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Maureen Reed, Lewis & Clark College

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Procrastination, a challenge faced by many students (and perhaps a few advisors), demands a nuanced approach.  Most students will acknowledge that they procrastinate, but answers to the questions of why they do so and how they can best address this issue vary widely.  For some, procrastination may be a problem of over-scheduling or time management, because having too much to do or ineffective work habits can lead to putting off challenging tasks.  For others, procrastination emerges from deeply rooted issues of motivation, a basic resistance to doing what must be done because one simply does not want to do it or feels fear about the outcome, perhaps because it may be less than perfect.  And for a blessed few, procrastination may even be an effective way to preserve energy until deadlines insist that the work must begin.  Procrastination matters because, as the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology states, it “lies at the heart of the psychological study of goal attainment” (Tice & Dewall, 2007).  It follows that, from an academic advising perspective, procrastination matters because students must deal with it in order to advance on their educational journeys.  Advisors do need to be watchful for students who procrastinate because of more deeply rooted issues, such as anxiety, and steer them to the additional help that they need.  But for many students, cultivating awareness of the multiple ways to understand procrastination serves as a useful first step in actively reckoning with it. 

Some students may find it helpful to consider the possibility of procrastination as an art form—as a mindful act of delaying a task now that may in fact improve performance on it later, or of choosing tasks that may be more important in the long run.  Procrastination, this reasoning goes, could give us an advantage in a world that increasingly demands quickness.  Philosopher John Perry, Professor Emeritus at Stanford and co-host of the radio show Philosophy Talk, offers this unconventional way of thinking about procrastination in a 1995 essay, “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done.”  Though it took him over ten years to do so, Perry (2012) eventually expanded his exploration into a book, The Art of Procrastination, a consideration of how and why to embrace the idea of being a “structured procrastinator: a person who gets a lot done by not doing other things” (xv).  Another book published in 2012, Frank Partnoy’s Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, applies this philosophical ideal to the professional world, highlighting how a particular form of procrastination—a knowledge of when to act—might serve as a useful tactic for those seeking success in financial realms.  Such “delay” may also offer benefits in an academic context: students who take time to mull over a problem or formulate a response to an essay prompt may perform better than those who rush into their work.  

And yet a more common academic advising problem may simply be that students need help in getting their work done, or even started at all.  When students consult advisors about procrastination or attend workshops on academic time management, they often seek a list of tips that will be certain to improve efficiency.  They ask for, and often receive, “scientific” approaches to addressing procrastination, perceiving that better use of executive function skills will ensure better performance.  But the student who thinks that ending procrastination is simply a matter of learning smart time-management moves may be at a disadvantage.  Self-help books on increasing productivity no doubt can offer students useful strategies, but these need to be employed mindfully, rather than as simple cures.  Jeanette Passmore’s (2015) account of a “productivity journey” in which she adapted processes from efficiency guides “into a system that works for [her]” (para. 2) offers a thoughtful look at how scientific time management works best when strategies are adapted and applied selectively.

Whether students seek to embrace or end procrastination, they will likely be more effective in this quest if they consider why it matters, both to themselves and to others.  American college students come of age in a culture that tends to see one’s productivity as a reflection of one’s character.  Anne Wheeler’s (2012) essay details the layers of “judgmental language” students themselves use when they equate procrastination with “laziness.”  A scientific approach to ending procrastination may inadvertently suggest that it is a character flaw to be conquered through will, discipline, and reason.  Acknowledging the values we associate with procrastination also helps us to see the investment we may feel if we set out to rescue procrastination and ourselves from the realm of weakness by elevating it instead to an art form.  Dwelling only on either negative or positive aspects of procrastination may lead to missed opportunities for realistically engaging with its impact on work performance.

