. It makes no sense to delay doing a task you know is necessary and yet so many of us do.

So what is going on?

The summary below provides a succinct view on why it happens.

“Procrastination is driven by a variety of thoughts and habits but fundamentally, we avoid tasks or put them off because we do not believe we’ll enjoy doing them, and want to avoid making ourselves unhappy, or we fear that we won’t do them well. People may also procrastinate when they are confused by the complexity of a task (such as filing one’s taxes) or when they’re overly distracted or fatigued.”

Psychology Today

What Research Has Been Done on Procrastination?

Procrastination is a phenomenon most of us are used to, but what research has been done around why it happens? And is procrastination inherently always bad?

A post on ‘The Science of Procrastination’ from the Association for Psychological Science provides a great overview of the various scientific research studies that have been done over the years.

Some of my key takeaways from that article were:

  • Procrastination has occurred throughout human history.
  • Research has shown that procrastination leads to increased stress and reduced well-being.
  • There are different types of procrastinators; chronic procrastinators have continual difficulties completing tasks while situational procrastinators delay based on what the task entails.
  • As many as 20% of people may be chronic procrastinators.
  • Procrastination does not appear to be related to poor time management. Instead at its core is an inability to regulate emotions.
  • A study revealed that procrastinators experienced higher levels of stress and lower grades than students who didn’t procrastinate. They identified procrastination as a self-defeating behaviour, with procrastinators preferring to be seen as lacking in effort rather than ability.
  • Negative or positive mental states can lead to this self-defeat. For example fear of failure or enjoyable distraction.
  • One theory proposes that procrastinators believe they will be more capable of handling the emotional challenges the task brings at a future point in time.

The Washington Post also recently reported on a study published in Nature Communications. The study is titled ‘A neuro-computational account of procrastination behavior’ and it used brain scans to try and predict the likelihood that procrastination would take place. It’s well worth giving the article a read, but the main points from the study can be summarised as follows.

  • People who were prone to procrastination were more inclined to believe that leaving tasks until a future point in time would make them much easier
  • Higher levels of procrastination were seen when tasks took more effort or were less rewarding
  • The more someone’s brain discounted how much effort a task would take to do in future, versus straightaway, correlated with the likelihood that they would procrastinate

Helpfully several of the studies referenced in the articles above provide recommendations for how to stop procrastinating and start studying. I’ll be covering these suggestions later in the post.

Is it always bad to procrastinate?

I recently watched this TED talk by Adam Grant which discusses precrastination (yep, I didn’t know it was a thing either!). Adam mentioned that one of his students said she had her most creative ideas when she was procrastinating.

He worked with her on a study which showed that, “the people who wait until the last minute are so busy goofing off that they don’t have any new ideas. And on the flip side, the people who race in are in such a frenzy of anxiety that they don’t have original thoughts either. There’s a sweet spot where originals seem to live.”.

An experiment he conducted showed that moderate procrastinators were 16% more creative than the precrastinators or chronic procrastinators.

So when it comes to creativity there are actually some benefits from mulling things over and allowing ideas to form over time.

However chronic procrastination doesn’t allow time for these creative thoughts, so the ideal strategy is to procrastinate in moderation. Start something early, put it away and allow ideas to form in the back of your mind. Then be sure to complete it within a reasonable amount of time for you to do those ideas justice.

The 6 Types of Procrastinators

In their book ‘It’s About Time!: The Six Styles of Procrastination And How to Overcome Them‘, Dr Linda Sapadin and Jack Maguire outline six different types of underlying beliefs that lead to procrastination.

  • The Worrier procrastinates because they believe they won’t succeed
  • The Perfectionist procrastinates because they worry they won’t complete the task perfectly
  • The Over-doerprocrastinates by taking on too much and not prioritising correctly
  • The Crisis Makerprocrastinates because they believe they need last minute pressure to be motivated
  • The Dreamerprocrastinates because they see the task as boring/ frustrating and believe they shouldn’t need to work hard to accomplish their goals
  • The Defierprocrastinates because they think the task isn’t worthwhile and they shouldn’t have to do it

For more on each of these check out this useful post and accompanying video by psychologist Jayson Moran.

