What are you looking for?
study-tips 4 min read

Breaking the painful cycle of procrastination

By Niamh 09 Apr 2019
3 students study together on the grass in the sun.

I was talking to someone this week about procrastination, a common issue among students but also a fairly large challenge for the general population as well. We were talking about the most common reasons that people procrastinate and came up with this answer; people procrastinate as long as the pain of doing something outweighs the pain of not doing it. As soon as that balance tips over and the pain of avoiding the task becomes greater than the pain of tackling it (such as, if you don’t complete this assignment right now you’ll fail your course!), we suddenly manage to find the strength to put aside our excuses and get it done.

More often than not, you realise that the task you were so determined to avoid wasn’t that bad after all and are left wondering why you didn’t just get it done in the first place! So you make plans to do better next time, to start earlier and never to leave it until you’re melting with stress again … and then ‘next time’ rolls around and you find yourself caught in the same pattern of procrastination.

But why?

That niggling inner voice…

I think that our inner voice has a lot to do with it. For example, when I’m procrastinating my inner voice says things like 'You’ll be fine, you have heaps of time, you deserve to spend these hours watching TV', even though there is nothing I am really enjoying on the TV and it is clearly just a distraction technique to help me avoid the pain of what I should be doing!

The irony is that the inner voice that soothed me into procrastination is the same one that appears later when I’m panicking about the deadline and tells me how stupid I am for having left it all to the last minute. It’s almost like I’m setting myself up for failure. Why do we do this to ourselves?

The pain of procrastination.

Perhaps there is a part of us that doesn’t want to set the bar too high, because then we might expect ourselves to reach it every time and that would just be too hard. So instead, we avoid the pain of that hard work and potential failure by putting the task off altogether and not thinking about it until eventually we have set ourselves up for a different type of pain; the extreme stress of a deadline and the disappointment of just scraping through. It often leaves you wondering, ‘If I had just started earlier could I have done better?’ Unfortunately, we’ll never know!

There is a part of us that doesn’t want to set the bar too high.

In my experience, the other cost of listening to that misleading inner voice is that I often do not attempt the things I would really like to do and instead swing madly from one crisis to another; deadlines, assignments, chores, bills, all of which have been put off until the very last minute. This leaves me in a position where I don’t have the time to do anything else other than knuckle down and get these painful tasks done. The stress of this cycle of procrastination feeds even more into my inner critic, ‘You’re so unfocused and unproductive. I thought you were supposed to be an adult…’

The root of procrastination is the underlying avoidance of pain.

From my own experience and my studies in psychology, I have come to the realisation that often the root of procrastination is the underlying avoidance of pain. We are trying to avoid the pain of doing an assignment, the uncertainty about whether it will be good enough and the painful self-criticism of our work and, in putting it off, we get to avoid this discomfort for a short time. But the pain can’t be pushed aside forever and is often actually worsened by our efforts to avoid it.

Breaking the cycle.

So now that we’ve unpacked the ‘why’ behind procrastination, how can we find ways to get comfortable with the pain and break the cycle? In the famous words of author Susan Jeffers, we need to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. A little self-compassion along the way will certainly help too! Next time your niggling inner voice is tempting you to avoid the task at hand, try to counteract it with phrases like ‘It’s okay, I have been through this discomfort before and I can do it’. Be kind to yourself and help yourself to endure the pain of getting started by making yourself as comfortable as possible, giving yourself treats along the way, or a reward for finishing the task. Little by little you can begin to challenge that inner voice and quieten your inner critic by proving your ability to feel the fear and get the job done anyway.

Procrastination is something all students (and people!) struggle with, so talk to your peers and share strategies for breaking the cycle. The more we can become aware of our own procrastination habits, the better we can be at managing our response to the pain and taking control of the situation. We’re all in this together. Good luck!

For helpful hints on overcoming procrastination, check out The secret behind staying motivated. To hear more from Niamh about how you can combat self-criticism, view her Beyond the Books Online Series webinar How to quieten your inner critic.

Author profile image of Niamh