For all these reasons, and because of the complexity of procrastination, it may help students to see it as both art and science, as a practice that can neither be embraced nor resolved with a simple or rigid approach.  Rather, addressing procrastination (or harnessing the benefits of this “art”) requires awareness of its root causes in each individual case, as well as a toolkit of solutions ready to be employed by a thoughtful problem-solver.  I find it helps to encourage students to envision the work to be done as a game in which one must get from one side of a checkerboard to the other—but unlike checkers, no move is illegal or irrational as long as the player understands why this move matters, at this moment, for attaining the goal.  As much as the player may want to move in a straight line from one side to the other, self-awareness may dictate that an artful “sideways” move—a reward of a Netflix session after two hours of writing, a walk to a coffee shop without a Calculus book in hand—may be more useful for winning the game than insisting on moving only forward, as the rules of science may suggest.  A sideways approach seems to work best when moves take place frequently and thoughtfully.  When students tell me that they are behind but intend to catch up by “staying in the library all weekend” (as if the “art” of procrastinating while thinking about a project will now be magically replaced by the “science” of getting it done efficiently), I tend to suspect that their progress will stall.  Insisting that one “should” or “must” move only forward to complete a task may indicate a shying away from addressing what has led to this “all or nothing” moment.   Frequent alterations between rest and study seem more effective at creating the kinds of sideways steps that lead to eventual forward movement.

Offering students time-honored tricks for getting work done may not help them as much as advising them to consider why they procrastinate, not just why they should not.  Whether in school, at the workplace, or for home life, students may best be served by complex approaches to thinking about their time.  College offers a more structured studio (for the artists) and laboratory (for the scientists) than afforded by the workplace or home life for reflecting on these questions and trying new practices.  Some of our students may pursue careers measured by adherence to strict deadlines, but many of them hope to advance professionally not only by their efficiency but also by their ability to create and accomplish their own priorities, agendas, and timelines.  Without the regimen of a course syllabus, procrastination can lead to problems beyond all-nighters and late work, perhaps becoming instead a slow-growing sense of aimlessness and frustration.  Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (2016), acknowledges that when he tried to apply efficiency techniques from business to his role as a parent, thoughtful strategies proved more useful than simplistic formulae.  “‘Productivity’ means different things to different people,” Duhigg concludes an essay about these efforts, “but at its core, it’s about thinking a little more deeply about the choices we make every day” (2016, para. 12).

Students’ lifelong journeys as empowered learners can benefit from grappling realistically with procrastination in college.  When students see procrastination as an ongoing force to which they can take many, and sometimes sideways, approaches to addressing in their academic lives, they learn to be more self-aware and better prepared for the never-ending, always immersing “to do list” that lies beyond the world of the college classroom.  More than just a mediocre compromise between harnessing procrastination through artfulness and overcoming its temptations through science, a sideways approach grants students a realistic and inspiring sense of their potential for continuing to attain goals.

Maureen Reed
College Advisor and Faculty Liaison
College Advising Center
Lewis & Clark College
[email protected]


Duhigg, C. (2016, March 10).  How asking 5 questions allowed me to eat dinner with my kids. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/10/how-asking-5-questions-allowed-me-to-eat-dinner-with-my-kids/?_r=0

Duhigg, C. (2016). Smarter faster better: The secrets of productivity in life and business.  New York, NY: Random House.

Partnoy, F. (2012). Wait: The art and science of delay.  New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Passmore, J. (2015, June). Getting things done. Academic Advising Today, 38(2). Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Getting-Things-Done.aspx

Perry, J. (1996, February 23). How to procrastinate and still get things done. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-ProcrastinateStill/93959

Perry, J. (2012). The art of procrastination: A guide to effective dawdling, lollygagging, and postponing. New York, NY: Workman.

Tice, D. M. & DeWall, C. N. (2007). Procrastination.  In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social psychology (pp. 706-707). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781412956253.n420

Wheeler, A. (2012, June). From inaction to action: Recognizing the language of procrastination. Academic Advising Today, 35(2). Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/From-Inaction-to-Action-Recognizing-the-Language-of-Procrastination.aspx

Cite this article using APA style as: Reed, M. (2016, June). A sideways approach to dealing with procrastination: The art and science of making progress. Academic Advising Today, 39(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2016 June 39:2


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