I can definitely identify with several of these, particularly ‘The Perfectionist’. When it comes to writing papers and grant proposals to tight timelines I’ve had to train myself to be satisfied with sending around an imperfect first copy and allowing others to pitch in with suggestions, rather than waiting until I’m 100% happy with it to send it around. Thinking about it, this is also probably part of the reason I don’t post here more frequently too.

I can also resonate with elements of ‘The Worrier’. I’m still learning to embrace challenges and see failure as a growth opportunity rather than a cause for embarrassment.

Now you understand why procrastination happens and the underlying beliefs behind it, let’s explore what you can do to stop it from derailing your hard earned efforts.

How to Stop Procrastinating and Start Studying

Over the years I’ve learned a few strategies to reduce procrastination and I’ve picked up a few more from the studies mentioned earlier in the post.

Here’s an overview of all of the best tips and tricks.

1. Set frequent reminders

Setting frequent reminders to do a task is one of the suggestions highlighted to combat procrastination in the Washington Post write-up we discussed earlier.

Out of sight can be out of mind, so rather than allowing yourself to ignore a task and assume your future self will be more capable of handling it, set regular reminders to start work.

Personally I keep a Word document open, both to track my progress in tasks and have a running to-do list at the bottom to act as a reminder of what I still have to complete.

2. Create your own deadlines

Go one step further than setting reminders and set your own deadlines too.

As reported in The Science of Procrastination article referenced earlier, Ariely and Wertenbroch found that when procrastinators set deadlines for themselves they were more likely to complete a task.

External deadlines are the most powerful but self-imposed ones can still have a powerful effect.

I’ve mentioned before how useful having regular meetings with your supervisor are. As great as self-imposed deadlines are, you can really kick up the pressure by committing yourself to a deadline with your supervisor.

3. Break down big tasks into smaller chunks

I personally find it helpful to spend some time near the end of each working day setting out tasks for tomorrow. This can help to reduce any friction around decision making in the morning as I already know what I want to achieve.

As part of this I make sure to break down any big tasks into sub-tasks. This helps to keep things manageable and gives me a clearer direction for what a task may encompass. It makes the tasks so much less intimidating if they’re split up into small and achievable steps.

It also ties in well with my next tip…

4. Commit to a short burst of activity (the Pomodoro technique)

When a task absolutely needs to get done I find it helpful to set a timer and commit to working on it for a short amount of time. This is the Pomodoro technique. It was developed by a university student, so it seems very appropriate to use it when studying for a PhD!

The Pomodoro technique has six steps:

  1. Choose a task
  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes
  3. Work until the timer goes off
  4. Have a 5-10 minute break
  5. Finished fewer than three pomodoros? Repeat steps 1-4.
  6. Once three pomodoros are done do the fourth pomodoro and then take a longer 20 – 30 minute break. Following this return to step 2.

I’ll admit that I don’t precisely follow the technique but the point stands that committing to short chunks of work can keep procrastination at bay because you know a break is coming up soon. I’ll often find that once I get started I’m actually happy to get more done than I first intend to. It’s the getting started which my brain resists the most.

Do make sure to set a timer so you don’t procrastinate by checking the clock every two minutes!

5. Channel your procrastination: productively procrastinate!

Another trick I’ve personally found helpful is channeling my procrastination energy into something else productive. Rather than aimlessly scrolling through YouTube I might change tack and go and get some exercise. Alternatively, you could put on a YouTube video but work on a less intimidating task: some admin admin such as expense claims or clearing old emails.

It’s amazing how appealing some things can be when you’re avoiding a particular task!

6. Take time out

As mentioned in my PhD Motivation post, it’s so important to take time out for self-care. Sometimes it makes sense to stop work early and take time to recharge your batteries. You can then start tomorrow afresh.

When I was revising for my undergraduate exams I used to find it really helpful to go for regular walks by the local canal. It was a great way to break up the periods of time sat staring at a computer screen or textbook. Breaks during a PhD are even more important when the project can feel like it is taking over your whole life.

