Monday, 21 January 2019

Procrastination – the enemy of students

I’ve recently been asked how can students motivate themselves in order to revise for exams. Revision isn’t like changing a habit, which requires reprogramming yourself to form a habit and from that habit (and its positive results) comes the motivation. So I don’t think much of the advice which applies to habit forming (exercising more, eating or drinking less) applies. I wonder whether with revision we have to look at the problem from the other side – rather than look at how to motivate students, to look at what prevents students from working. I think it is that old enemy of students,  procrastination, which is the key to the conundrum.

To combat procrastination, it will help to recognise the causes of procrastination. There are several. You need to think about yourself to work out which of these causes apply to you. This will take a certain level of honest self-evaluation. Be prepared to be honest with yourself.


We lie to ourselves more often than we like to admit. In fact, I’m procrastinating right now, writing this rather than doing my drafting formal feedback marking. This task is certainly going to be useful to students. But it isn’t essential to me to do it and it isn’t urgent. I’ve been telling myself writing this won’t take me longer than about an hour. So I have already fallen victim to a number of the great procrastination lies. Let’s have a look at what they are.

“I’m not yet ready to revise, because….” – this is the lie you tell yourself in many forms. I can’t revise because classes haven’t finished. I can’t start because study leave hasn’t started. I can’t start because I haven’t made all my notes. I can’t start because I have other work to do. Revision does not have to be an “all day” task. Half an hour here, an hour there, in between other tasks is fine. You don’t need to be able to block out whole weeks to start the revision process. On the bus or train on the way to Uni is a good start.

“I’m not in the right mood/I’m not in the revision zone” – by the time you feel the sense of panic which will force you to your desk, the chances are it will be too late. 

“I have lots of time to do my task” – this is the lie you tell yourself that the exams are months away so there is no need to start your revision. 

“I work better under pressure” – you honestly don’t. What happens when you feel under pressure is that you panic. You fear the consequences of doing nothing (not handing in your essay, not passing your exam) and that suddenly shakes you out of your lethargy. But you generally are not working as effectively or with the concentration or focus you need. You are solely working because of your fear. 

“I’m just too busy to start revising now” – are you keeping yourself busy with unimportant tasks as a means of avoiding revising? Be honest…. 


There are many fears which cause procrastination. Some of them will surprise you….

Fear of failure.
Fear of success.
Fear of what others will think of you.
Fear of too large a task.
Fear of too difficult a task.
Fear of not knowing how to begin.
Fear of the blank page.
Fear of having to make decisions. 

These fears are unlikely to be well founded or rational. Challenge them.
What are you afraid of and is it actually worse than not passing your exam/s?


Break the fear of the blank page by getting something on that page. Even if it is just a heading. Or a couple of bullet points. If I have a letter or email I am dreading writing, I start with the heading and the ending. That way the top and tail are written. Then I can see some of it is already on the page. The task

feels more manageable and I feel better about tackling the rest.

Start with something easy. We like immediate rewards. That is why smartphone games and social media are so addictive. It is the instant gratification of getting a “like” or moving up to the next level which releases dopamine, the pleasure chemical. If you complete a small task, you will feel that little buzz which can help you keep going.

Try to inject fun into the process. Make up games or fun ways to learn. The more pleasure you feel, the more you will want to do. 

Split up a subject into small topics. Don’t think of the subject as a huge monolith. This will stop you feeling overwhelmed. It will also make the next step easier. 

Incentivise yourself with rewards. Whenever you complete dealing with a topic, give yourself a treat (WhatApp call to friends/family, a walk, a game, time on social media, a snack…). 

Avoid distractions. Whatever is your pet distraction, admit to it and do what you can to minimise its effect on you.

Think about using the Pomodoro technique to increase your focus and help you avoid distractions. See this previous blog post for more details:

Think about using reminders – via a diary/online scheduler. Set yourself mini-deadlines – by which you will have covered X topics for the first time, etc. Set them up so you don’t have to remember them and they appear either as emails or reminders on your phone or computer.
If you need deadlines to push you, then create the deadlines for yourself and tell yourself you mean them. 

I hope that this will help you overcome your procrastination. 

And now, back to that drafting marking!

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