Procrastination – The student syndrome

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Whether you’re a student or not, we’ve probably all googled something similar before; ironically in an attempt to do the exact opposite. Procrastination affects everyone, and is arguably the main – if not only – obstacle to working efficiently.

What is procrastination? Procrastination is essentially the prioritisation of low priority tasks over high priority ones, especially when they offer instant gratification (think Facebook notifications, hilarious YouTube videos, making tea to ‘help you study’) and don’t necessarily have to be fun (cleaning your room, doing the dishes, washing the car). According to Elliot Berkman, “In psychological terms, [procrastination is] what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now”.

In psychological terms, [procrastination is] what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now

It seems like every single time I sit down to try and do work on an assignment, literally all other conceivable task becomes way more pressing. And when the deadline appears around the corner – bam! I turn into a focused, efficient studying machine, although a stressed, anxious and unbalanced one. But if I know I’ll eventually have to do the work, why go through that last minute panic? In recent years, procrastination has been the focus of quite a lot of psychological research.

Procrastination economics

We’d like to think otherwise, but humans aren’t always rational. Objectively, ten dollars is worth the same now as it would be in a week’s time. Subjectively, I’d feel a lot better getting my hands on it today. A study actually found that most of us would prefer receiving $83 now rather than $100 in three months’ time – sacrificing $17 for an instant reward. Economists call this ‘delay discounting’; the devaluing of something based on time.

But I work better before a deadline!

Because the rewarding feeling that you get from completing your work occurs in the future, the value of working on it now is reduced. As the deadline creeps up, the value of completing it increases and starts to outweigh doing other things.

You may be getting your work in on time, your work isn’t as good. One study at a British business school found that assignments submitted in the last 24 hours before a deadline suffered up to 5% lower grades, with the average mark dropping steadily every hour.

Why do we procrastinate?

How can I spend an hour on an essay and only write 58 words?
How do I end up at the Wikipedia page for Circe, the Greek goddess of magic, 19 seconds after googling ‘procrastination’? The short answer is: a task we can complete now will cause our bodies to reward us with dopamine (the same feel-good chemical we get from exercising or eating chocolate). Reading up about something interesting, checking Facebook, and making a cup of tea are all quick, satisfying activities that can give us this fix.

Are you addicted to it?

Dopamine is habit-forming. If checking Facebook made me feel good, I’ll do it again. According to a video by AsapSCIENCE, “Every time something enjoyable happens, you get a dose of dopamine which modifies the neurons in your brain, making you more likely to repeat the behaviour”.  This implies that all procrastination is symptomatic of an underlying quest for a dopamine high. Like with any habit, there are ways to wean you off it. A simple and practical one to start with is reward management.

Breaking the cycle

Psychologist William Knaus estimated that 90% of college students procrastinate. Being a student (and a human being), I can conclusively say it’s 100%. Thankfully this means there are a lot of resources out there to help you out of this rut:



2 Responses to “Procrastination – The student syndrome”

  1. Ebony says:

    This one hit close to home, I just finished making myself a cup of tea too.
    I would have to argue on that ‘90% of students procrastinate’ figure too, I feel like it needs to be followed with ‘… and the other 10% are liars’ hahah
    This was a great post, psychology is so complex and fascinating. Thanks for giving me a scientific excuse as to why I haven’t finished my assignments, I’ll just blame it on the dopamine.

  2. Amber Craig says:

    Thanks for the funny read Tal. SO good to know its not just me. It’s funny of what you will do to stop procrastination when it comes to crunch time like writing a thesis, I have had many friends make their family change and hide their facebook passwords or even put 14 hour usage locks on their phones (there is an app for everything!).

    If I remember the name I will let you know but a lecturer of mine made us do a self-evaluation of how we function – VERY interesting! One of the parts to look at was if you completed work in advance or JUST before the deadline. She confessed (even as a past head of school) that she would not/could not do work unless it is the 11th hour.

    I find it so interesting how our minds work!