In a recent session I hosted for students on procrastination, I noticed a young woman, front-row centre, tears streaming down as she made notes on what I had to say.
It turned out she was a top student, procrastinating to the point that she was on the verge of failing. She had tried every strategy, and nothing worked. She wept when I explained that many strategies were ineffective for most people.
Every year, I am asked to speak to students about how to deal with procrastination. What they (and many others who procrastinate) need to understand is that procrastination is a stress response. We don’t all experience stress the same way, and that means managing procrastination behaviours can vary widely.
My research with post-secondary students has identified different types of procrastinators based on their experience of academic stress.
Most instructors think they are dealing with the “social” procrastinator. These procrastinators are low in stress and tension and put off work because they would rather be doing other things. They use the tension of a looming deadline or their peers tension to “energize.”
Another type is the “overwhelmed” procrastinator who feels worried about their ability — more tension, like a looming deadline, makes them feel worse. Their procrastination activities serve to help de-stress and relax (to greater or lesser success).
The final group we identified are students who are actually “burned out.” These students have moved so far into a stress response that they shut down — they procrastinate to numb.
Based on this research, we are working to help students identify why they procrastinate and understand that their procrastination is actually an attempt at stress management, so they can get productive.
Social procrastinators benefit from strict deadlines and strategies that energize them to productivity. Alternatively, overwhelmed procrastinators benefit from strategies to help them calm or de-stress — like cleaning their workspace or calling a calming friend.
Burned-out procrastinators — like the student above — may actually need time away, or counselling, to overcome the issue. What this means is that educators need to help students understand how procrastination reflects their need to manage stress — too little or too much.
Brenda Smith-Chant is an associate professor of psychology at Trent University Durham and senior researcher with the Self Regulation Institute.