Don't delay, sort it out today

26th March 2004 at 00:00
We've all done it: put off revising for that exam or preparing that assignment until it's too late and, as a result of rushing at the end, produced much poorer results than if we'd started earlier. Putting things off can be an extremely disabling psychological condition and may account for why some students never realise their full intellectual potential.

But psychologists have become interested in this widespread phenomenon and have come up with a technical definition of procrastination: "to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay".

Taking procrastination seriously would benefit us all. According to the psychologists' research, academic procrastination has been associated with depression, guilt, low grades, anxiety, neuroticism, irrational thinking, cheating and low self-esteem. It's a particular problem for homework. In one recent study, more than 40 per cent of students said they always, or nearly always, put off doing homework or other self-directed projects.

There are two main theories as to why we do this. "Task aversion" is when we hate doing something because it's an awful bind compared with something more enjoyable such as watching television or going to football. Then there's "fear of failure"; we are worried we aren't going to do the task particularly well and so put it off to do things we are better at - such as watching television or going to football!

Psychologist Barbara A Fritzsche and her colleagues from the University of Central Florida have published research in which they suggest an ingenious but amazingly simple technique to help. You get the stallers to start the project, and then give them immediate encouraging feedback on how they are doing.

There are various explanations why this simple procedure is effective. The encouraging feedback may help those with fear of failure by reducing perfectionism; they feel they are not going to fail after all, and so are more likely to persist. Discussing the work is also a subtle way of getting students to confront the reality of the task rather than avoid it. Setting an earlier deadline for feedback helps bring the future forward and appear nearer.

Another interesting tactic comes from a branch of psychology called behavioural decision-making, which focuses on how we make key decisions.

Theorists say that, because the exam is in the distance, students have to compare the immediate benefit of going out tonight with the delayed benefit of gaining a good mark. Because delayed outcomes are valued less (we value something in the future much less than something we can have now), we tend to go for immediate enjoyment. Non-procrastinators value going out too - but they revise first. They prefer business before pleasure while the postponer prefers pleasure before business.

Swiss psychologists Cornelius J Konig and Martin Kleinmann of the University of Zurich say the way to help procrastinators is to ask them what order they want to do the tasks in, rather than asking them what they want to do now (with the inevitable answer). Would they prefer to go out after revising, in which case they will probably be able to party more and without the worry of the exam? Putting business before pleasure usually enhances the pleasure.

The trick of focusing on task order and sequence seems to dramatically aid planning and help ameliorate procrastination. So, in what order do you want to do the following: continue reading The TES, mow the lawn, take out the rubbish and mark those essays?

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch published by Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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