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Addressing procrastination

Address procrastination

All humans procrastinate. However, some neurological differences, mental health issues, and stressors can increase our tendency to procrastinate. Knowing how to address procrastination when it becomes problematic is essential to academic success. In this section, we’ve got a three-step strategy to increase your procrastination management skills.

1) Notice that you are procrastinating

This sounds simple but it can be deceptively challenging. Sometimes we’re very aware that we’re procrastinating but other times we’ve done such a good job at justifying our procrastination that we don’t realize we are doing it.

Have a plan that tells you when things need to get done

Procrastination is much easier without a plan. If you’re using a quarter plan and a daily/weekly plan, then it will be easier to notice when you’re putting something off that needs to get done. Therefore, the first step in addressing procrastination is to make sure you have a solid plan in place that tells you when you need to be doing which task.

Listen for justifications

Once you have your plan in place, listen for moments when you are convincing yourself that you will do your task later.


“I’ll do it Saturday afternoon instead of going to the game.”

“I’ll get out of bed early tomorrow morning instead of hitting snooze.”

“It will only take a few minutes, so I’ll do it right after class.”

If you’re prone to doing this often, you’ll need to practice catching yourself in the act so you can interrupt the cycle.

Identify areas where you regularly procrastinate

We don’t all procrastinate in the same areas. Use our domains of procrastination worksheet to help you identify where you tend to procrastinate the most. Then come up with a plan specific to these areas.

2) Identify and address reasons for procrastinating

Often, there are good reasons why we procrastinate. Addressing these reasons can make it much easier to manage procrastination.

Common reasons people procrastinate (more than one can apply)

1. Don’t know how

We often have a hard time getting going when we don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to do. A lack of know-how can result from:

  • Not understanding exactly what’s expected of you
  • Lack of knowledge/understanding of the course material
  • Underdeveloped skills (i.e. not knowing how to write a research paper)

When you find yourself procrastinating, ask yourself if you know how to do the task. If not, get the information you need. Reach out to a professor, TA, academic coach or tutor, mentor, advisor, or another knowledgeable person. Sometimes you can get the information yourself by doing your own research on the topic or asking peers.

2. Avoiding unpleasant emotions

Avoiding unpleasant emotions is one of the most common reasons that people procrastinate. Some examples of emotions that people commonly try to avoid:

  • Boredom: “Ugh, this is so tedious.”
  • Annoyance: “I can’t believe I have to do this.”
  • Fear of failing: “What if I’m not good enough?”
  • Frustration: “It’s just not working!”
  • Disappointment: “I thought I would be able to do better.”

It helps to label your emotion. Moving forward generally involves finding a way to tolerate this emotion. Grounding techniques can reduce the intensity of many emotions. You may also find the REST method useful.

3. Depletion

Sometimes the reason why we can’t get started has nothing to do with the task at hand and everything to do with being burned out or exhausted. People have different capacities for sustained effort and stress. Additionally, everyone has different life circumstances that influence their performance. Things like having a long commute to school, financial stress, or marginalized identities can impact your well-being and deplete your reserves.

Addressing depletion often involves improving sleep, engaging in self-care, increasing supportive resources, taking effective breaks, and/or shifting responsibilities.

3) Get going

Both the task and your motivation level matter when it comes to getting going. You can help yourself get going by either decreasing the difficulty of the task in front of you or increasing your motivation.

Decrease the difficulty of the task to match your current level of motivation

Try this simple trick:

  1. Break down the first step in your work to the smallest achievable task. For example, set a goal of reading one paragraph. You can also break things down according to time. Agree to work for ten minutes (or five minutes if ten feels too long). It doesn’t matter how small the task is. What matters is that you’re able to complete it.
  2. Take a moment to notice that you achieved your small goal. DO NOT skip this step. If you tend to be self-critical at this moment, practice interrupting those conditioned ways of thinking and replacing them with more encouraging language (i.e. “This is hard for me but I’ve taken the first step.”)
  3. Then repeat the process with the next step. Even if you don’t finish everything you set out to do, you’ll still have gotten more done by taking these small steps than you would have by avoiding things completely.

