How to Stop Procrastinating in College: 7 Essential Tips

Nearly every student procrastinates on schoolwork at some point. Learn how to stop putting off assignments and create better study habits with these tips.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on May 13, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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How to Stop Procrastinating in College: 7 Essential Tips
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Almost everyone procrastinates at some point in life, especially students. A 2007 analysis found that up to 95% of college students put off schoolwork.

But avoiding tasks doesn't make them go away — and procrastinating hurts more than just your grades.

What is procrastination exactly? It's not the same as being lazy. Instead, procrastination means delaying difficult or challenging tasks.

So why do we procrastinate? Usually because we find certain tasks stressful, hard, or just plain boring. College students typically don't procrastinate on things they want to do.

It's not surprising that procrastinators earn lower grades. But they also experience more stress, along with the many negative side effects of stress. Ultimately, procrastination is a choice. It means choosing to put off work, even when you know that's a bad idea.

Fortunately, there are many ways college students can start creating better habits. The seven tips below teach you how to stop procrastinating once and for all.

1. Keep Track of Deadlines

Knowing your deadlines can help you create a healthy habit of planning ahead. It will also help you avoid putting off coursework until the last minute.

Let's say you have a paper due in two weeks. Most students would avoid thinking about the assignment until right before the due date. Instead of avoiding it, sit down and come up with a schedule. Break the essay into multiple steps, and schedule time to research, write, and revise your paper.

Another example is an upcoming midterm or final exam. Rather than putting off studying, you should plan out when you'll review your notes and answer practice questions.

Staying on top of your assignments is key to breaking the habit of procrastinating.

2. Start Small

Why do people procrastinate? Often the task may feel so big that we don't know where to start. Learning how to stop procrastinating starts with small steps.

Tell yourself you'll sit down to study for just 15 minutes. You may find that this leads to a longer 30-minute or two-hour study session. Why? Once you get started, it's much easier to keep going. For many, starting is the most difficult part.

Breaking tasks down into smaller parts can also improve your performance. According to psychologists at the University of California, San Diego, you'll get a major memory advantage from studying in shorter, spaced-out sessions.

3. Know When You Work Best

Are you the type of person who rolls out of bed feeling energized and ready to go? Or are you a night owl who does your best, most focused work after sunset? Knowing when to work can help you avoid procrastination.

Pay attention to when you feel alert during the day. Once you know your most and least productive times, you can schedule your most intensive tasks for your best times of day.

4. Set Milestones

Clear goals can help college students avoid procrastinating. But sometimes the goal feels too distant, like completing a semesterlong project or making it through finals week. This is why it's important to break assignments down into smaller goals or milestones.

Instead of telling yourself to sit down and read an entire textbook cover to cover, break your reading sessions into chapters or even sections.

You can also break down studying for exams into simple steps. Your milestones might include reviewing keywords, preparing for in-class essay questions, or taking a practice test.

Be sure to set goal deadlines for each milestone. Reach out to someone in your class to keep you accountable, or consider forming a study group. Knowing that someone else will check up on your work can help you stay motivated.

5. Avoid Distractions

Distractions can easily derail your study sessions. It's no surprise that college students procrastinate on challenging tasks while trying to make time for fun. And when you're finally sitting down to jump into problem sets or read a dense primary source, it's much easier to drop your book and scroll through social media.

So how can you avoid distractions? Keep the internet browsers to a minimum; find a quiet, distraction-free environment that helps you focus; and put your phone away or set it to airplane mode.

Note that avoiding distractions doesn't mean working nonstop — you should also build in scheduled breaks.

6. Build in Breaks

Procrastinators often tell themselves things like, "I'll just write that paper in 10 hours." But then, unsurprisingly, they fail to stick with this unrealistic goal.

When college students procrastinate, they tend to rush through their assignments. Doing this gets the adrenaline pumping and can give the mistaken impression that you're doing great work. In reality, though, taking regular breaks can improve your productivity and focus.

Here are some recommendations for energizing study breaks from Cornell Health:

7. Reward Yourself

Breaking your procrastination habit means building better, healthier habits. And rewards are a great way to reinforce a new routine.

Create rewards for each of your milestones. Once you read a chapter of a textbook, for example, reward yourself with an episode of your favorite TV show. Once you finish the first draft of your paper, head out with a friend to grab dinner at your favorite burger joint.

Procrastination has major downsides. When students procrastinate, they feel worse, physically and psychologically. Research shows that procrastinators experience more headaches, higher stress levels, and poor sleep.

Replacing procrastination with good habits can take time, but it's worth the investment.

Frequently Asked Questions About Procrastinating in College

true What is procrastination?

Procrastination means putting off something you need to do, even when it will negatively affect you should you wait. Psychology professor Fuschia Sirois defines procrastination as "the voluntary, unnecessary delay of an important task, despite knowing you'll be worse off for doing so."

Students who procrastinate aren't necessarily lazy. Often, learners put off tasks because they feel overwhelmed or anxious. Unfortunately, procrastinating only increases stress.

true Why do people procrastinate?

College students procrastinate for many reasons. Sometimes they don't know how to start an assignment. In other cases, they may put off difficult or challenging tasks like studying for finals. Procrastinators sometimes avoid boring assignments like reading a dry textbook or wait to start studying because they're afraid of failing.

Some people even procrastinate because they think it makes them a better student — we've all heard people say they do their best work under pressure. However, research shows that procrastinators earn lower grades and experience more stress.

true What percentage of college students procrastinate?

A 2007 analysis found that 80-95% of college students procrastinate. According to psychology professor Joseph Ferrari, procrastinators come in three types:

  • Avoiders who are worried about failure or judgment
  • Indecisives who put off stressful choices
  • Thrill-seekers who argue they perform best with time constraints

Learning how to stop procrastinating on homework, assignments, and other tasks will likely mean less stress and better work habits. As Ferrari warns, though, around 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators.

By creating better habits in college, graduates can avoid the downsides of procrastinating.

Time-management apps can help students master their schedules and stay focused. See how these time-management apps can work for you. Move over, Mozart! Lo-fi music can improve studying through increased brain activity, reduced stress, and enhanced focus. In a new BestColleges survey, online college students share their biggest tips for doing well in an online class, from taking notes to asking questions.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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