By Carla Wintersgill
One night at the Ryerson library, third-year radio and television arts student Amanda Molinski scrambled to complete an assignment.
A 60-page script worth 50 per cent of her mark was due at midnight, and she had just started writing it. Molinski only had a few hours left until the link for the online submission closed.
“I just freaked out,” she recalls. “But I can’t work before I absolutely have to. I’m the person you see that’s running to hand her essay in on time.”
It turns out that Molinski is not alone in her tendency to leave things until the last minute. Around 15 to 20 per cent of people are procrastinators, while that number rises dramatically in students — an estimated 75 per cent of students put things off.
These numbers come from University of Calgary professor, Piers Steel, who has just completed a comprehensive review of all the procrastination studies on record. In his study, “The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure,” Steel narrows down the factors that cause people to procrastinate.
The study shows that students are most likely to leave things to the last minute because they are surrounded by a “perfect storm of procrastination.” He blames the distance of deadlines as well as the more independent learning style of university.
“Students come from the structured environment of high school and home and then they go to the unstructured environment of university and go crazy,” says Steel. “They have a lack of experience of self-regulation. Meanwhile, they are surrounded by other activities that are pleasurable.”
It’s hard to write an essay when there are more enjoyable and distracting things to on your computer such as instant messaging, viral videos and porn. But there is more to procrastination than just diversions. In his study, Steel comes up with a mathematical formula that calculates the probability of procrastination.
This formula, called the Temporal Motivation Theory, determines the likeliness of achieving a task by multiplying the confidence a person has of doing it well by the value of completing the task. That number is then divided by the immediacy of the task multiplied by how impulsive the person is.
Students who don’t believe that they can do well on an assignment tend to start their work later. How much the person enjoys doing the task is also a factor. Students who have a 10-page paper due, but hate writing are most likely to put it off for as long as possible. How impulsive a person is also effects their motivation.
“For those people who are more impulsive, they have a shorter time orientation,” says Steel. Spontaneous people have a hard time planning for distant deadlines. They need the pressure of an immediate due date. “It’s like climbing up a very steep roller coaster. Their motivation spikes just before a deadline.”
Molinski is someone who is only spurred into action at the last minute. She usually crams for her exams the night before. Pulling all-nighters is part of her normal study routine.
“I work well under pressure,” she says. “If I know I have stuff to do, I’ll sit on the couch and wait until the last possible moment. I’ll talk about doing it, but I never get around to it. I know people say that it’s bad, but it works for me.”
While procrastination works for Molinski, it can have dire consequences. Students who tend to procrastinate can fall into a cycle of falling behind, becoming even more overwhelmed by their work and putting it all off some more. It can also lead desperate students to academic misconduct such as plagiarism.
“Sometimes if students don’t give themselves enough time to complete a written assignment they may be more likely to inadvertently plagiarize because of sloppy research and note-taking,” writes Laura Thrasher, a learning strategist at Ryerson’s Learning Success Centre, in an e-mail. “Certain students may also be tempted to intentionally plagiarize if they feel overwhelmed by a project.”
Thrasher recommends that students with poor time management skills make lists and break up larger projects into a series of more manageable tasks. They should set clear goals and reward themselves for the hard work they do.
Steel also has handy tips for students to break the habit of procrastination. He suggests focussing on the ultimate end goal — a university degree. Concentrating on the value of a degree can help kick-start motivation.
Steel also stresses limiting your proximity to temptation.
“Are you studying in an area where people can distract you easily?” Steel asks. “Are television and YouTube available? They are the siren’s call. The closer you are, the louder the voice. Distance yourself. Study in the library.”
The last strategy that Steel recommends is establishing a routine. Studying in the same place at the same time every day creates a habit that will ward off distractions. For students who are seriously struggling with procrastination, there are workshops provided by the Learning Success Centre that deal with time management.
Still, Ryerson has a strong contingency of procrastinators. There is even an online group called the Ryerson Procrastinators Society that has more than a thousand members. One member, Megan Gasparatto joined because she sees procrastination as her bad habit.
“I wish I could stop, but I can’t,” says the first-year social work student.
Like one member of the Ryerson Procrastinators Society points out on the group’s message board, “procrastination is like masturbation, it feels so good until you realize you’re just screwing yourself.”