Increase your motivation level

Values alignment

Values are your fundamental beliefs about what is worthwhile, good, and desirable. Values help us determine what is important and they help guide us. You can increase your motivation by connecting what you’re doing with one of your values.


You value social justice. You can remind yourself how completing this assignment will help you pass the course, which will allow you to graduate with a degree and find a job in public interest law.

You value innovation. You can think about how this assignment will help you move forward in your goal toward obtaining a career in something that will allow you to develop new systems or products.


Some people find that they can increase their motivation by providing rewards if they accomplish their goals. Rewards work best if they are immediate. That means that as soon as you finish your assignment, you eat the ice cream or go for a walk or call a friend.


Systems of accountability help us create consequences for not following through with the steps of our plan. Holding ourselves accountable is such a crucial component of sticking with a plan that we highly recommend you review some tips on increasing accountability. Whenever possible, include other people.


Tell your professor that you will come to office hours to discuss the questions you missed on the exam. You will be much more motivated to go than if you keep that thought to yourself. Just remember, it’s crucial to follow through on things you say to professors!

Additional tips for managing common procrastination behaviors

Few of us procrastinate by doing nothing. Generally, we find something to do (anything really!) other than what we have planned. Here are some tips for managing common procrastination behaviors.

The productive activity

Productive Activity Icon

This one is the sneakiest procrastination activities because it masquerades as something that’s quite productive (perhaps even necessary) for you to complete. This activity type includes things like cleaning, completing other homework, paying bills, copying notes, organizing materials, creating to-do lists, etc.

So how can you know if you’re engaged in procrastination? It goes back to having that plan that tells you when you need to get something done. If you’re scheduled to start working on your research paper and 30 minutes later, you’re doing everything that needs to get done for the week except for the research project, you’re procrastinating.

Try listing all the other tasks you need to complete in a notebook or on a whiteboard so you won’t forget them. You can figure out where to put those other tasks in your schedule once you complete the task you need to be working on right now.

The mindless activity

If you find yourself zoning out instead of getting to work, it may be a sign that you’re either exhausted or under-stimulated. You may have more luck getting started if you take five minutes to get your heart rate up. Try moving your body. Make sure you have a target time to resume work so that your break doesn’t become a drawn-out activity. Sleep is essential to concentration so if you are not getting enough of it or your sleep is bad quality, it can really impact your performance. Visit our sleep page for more information.

The emotionally wrought activity

Emotionally Wrought Activity

Our brains are wired to focus on things that are emotionally provocative. Maybe you’re in the midst of an interpersonal conflict or you just read some upsetting news. Maybe you’re feeling anxious about a presentation coming up. Or maybe you’re concerned about finances. Emotionally activating events can be positive too such as developing a crush on someone.

No matter what the content, the thing you feel emotionally charged about will be much more captivating to think about than a dense, confusing academic assignment.

It helps to set some boundaries around the news, texting, and social media prior to working on something that’s particularly hard for you to do. Cut yourself off at least 30 minutes prior to starting the work, longer if possible.

And if you find that your mind keeps wandering, practice this grounding technique to help you refocus: identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.

The just-one-more activity

Just one more Activity

This is the YouTube, Instagram, Google, _______ blackhole activity. “Just one more,” you promise yourself over and over again until one more becomes 15 more. The problem is that our brains reward this behavior on a neurochemical level so it’s very hard to pull away.

If you’re having a hard time switching to work, shift your focus to helping yourself step away.  Close the browser or put away your phone.  Get up from your workspace to move for a couple minutes. Then try to start working.

One of the downsides of this form of procrastination is that it tends to leave you drained rather than recharged. Similar to the mindless activity, it often helps to do some physical movement to help energize your body before getting to work. In the future, avoid these types of activities for your breaks and choose more effective sources of recharging.

The social activity

College and graduate school provide endless opportunities for doing things other than academic work so your success will hinge on being able to balance these opportunities with fulfilling your responsibilities. Sometimes the social activity can masquerade as a productive activity if you’re meeting up with friends to study. It’s natural and even beneficial to spend some of the time chatting but make sure that your participation in the group is doing more to increase your productivity than it is serving as a great distraction.