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Rethinking procrastination

A teacher guides a student on how to deal with distractions

“Exams are approaching,” says my student Nena (not her real name). “I know I have to study, and I really want to. But when I open the textbook, I feel paralyzed. So I do other things first—check my Facebook account, make a snack, play a game. I know I should not delay. I know I should not cram. What should I do?”

Many students procrastinate because they want to do pleasurable things now rather than wait for a more important payoff. They expect instant gratification: Play before work, instant rather than future rewards.

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But Nena’s procrastination may be caused by other factors, such as anxiety or self-criticism.

“Distraction is a fabulous way to cast off unwanted feelings,” says Scientific American Mind editor Sandra Upson. “Students doodling in the margins of their notebooks might have discovered on their own what psychologists have shown in the laboratory: That drawing can quell negative emotions not through its expressive power but by distracting us from our feelings. Not all diversions need to be so active: Another… is to take a nap—a tried-and-true tactic of procrastinating college students.”

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Negative emotions can arise when students suffer setbacks, such as criticism from a classmate or a teacher. To deal with bruised egos, students may turn for comfort to their Facebook pages, filled with “likes,” instead of focusing on assignments.

Procrastination “may be a subconscious move to self-affirm,” says Upson, “to check in with the values and passions that shape your identity.”

Rethink the situation

For procrastinators like Nena, a good way to go forward is what psychologists call cognitive reappraisal. Students can deliberately change how they perceive a problem so they can have a sense of control and deal with the situation better.

I guided Nena to stop destructive thoughts and reassess her situation.

Nena: I never liked math. It was always the last thing I studied.

Me: Then you would do even worse. Study complex subjects, like math, first, when your mind is fresher and clearer, when you have more energy.

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Nena: The exam involves three chapters! How can I ever review them all? It’s hopeless. I’m hopeless. I will never pass.

Me: Break down the chapters into sections and, if you still find them overwhelming, into subsections. Instead of reading 50 pages overnight, review five pages for an hour every day two weeks before the exam.

Nena: I will never be able to do all the exercises, there are so many! I panic, then I decide to play with my dog.

Me: Playing with your dog is your way of coping with stress. While it comforts you, when exams are fast approaching, you really have no choice but to do exercises. You know that your classmates who are doing well do all the exercises but they start them weeks before.

Nena: You told us to practice every day but the only time I answered an exercise was when you told us you would call on people who did not raise their hands. I’m sorry but I knew my other classmates would answer them. It was much easier copying from them.

Me: They are doing well because they regularly do assignments. But this is not the time for recriminations so I recommend that you join a study group.

Nena: But many study groups don’t do anything but eat, joke, hang out.

Me: Some groups are effective. You are discouraged by the many exercises you have not done. At this late stage, the task can indeed be daunting. No wonder you want to put it off! If you join a serious study group, instead of you having to answer all exercises, the group can divide tasks among its members and everyone, including you, can benefit.

Nena: Who can I ask for help?

Me: Start with Gerry, Maya, Jose (not their real names). They understand the topics, they take learning seriously, they do not procrastinate, they are willing to help.

Structure the environment

Aside from cognitive reappraisal, another way to beat procrastination is simply to structure the environment to minimize distractions and other excuses to dawdle.

“Self-control may not be the capacity for titanic acts of willpower but instead an ability to shape one’s environment proactively through effective habits and routines,” says

Upson. “The fewer obstacles, the fewer opportunities for negative emotions to arise.”

Nena: I spend a lot of time on Twitter and Instagram. I don’t want to keep on checking but when the phone tweets, I just have to check it.

Me: Self-control is not mainly willpower. People with good self-control are not always more strong-willed than the rest of us. They are wiser though; they structure their

environment to minimize temptations. It is hard not to check your phone if it rings. It is easier to just put your phone away during study time, especially during math time. Then you won’t be tempted.

Nena: I get what you mean! I feel so much better. Kaya ko ito. Thank you, Ma’am.

E-mail the author at [email protected]

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TAGS: Exams, Facebook, Procrastination, self-criticism, setback
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