Procrastination

Posted by: Meredith Seaman, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University. 

Academics can sometimes hold very negative perceptions of students as lazy and question their ability to meet deadlines and submit assignments on time. Academics can even be a bit gleeful in their enthusiasm in coming up with rules and penalties for late submission. Reinforcing deadlines is critical if we are trying to teach students about the realities of the workforce, but can’t we all relate to students who struggle with time management or procrastination? If we’re being honest, don’t we all struggle with deadlines and more specifically procrastination on difficult tasks like writing articles? I’ve noticed for myself that writing can prompt anxieties and very similar avoidance strategies that I had sadly practised back as a student. Of course, very real issues including illness, unrealistic goals and workloads get in the way, but we’re also all well aware of a host of procrastination techniques in ourselves and observed in others.

I surveyed colleagues and friends to find out a bit more about how they procrastinate and whether they have any useful (online) tools or strategies that might help them avoid procrastinating. Finally I begin to consider how we might better support students to stop procrastinating and submit on time.

I wonder if procrastination needs much introduction…

I don’t know if there is anyone who doesn’t sometimes procrastinate. For me, when procrastinating, I go to the internet and social media tools. The most mundane of internet games and the worst of television shows all take on new importance. Research has demonstrated that technologies can similarly tempt students to procrastinate and it shouldn’t surprise us that they’ve also demonstrated links between Facebook and procrastination.

Yet it isn’t a new phenomenon

I used to bake cookies before Facebook and iPads, Candy Crush and Pinterest. I have the recipe written down in my recipe book as “procrastination cookies”. So a Facebook restriction will result in other types of procrastination. Cooking, cleaning, sleeping… — Erica

file000184731991

Before the internet, as my friend Erica says, there was cleaning and baking. Tax returns might even get done if avoiding writing or marking papers. If these can be kept in hand, tasks (like setting up a conducive working space) can be appropriate precursor activities before sitting down to get through some marking for instance. Many people have rituals they have to go through before sitting down to work.

In ‘Waiting for the motivation fairy’ Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner (2011) also remind us that procrastination can be ‘far more subtle, and can even be taken for productive work’ such as digging up elusive references, starting new projects or experiments, chasing up elusive but perhaps unnecessary references, checking emails.

Is it necessarily a bad thing?cleaning

We certainly need breaks. Breaks are essential for deep thinking and assimilation of ideas and concepts, critical for creativity, to occur. Walking, gardening or other simple repetitive tasks not taking much concentration can help the creative process. Productive and creative ‘types’ throughout history have often taken dramatic steps to increase their productivity and avoid procrastination, some common elements include daily set periods of work, clear targets of how many words to achieve, but they also had breaks such as time out for day jobs and long walks.

It’s important to think about why you might be procrastinating and not be too judgemental or hard on yourself:

Reward yourself for work done. Punishment never works, it just creates more procrastination. Sometimes laughing helps to, to take the pressure off: I love PhD comics. Oh, and getting to know the difference between avoiding because you’re lazy, and avoiding because you’re actually on the brink of a brainwave… — Lisa

I think the unconscious aspects of self sabotage often need to be addressed carefully rather than becoming stentorian with oneself… — Fiona

Sometimes we may just be stuck on something or need to approach a different way. Other times a task may be overwhelming or crippling, and strategies are needed to address the procrastination.

filing

Are there any solutions?

One colleague successfully uses Pomodoro as her procrastination avoidance tool. In brief, it’s a pre-set strict period of work, using a timer, where interruptions are carefully managed with breaks interspersed. Another finds it really useful to get up very early in the morning at the same time each day to write. The lack of interruptions and being a bit less awake may actually be a benefit to productivity in his case. Some people have joined support networks such as “Shut up and Write” where interested people meet at a cafe and write in short bursts and then have a chat to each other as well.

Kearns and Gardiner identify three techniques which provide a good summary of key practices to hold procrastination at bay:

1) big projects need to be broken down into steps (perhaps even tiny ones)

2) set a time deadline by which to perform that tiny step

3) build in an immediate reward.

Implications for assessment design

If we think about assessment design in the context of the conditions that may contribute to procrastination, then as academics, we would want to avoid setting unclear tasks; tasks without any progress points or milestones and tasks that feel too big and complex to get started. They may all affect student motivation and their ability to make a start. If ‘action leads to motivation, which in turn leads to more action’ (Kearns and Gardiner, 2011) then designing assessment that encourages students to get started makes sense. So think about breaking up some big assessments into smaller components with earlier due dates to get students started and on the right track. Provide them with feedback, early on. Even better: work with your students to help them to break up the assessment tasks. Also, think about rewards versus the perceived ‘threat’ or pressures associated with assessment tasks.

coffeeIf redesigning your assessment for the next semester seems like a big task at the moment, don’t put it off! Break it down, set some dates and reward yourself!

Thanks to Fiona Collins, Lisa Farrance and Erica Walther for their input into this post.

References and more information:

Share your thoughts and strategies in the comments!


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