All findings are taken from the 31 responses to a survey that was released early Hilary Vac 2023.
Before I begin on my journey, exploring the depths of Oxford’s culture of procrastination, I would like to make a confession. This vac, I was supposed to write 2 essays, rewrite 2 collection essays, watch 10 Shakespeare plays and read the Prelude by Wordsworth (a total of 13 books). I spent this vac rewatching Friends for the 3rd time, finishing another fantasy book trilogy, sending self-tape auditions, keeping up with #escapril, baking and writing this article. I say this so that you know, when it comes to procrastination, I am highly experienced and I am, by no means, speaking as an outsider looking in. Because of this chronic issue, I thought that it would be appropriate for the beginning of Trinity Term, to reach out to fellow procrastinators and ask them about their experiences and also to share any advice that they might have that could help us.
The main point, however, is to say to all those who procrastinate, you are not alone. When given the options of 0-1, 2-3, 4-5 and 5-10 hours of procrastination, just over half of the responses to the survey claimed that they procrastinate 2-3 hours a day (56.7%) with no reports of people procrastinating between 0-1 hours. We all have a tendency to procrastinate.
This might not sound like a huge chunk of the day, but this is disregarding the hours of lectures, social commitments and classes we might have. 2-3 hours can feel like a lot with the endless string of things we have to commit to. So what do we do to span the time between being given the assignment and rushing to hand it in? The scene of the crime for most people who responded to the form is the bedroom:
This makes sense, because – despite the desks that most colleges so kindly provide for us – the pictures on the pinboards just look so cute and make us think of that time we spent in France and “oh! Where were the pictures for that again?” or “I wander how much a trip to Spain would cost” or “I should really reply to those messages” (unrelated to the train of thought but a present thought nonetheless”). Social media is also the leading contender as a method of procrastination with 20 out of the 31 responses saying that they use social media to procrastinate – especially scrolling. And your bed does just look so comfy and a perfect place to pursue all of these various trains of thought. Bonus: you’re nice and warm and not stressed!
A few more fun ways of procrastination included cleaning, baking, and even making playlists. Methods of procrastination even vary if you’re just one person:
“Cleaning/tidying, chatting, doing other things I need to do instead of work, making playlists, lying in bed staring at the ceiling, crying”
Honestly, we are so creative in the ways we choose to procrastinate that “doing other things instead of doing work” really sums it up perfectly. Procrastination is such a beautifully diverse activity that can range in time taken and activities chosen so that we can spend as much time NOT doing work as possible.
Despite this, 90% of responses also reported that they would say that their procrastination is an issue. So why do we procrastinate?
Simultaneously, 100% of the responses agreed that Oxford burns them out, which is where we can see a common denominator. Something that we can all agree on when we’re talking about the City of Dreaming Spires is that it is, whilst beautiful, VERY hard work. Ironically, being in an environment that’s so academically intensive, procrastination can make us feel so inadequate and we begin to lose faith in our academic ability.
One response that echoed many others, encompassing the experience of how Oxford might fuel our procrastination was that they often procrastinate when “in situations of immense stress”. Although having some level of pressure might give a well-needed push in the right direction, the stress of our lifestyles is perpetual which means that even if you know that there is a deadline, this makes procrastination worse.
Another said that they are more likely to procrastinate “when I have a piece of work I’m not enjoying”. However, in this TED-Ed Video, they answer the question “Why you procrastinate even though it feels bad?”, they take a more psychological approach to answer why we subject ourselves to the endless cycle that is procrastination? The answer is that it’s because, for a lot of people, we care a lot about the task at hand which means we stress ourselves out and do our best to avoid it (because not trying means not failing) until it’s too late to do our best. This is more echoed by the response that they most procrastinate in situations “When I really care about the work and it’s important to me.”
This intensity causes a frustrating cycle of putting something off, and then being so behind on work that there’s no point in starting it at night when the day is finished so you might as well try in the morning but then it’s 3am and you’re sitting in your room, a 24 hour college library or a creepy computer room trying to finish the essay in time for your 9am tutorial which you know you’re going to be too exhausted to interact with anyway. A few responses also said that they often leave things too late and end up rushing things like essays, which, in turn, leads you to feel inadequate and not completing your best academic work. One person described how procrastination “ends up making my work so much more stressful than it has to be”.
