You’re Doing It Wrong. Why better time management isn’t a procrastination cure.

Image of a long haired woman standing in front of a giant clock. She looks like she is pondering the meaning behind the overwhelming time piece. Image is mean to symbolize how time management overwhelms the advise of procrastination cures when time management isn't the problem.

You’re Doing It Wrong.
Better time management isn’t a procrastination cure.

Procrastination ≠ Poor Time Management

Do a search for procrastination cures and you’ll find a vast array of tips, tricks, and strategies. You’ll find everything from: doing the hardest task first, to getting up earlier, to breaking big tasks into little steps, to prioritizing your to-do list. Don’t get me wrong, they are useful tips. But, it’s the solution to the wrong problem. Procrastination is not a lack of time management skills, so using those tools won’t cure it.

Procrastination = Avoidance of Distress

So, what is procrastination? Procrastination is the avoidance of doing work that you know you need to do because thinking of doing it causes distress. It is not a failure to use your time efficiently or prioritize properly. It’s not laziness or a character fault. You cannot cure chronic procrastination with willpower.

Procrastination is caused by a deficit in your ability to recognize and regulate distress, work with your executive functioning skill set, and approach tasks creatively. It’s also a matter of being stuck in your own story, creating a recurring habit of procrastination that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Curing procrastination means changing the story and your behavior.

So Many Approaches, So Little Success

To stop procrastinating you need to identify your flavor of procrastination. That’s why there are so many tips, tricks, and strategies. It’s also why so many graduate students fail to be consistently productive despite these lists. The procrastination cure differs based on the characteristics of the student and the characteristics of the task. A failure to account for either means a solution that doesn’t work consistently, if at all.

Tipping the Scale

All is not doom and gloom though. Because multiple factors contribute to procrastination, there are multiple solutions. Your goal isn’t to change all of these factors, but rather to develop skills to manage distress while reducing the forces creating that distress in the first place. Think of it like a scale where tiny changes add up to tip the balance from procrastination to productivity.

The Three Building Blocks to Cure Procrastination

There are three areas you need to tackle to cure your procrastination tendencies: the story you tell yourself, your executive functioning skills, and the task characteristics themselves.

The Story You Tell Yourself

The first step to curing procrastination is to identify the thoughts you think when facing a task you are avoiding. What’s the story you are telling yourself? Do you think every task has to be done perfectly? Believe you’re just a procrastinator and you’ll never be anything else? Think you always need the pressure of a deadline to perform? Worried you’re just not good enough or skilled enough to tackle this task? All of these stories are untrue and can cause a self-defeating procrastination loop. If you break them down, you can see the logical flaws:

  • Every task must be done perfectly. Really? Think about fellow students, they are far from perfect but they’ve managed to get to graduate school. Has every test you’ve ever taken been 100% correct? Probably not, but you’re doing pretty well despite that. What’s worse than a bad assignment? No assignment because you procrastinated too long.
  • You’re just a procrastinator. Really? The five-factor model of personality (the most validated personality model) includes openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. I don’t see procrastination on that list. Just because you have procrastinated a lot in the past does not make that your identity.
  • You need a deadline. No, you don’t. The only reason a deadline has served you is because it creates a point at which the distress over the consequences of not meeting the deadline overpowers the distress caused by thinking about the task.
  • You’re not good/skilled enough. Maybe there’s some truth to this. But, think back to all the times you learned something new, you became skilled by doing it. One thing you are skilled enough to do is to learn. And that’s your real purpose in graduate school, to learn how to do the task you’re about to figure out.

These aren’t all the stories that contribute to procrastination, just common ones I’ve heard from many graduate students. To cure procrastination, you need to identify the thoughts that are leading you to avoid doing the activity and challenge them.

Executive Function

Executive function is a set of skills involved in planning and decision-making. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in this department. The trick is to play to your strengths and reduce your reliance on your weakest skills. Do you have trouble initiating tasks? Stop relying on willpower. Get an accountability partner to help you start tasks.

Do you struggle to break down tasks into smaller components? Talk the assignment through with your advisor, instructor, or fellow graduate student to help identify the individual parts.

Have trouble planning? Well, good planning takes practice. Do your best to start, knowing it won’t be great. Start with a smaller assignment, write down what you did and how long it took you. Do this for several tasks and you’ll have a list of common steps and an estimate of how long stuff takes you to plan with. If you’re really not sure, look up lists online or chat with an academic mentor or coach.

Task Characteristics

Some tasks are more conducive to procrastination than others. Tasks that are far into the future can make us lose sense of how quickly their due dates will arrive. Complex tasks can feel overwhelming. Tasks that seem boring or irrelevant can be demotivating. There are many different ways to handle these challenges. For tasks far in the future, you could create a Due Date Countdown to make the deadline feel more real. Bigger tasks can be broken down into small components. Boring tasks can be made more interesting by changing perspective. For example, you can think of a boring task as an opportunity to strengthen executive function skills. Whatever characteristic is leading you to procrastinate, identify it and brainstorm a cure. You don’t have to make it the most fun thing in the world, but making it a little less aversive can tip that balance into productivity.

Curing Procrastination is Possible

When you focus on the real causes of procrastination, it’s easier to find workable solutions. It can take some creative problem-solving and looking at the problem in a new, non-judgmental way. However, identifying the roadblocks to your productivity can lead to a whole new approach to finishing your degree.

If want to learn more about how to overcome procrastination and build motivation in graduate school? Then check out my course – Mind Over Matter: Mastering the Graduate Student Mindset.

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Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

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