7. Reward yourself

Make sure to recognise your achievements and celebrate when you manage to commit to working for the period you had planned. This could be as simple as using your pomodoro break to watch a fun Youtube video, or taking a night off to go for dinner with your friends.

It can be tempting to skip this step, especially if you still have a lot to get done, but planning in rewards and celebrating your achievements is an important step in keeping up momentum and avoiding burnout.

8. Seek support

Reach out to your peers for support. Nearly everyone struggles with procrastination from time to time, so there are sure to be others who understand what you’re going through.

Perhaps you could agree to meet up and work together to keep each other in check. Making yourself accountable to each other can help provide a much needed boost of motivation.

Also, be sure to raise it with your supervisor if you’ve been putting off a specific task for ages. They may well have a solution to help you get the task done so that you can move on with your life.

9. Find meaning or joy in your task

It can sometimes be a tall ask, but where possible try to find a way to make the task enjoyable or fulfilling in some way. My partner revised for her science GSCEs by doodling the images from her textbooks and colouring them in.

This is another scientifically backed tip from The Science of Procrastination post, with Sirois reporting that by finding ‘personal meaning’ in a task you reduce the likelihood that you’ll turn to other short term distractions for a mood boost instead.

10. Forgive yourself

Along with developing new habits, it’s important to learn to forgive yourself.

As reported in The Science of Procrastination blog post a study led by Michal Whole found that students who forgave themselves after delaying revision on a single exam reduced the likelihood that they would procrastinate again with a second exam.

It is much more refreshing to cut yourself some slack and build a positive mindset towards getting tasks completed. Know that we’re all imperfect but we can all work to improve. You’re only ever one day away from being a different person, so just because you procrastinated yesterday there’s no need to let it define who you are today.

11. Imagine yourself in the future

A tip noted in the Washington Post write-up is to use episodic future thinking to picture yourself at a future point in time when you still need to do your task but have significantly less time to do so. This can help to counter-act the false belief that a task will become easier if it’s delayed.

12. Eliminate your distractions

If it’s your phone or social media which you find yourself procrastinating with check out the Forest app. Avoid using your phone for thirty minutes and you’ll plant a tree in your virtual forest. The app has great green credentials and has planted over 1.5 million trees in the real world too.

It can also be a good idea to turn off any notifications from apps, at least for the period while you’re working. This may even be something you decide to continue with. Outside of the digital realm physical distractions can be just as tempting.

Identify where your temptations lie and then devise a plan so they don’t impact your work.

I’ve created a print-out of these 12 tips so you can easily refer to them if you ever find yourself tempted to procrastinate. It’s available now in the resources library (subscribe for free to get the password!).

Procrastination Summary

As a refresher, below is a summary of the key points for how to stop procrastinating and start studying.

  • Remember that you’re not alone, nearly everyone procrastinates to some extent.
  • If you procrastinate it may be because you perceive a task as being easier if it’s left until a future point in time.
  • Scientific studies have shown that chronic procrastination leads to detrimental outcomes for your work, however procrastinating in moderation can be beneficial when it comes to creativity
  • There are six types of underlying beliefs which may cause you to procrastinate and it can be helpful to understand what your own motivations are.
  • There are a range of techniques you can employ to combat your procrastination.

If you try the tips above and still find yourself struggling, consider raising it with your supervisor. They may be able to offer a different perspective or suggest some other meaningful ways you could be spending your time if you feel blocked with one particular task.

Our brains work in mysterious ways, so as much as we may want to it’s not always possible to avoid procrastination. However, if you can recognise why you’re procrastinating and employ the strategies above you’ll stand the best possible chance of defeating it.

You’ve got this!

Hopefully you now know how to stop procrastinating and start studying!

A reminder that there are two other posts in my mindfulness series which you may be interested in:
1. PhD Burnout: Managing Energy, Stress, Anxiety & Your Mental Health
2. PhD Motivation: How to Stay Driven From Cover Letter to Completion

Do you have difficulties with procrastination? Any tips on how to beat it? Let me know in the comments!

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