It also means that the standard of the work you submit goes down:
“I end up rushing work and submitting subpar essays, sometimes past the deadline”
There’s is something deeper in this observation, especially when we talk about Oxford students, who are often already perfectionists before we get here. There is something really terrifying about the aspect of trying your best in a piece of work and being told that it’s still not good enough. Maybe in an essay subject, you spend days researching and working on answering a question, only for your tutor to turn around and say they don’t like it. That possibility is always looming and that’s so disheartening.
Procrastination means that you don’t give yourself enough time to finish the piece of work, you always have the excuse that you didn’t have sufficient time to do it and there’s no risk that your best work might not actually be good enough. The heavy workload that we are given in the first place lends itself to this cause because we become students that become used to churning out pieces of work that are not actually perfect and will probably not be your best work.
“In this case, it’s important to remember that you’re not procrastinating because you’re lazy, it’s a freeze/flight response from when you’re being put in a situation of intense stress.”
This was one of the best pieces of advice that was given by one of the respondees. This is especially important when we’re considering the role of perfection and the pressure to achieve it causing our procrastination getting worse. My own advice to you would be that this idea of academic perfection is completely artificial. There is always someone that’s going to be better than you at each thing that you strive to do but that’s okay and it doesn’t make your contributions to your subject/society/field any less important.
Some people also highlighted how your procrastination can be used as something helpful:
“In these cases [when work is boring], use procrastination as a signifier for what you’re not enjoying but also what you probably need to concentrate more when trying to focus.”
In a university when we’re trained to research all topics of our field in depth, it’s helpful to look at procrastination in this way, especially for those of us who are given option papers, so that we can see, through our procrastination, the routes that we really don’t want to be pursuing.
Thankfully for me and, I hope, some of you, the respondees also offered a lot of practical advice. Whilst the bedroom draws you in with the comfort of a warm bed, for many people who responded to the form, going to the library is a popular way for place for them to go to stop procrastinating, or even planning study groups with friends. I can attest to the fact that being around other people who seem to be working so vigorously keeps me accountable for persevering in the work that I need to be doing and stops me from going onto Instagram on my laptop. This person highlighted how to keep yourself accountable in more ways than this:
“Commit to being in a public space where other people can see me, make lists detailing out my tasks, timetable in times to work and also to relax and see other people”
Surrounding yourself with people and making plans with them to study can give a bit of structure to your time and can also help to make sure you commit to leaving time to study because another person is involved.
If you’re a bit more of an introvert and find it better to be on your own then some others advised the Pomodoro technique or “turn [your] phone off and focus on doing a small task to start! Once I have some momentum going then I might also be able to do the bigger tasks.”
A few of the responses also included people who had ADHD and they also had advice for others: “Try to plan things, remember to take my ADHD meds, use other people to hold me accountable”
One way of using others to keep yourself accountable, especially if you have ADHD is “Body doubling (have someone around me so it motivates me to study).” Body-doubling is a self-help technique, popularly advertised for those who have ADHD, where someone anchor’s you to your task (by conducting it with you) to ensure you don’t get distracted.
One thing that I would advise against is to “motivate [yourself] through fear and panic”. This is especially important when we can see how a lot of people’s procrastination stems from their fear of imperfection. Using that same fear to push yourself is only going to perpetuate the cycle that we are working so hard to avoid. If you take anything away from this, please remember that you need to give yourself a break and not work yourself into burnout.
“Your brain needs a break, and even though some procrastination like scrolling is probably unhealthy for you, it’s also useful to not be constantly analyzing things or committing to projects (as you do in your degree). Just because you aren’t doing work doesn’t mean your time is wasted or you’re not being productive”
In many ways, procrastination is our brain’s way of saying that we’re overdoing it and that we need to give ourselves a break. This is your reminder to keep telling yourself:
“You’re not lazy and you’re not alone!! You work hard regardless.”
Even “treat yourself after [the work is] done” because you’ll be rewarding yourself for ensuring that you’ve worked hard and it will become something that is a bit less stressful.
Procrastination, whilst the bane of the Oxford education system, is actually something that we can use to our advantage. So, to all of my classmates, friends, and fellow procrastinators, please, take a moment to procrastinate this evening, crochet, bake cookies, reorganise your pin board and…
“Remember why you’re here and doing what you’re doing. Don’t let anything snowball and if you need to be in a moment of procrastination or a moment away from everything allow yourself to! Learn how you best get back on track and don’t keep it or any other pressures to yourself ❤️”