How to beat your worst enemy: procrastination

January 15, 2016

Psychology profs test a simple approach to procrastination-busting

This semester is going to be different. No more cramming or frantically grinding out a paper the night before a deadline. In fact, you’re going to start working right now. You just need a fresh cup of coffee to get you in the right frame of mind. And maybe a healthy snack to keep you going. And just a couple of minutes to check Snapchat/Facebook/Twitter so you won’t be distracted later.

“People know that procrastination is a huge problem—I think some would say it’s probably the major problem students face,” says Russ Powell, associate professor, psychology. “There’s a lot of focus on using effective studying techniques, but before you can use them you actually have to be studying.”

So Russ teamed up with Rodney Schmaltz, also from the Department of Psychology, to test the commonly held idea in self-help literature that just getting started is the answer to every procrastinator’s problems.

“A lot of procrastination happens when people aren’t willing to start,” explains Rod. “Once they set a small goal—say studying for 5 or 10 minutes a day—and actually get over that hurdle, they find the task much less aversive than they thought it would be. And after those first 5 or 10 minutes, they seem to keep going.”

The approach makes sense, but Rod says they didn’t find a lot of research to back it up. “You can see bits and pieces of this idea in lots of places, but nobody has really tested it.”

So the two psychology profs tried simulating study sessions with research participants in the lab.

“It’s actually very difficult to simulate a realistic study session and create a task that has meaning because procrastination behaviours are generated by long-term consequences,” explains Rod. There’s also the painfully ironic point that true procrastinators probably wouldn’t get around to signing up for a study in the first place.

The research duo decided to switch tactics. They recruited 50 student volunteers in the Fall semester and gave them a set of instructions on how to study. Students recorded their study behaviours and experiences, and reported back to the researchers.

“In the pilot data we have collected, you can see that some students really picked up on the strategy and it worked well for them, while others didn’t seem to think very much of it,” says Rod. “It may be that there are individual differences in how students adapt to this kind of approach.”

Russ and Rod plan to continue chipping away at some of this research’s methodological challenges, but encourage students to give the approach a try—even if the results aren’t in yet, they say the anecdotal evidence shows the approach has merit.

“I’ve often recommended it in my behaviourism class and had students write reflections about their experience afterwards,” says Russ. “For them, it seemed to make quite a difference. One student decided to spend five minutes on her term paper every day, but of course she very rarely stopped at five minutes. In her reflection, she said it was the easiest term paper she ever wrote. For some students the approach seems to be a remarkable type of phenomenon. It’s definitely worth giving it a shot.”

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