HSC students, don't delay: here's how to beat procrastination right now

It's important to put down the phone and just get on with it, in a quiet, dedicated workspace.
It's important to put down the phone and just get on with it, in a quiet, dedicated workspace. Photo: iStock

You have an exam or assignment looming but you just can't sit down and do it. You check your email, social media, water your plants or phone your grandma.

Procrastination is the act of delaying a task, even though it may result in negative consequences in terms of the marks you get or the effect on your emotional wellbeing, says Dr Carolyn Schniering, a child psychologist in the Centre for Emotional Health.

Procrastination is a very misunderstood phenomenon that's often oversimplified, says Schniering. As a senior lecturer in Macquarie's Department of Psychology, she researches teen anxiety and depression.

People who use avoidance as a coping mechanism for anxiety are most vulnerable to procrastination, she says. A typical reaction to stress is 'fight or flight', and those more inclined to run are more likely to procrastinate.

"The best way to deal with procrastination is to face your fear and break the cycle of avoidance," she says "For some students, just getting your feet on the floor and your bottom on the seat at your desk, proving you've turned up, is half the battle won. Learn how to become a quick starter."

Schniering's advice is to start with 10 minutes at a time and then increase it. "Practice little and often. You are developing a new habit," she says.

Breaking down the myths of procrastination is important. Students are frequently told they need to work on time management or organise their study space. "In fact, overcoming procrastination is a lot more complex than that because it's actually a multifaceted psychological experience," she says.

No motivation fairy

There is no motivation fairy, she says. "If we wait for the right circumstance, or until we feel ready to study, it may never happen. Motivation is fluid, it comes and goes, so you just have to take action, sit down and start regardless of whether you feel motivated or not."

It's also common to feel a wave of anxiety when you first sit down, Schniering adds. "Sit there and stick with it and surf that emotion. It will pass and the more you just let it be and go with it, each time it will become less and less intense."

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To stop feeling overwhelmed, also divide the exam study or assignment into manageable chunks to be done progressively over the available time period.

"Understanding the assignment instructions and the marking rubric are often really hard for students," she says. "But that's the first place to start. Once they've broken the assignment down into steps, then they can begin their study."

The next stage is to schedule these tasks into a timetable, fitting them in between school sport, music, or a part-time job, ensuring time is also set aside for doing other activities students love doing, such as spending time with friends or family.

Just write, even if it's not great

Also, Schniering emphasises that when a student's task is to write an assignment or practice writing an exam essay, then they should focus on the act of writing for the designated time period.

"Basically, the first draft will be crap – but just continue to write and don't do any task switching; don't go back to your references, don't check your email or surf the net. Writing is writing only. Then you can go back later and edit, find more information or insert references."

Her final suggestion is to have a dedicated workspace, which is quiet, where students can set out their things so they're ready to have a quick start every time they sit down to study.

"If you have the same spot and the same routine each time, then your body knows this is study time," she says.

Schniering's six steps to work with procrastination include:

  • Face your fear: turn up and sit at your desk
  • Practice study little and often
  • Divide your assignment or exam study into tasks
  • Timetable your study
  • When you write, write only
  • Become a quick starter with a dedicated work area

It's all about attitude, she says. "Face your procrastination and work with it. Be open, non-judgemental and patient with yourself and you'll make progress."

Dr Carolyn Schniering is a senior lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Emotional Health in the Department of Psychology.

This has been co-published with The Lighthouse, Macquarie University's multimedia news platform.