Putting off Learning? The Role of Procrastination

It’s taken me days to get around to writing this blog. This isn’t because I didn’t have any ideas, I kept putting it off. The last few months have been a test for many of us. Some people have adapted quickly and coped well; others have really struggled. Others, like me, have been somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed the bonus time at home with my children and the way the world slowed down but the separation from friends and family has been a challenge. But this isn’t a self-indulgent post, so I’ll get to the point. There is a link between procrastination and learning. And it just isn’t something that we talk about very often. So here are my thoughts on why we put off learning – and some strategies to help students to get on with studying.

Does everyone learn differently?

Home-schooling my own children during lockdown was an eye-opener. My son would get up, fire up the laptop and crack on with every task (often rewarding the end of a task with food!) until they were completed. My daughter would sit down, arrange her pens, play with the cats/dog, need a drink, do five minutes work, drop her pen, have a chat, do a bit more work and so until the end of the day. What should have taken her two hours would take four. I’m in the middle. I’m completely focused when I have a deadline to meet, and the task will be usually be done early and well. Anything else (especially if I need to make phone calls) and the house will be cleaned, and social media scanned until I’m annoyed with myself that I’ve wasted several hours.

Putting off learning - distractions are all around us.
It’s so easy to get distracted.

What is Procrastination?

So, what is procrastination? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a postponement, or as “defer[ing] action, especially without good reason.” In other words, it’s when we delay even though that delay may cause us stress or some other harm. An early study by Tice and Baumeister (1997) found that university students rated as procrastinators initially benefitted. They had lower levels of stress compared to others, presumably as a result of putting off their work to pursue more pleasurable activities. In the end, however, the costs of procrastination far outweighed the temporary benefits. Procrastinators achieved lower grades than other students and reported higher amounts of stress and illness.

Putting off Learning – the same as thinking time?

Sometimes people will attempt to justify the delay as ‘thinking time’. This is very different and should be encouraged as an excellent part of the learning process. The planning and reflection stages of a task form a big part of the metacognitive process and leads to positive outcomes for students. This is an active strategy for learning, however, and not the inactive do-nothing approach of procrastination.

Why do students put off learning?

Lots of people miss deadlines. Some of these are for good reason. However too often we delay even though we know we are going to lose marks, pay a fine or get a reprimand. Everyone procrastinates, but we aren’t all serial procrastinators. Most of us have ‘to-do’ lists that are rarely completed but during the day we do achieve or complete some tasks that are of value. This is progress: procrastination is the lack of progress. I have seen this on many occasions with students. They get so overwhelmed that they don’t know where to start and so don’t do anything. This then makes the issue worse. It isn’t the case that this is poor time-management. For many students it’s the gap between intention (what they know they should do) and action (what they do) caused through a lack of self-regulation.

The role of temptation

We are all tempted by the joy of doing something more pleasant. Who doesn’t prefer watching cat videos over completing homework? However, the serial procrastinator will allow the pleasure of the temptation to join forces with the fear of failure or perfectionism. This creates a perfect storm of doing nothing useful. Sometimes this is a general trait for all tasks – it might seem preferable to attempt nothing so that you can’t fail at it. This has been the content of many of my guidance talks with under-achieving students in the past. Sometimes its task-related so a particular subject or activity seems to be the cause of the issues. The worst thing though is that while research clearly shows that procrastinators feel guilty about the delay, they don’t learn from their mistakes. They prefer to justify it using a variety of cognitive distortions (‘at least I did it eventually’ etc).

Is our brain to blame?

More recent evidence suggests that procrastination may be neuropsychological. Rabin et al (2011) looked at the role of the pre-frontal cortex and its involvement in “executive function” which consists of numerous self-regulatory systems such as problem-solving and planning and is implicated in procrastination. This study is discussed in greater detail here:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dont-delay/201106/neuropsychological-perspective-procrastination  

Rabin studied 212 students, assessed them for procrastination and then on the nine clinical subscales of executive functioning. For example, impulsivity, self-monitoring, planning and organization, and task initiation. They found that there was a correlation between academic procrastination and all nine subscales. This was stronger in older students. Maybe their bad habits had become entrenched or they were less motivated and enthusiastic? The positive aspect of this is that we have some evidence about the areas of the brain and their functions that might be involved. So we can therefore make suggestions about how students can manage procrastination and maximise their achievement.

Putting off learning - using a timetable helps build in rewards
Using a timetable helps build in time for rewards

Stop putting off learning – some practical strategies

  • Understand the problem of giving in to temptation to feel good. By being aware of it and its links to positive emotions it can be understood as a negative distractor. Our brain is tricking us into doing something else immediately because it wants the short-term fix. This helps with emotional regulation.
  • Set limits to those temptations. I shut off the access to Wi-Fi for my children’s devices until they have completed their homework to a good standard. Whatever you use as a distraction come up with an effective strategy to shut it down.
  • Timetable activities so that the work is done but make time for fun. This helps with time-management as well as teaching how to overcome those immediate impulses. Reward yourself for doing what you needed to do anyway!
  • Build a sense of self-control, a mastery of the subject and an expectation that effort leads to learning by using short tasks and regular knowledge tests.
  • After tasks are completed, discuss with a friend or family member about how the learning went. Identify where distracted thinking crept in and how it was overcome. This is a great form of meta-cognition as well as holding you accountable for your own learning.

Right I’m off now to reward myself for completing this blog – at least two chocolate biscuits with my cup of tea, I think! If you need any further support, please contact me to send an email.

References and further reading

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dont-delay/201106/neuropsychological-perspective-procrastination

Rabin, L.A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K.E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344-357.

Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Longitudinal Study of Procrastination, Performance, Stress and, Health: The Costs and Benefits of Dawdling. Psychological Science, 8, 454-458.

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