Beating Academic Procrastination

NEW HAVEN, Conn. –  Exhausted and stressed-out Miranda Demirjian, sophomore social work major at Southern, waited last-minute to finish up her essay for school. Procrastinating throughout the weekend, Demirjian finally buckled down to start the paper.

“I had to write an essay on Beowolf and I remember starting the essay the night before,” said Demirjian. ”I was up until four in the morning and that’s when I was like ‘Ok I’m not doing that ever again.’”

Demirjian said that the essay- which she did in high school- was her worse experience with procrastination and notices that she procrastinates less now that she’s in college. The importance of doing well in college has helped her stay focused and she’s now bothered by putting things off. But she said she admits checking her Facebook and Twitter can distract her from doing work.

James Mazur, a professor of psychology at Southern, has been conducting experiments involving choice behavior and the delay of consequences people experience while making decisions. A factor that could cause people to make ill-choices, like procrastinating, could be the availability of the opportunity. Like in Demirjian’s case, her news-feed on Facebook is readily available on her cell phone.

“Anything that’s immediate takes on a bigger significance than it really ought to,” Mazur said. “That’s what makes (an ill-choice) illogical in the long run.”

Six weeks into the semester Lara Bracci, sophomore biology major at Southern, said she’s been procrastinating in a few of her classes already and that having less time to finish assignments helps motivate her. Reminiscing about last semester, she said she would start her homework a few hours before her English class started, but there was a big disadvantage to that strategy.

“I knew I was getting average grades,” Bracci said, “but I knew that if I had read ahead of time and took the time to analyze the reading, I knew for a fact that I would have gotten a better grade.”

A study led by Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, focused on a correlation among three things: procrastination, deadlines, and performance.  The report published in 2001, suggested that dividing work over a period of time will have a better outcome than trying to accomplish numerous tasks all at once. A total of 60 students, divided into three equal groups, participated in Ariely’s paid experiment.

Each individual had to proofread three papers written by other students.  Their pay was based on the quality of proofreading and the ability to meet deadlines.

Group A had evenly spaced deadlines throughout three weeks. Group B had to submit all essays at the end of the three weeks. Group C had self-imposed deadlines, students could submit the papers at any time as long as it was before the three weeks ended. At the end of the experiment those who spaced out their work evenly had better quality edits, were less likely to have delayed submissions, and received more money. Dividing work over time was key to success.

 Mazur said students will learn the material better if students studied systematically throughout the semester, rather than the night before the final exam. Procrastination is a short-term benefit with long term consequences. But there is one other strategy, Mazur said, that can help fight off procrastination-take away the opportunity to procrastinate

“It’s called pre-commitment,” Mazur said, “where you make a choice ahead of time that makes it harder for you to be tempted later. For example, shopping for healthy food will get rid of your chances of pie. You can still drive to get the pie, but now the choice is harder.”