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Strategies to Reduce Procrastination

Strategies to Reduce Procrastination
Featured Speaker:
Maryam Khodadoust, Psy.D.
Maryam Khodadoust, PsyD is a Clinical Psychologist at MIT Student Mental Health and Counseling Services. She has worked with college students for over a decade and at MIT Medical for four years.  Maryam’s passion is helping young adults to navigate their intersecting identities. She gives talks and conducts workshops at the institute on a variety of topics including stress, resilience, cross-cultural communication, time management, organization, imposter phenomenon, perfectionism, and procrastination.

Melanie Cole (Host):  Welcome to Conversations with MIT Medical. I’m Melanie Cole. And today, we’re discussing strategies to reduce procrastination. Joining me is Dr. Maryam Khodadoust. She’s a Psychologist at MIT Medical Student Mental Health and Counseling Services. Dr. Khodadoust, I’m so glad to have you join us today. Define procrastination for us. What does that really mean?

Maryam Khodadoust, Psy.D (Guest):  Procrastination usually people think of it as just to delay a task and if you look it up in the dictionary, that’s what it says as well. The definition of procrastination I really like comes from the Center for Clinical Intervention out in Australia. They define procrastination as a conscious decision to delay or not complete a task you were planning to do and instead doing something of lesser importance despite the presence of negative consequences of not following through on the original task or goal. Now I say conscious decision for a very important reason. A lot of MIT students I’ve met mistake procrastination with distraction or laziness because they are focused on what it looks like from the outside and on the outcome or the behavior. And they’re usually unaware or have yet to explore their internal experiences which led them to make the decision to procrastinate in the first place.

So, do we sometimes get things done or not get things done because we’re feeling lazy or because we get distracted? Sure. But those aren’t true instances of procrastination. If procrastination is a conscious decision I’m making, then it directs me to become gently and nonjudgmentally curious about why I’m making that choice. While it’s a conscious decision, it can happen so fast that we don’t notice it and it can happen so often that it becomes habitual.

Host:  What an unbelievable explanation. That was so clear, and I really never thought about it that way. So, why do we do it? Because in today’s world, Doctor, there’s Tik Tok on Instagram and Facebook and Snap Chat and all of these things that we make that conscious choice to avoid doing whatever it is that we’re doing, and we get distracted by those kinds of things. Why are we doing that to ourselves?

Dr. Khodadoust:  There’s a whole industry popping up trying to answer that question. There’s no one specific reason why we procrastinate a given task. Having said that, I can say that there are some trends I’ve noticed in working with MIT students about their procrastination. For example, I’ve noticed that students tend to put off academic tasks more when their identity is tied into how well they perform on that task. Procrastination is the way out in those instances from having one’s intelligence really tested because if you think about it, it’s also an excuse for poor performance. So, if I only studied a few hours, I’m not surprised that I failed the test. And I have this built in excuse. You know I only studied a few hours. Whereas if I do well on the test, despite my procrastination, it’s a bonus. Look not bad for having studied only a few hours. So here we see that procrastination was a way in which a student is able to cognitively reconcile the dilemma of having their intelligence tested.

I’ve also noticed that students tend to put off academic tasks until the discomfort from the deadline is higher than the discomfort of doing the task. Here, procrastination usually is used as a tool to manage a paralyzing anxiety and discomfort of the task. And finally, I’ve noticed students that tend to procrastinate on tasks that they would otherwise get stuck in. What we would call perseverating which is sort of just being stuck on a small part, not being able to see the woods through the trees. So, here, procrastination is used as a behavior strategy to be more efficient around an academic task.

So, what I’m saying here, is here are like three ways in which procrastination while having a detrimental impact on the academic performance actually played a role in coping or problem solving, some kind of internal dilemma.

Host:  Wow, that’s so interesting. When do we know it’s becoming problematic? If we can even identify it and if it’s truly conscious like that and we know we’re doing it, whether it’s because we are afraid of starting that task or something else. When do we know it’s problematic and why is it sometimes that if we do even identify that it’s problematic, that we can’t stop doing it? Sometimes we can. Sometimes we say I have to get that assignment done. But sometimes we say that’s too hard for my mind right now. I can’t think about that right now. Why are we doing that?

Dr. Khodadoust:  I’m going to answer the first part of that question first which is the difference between normal procrastination because you’re right, everybody does it and problematic procrastination. And it really comes down to how often we procrastinate and the impact that it has on our academic or other aspects of our lives. So if you are engaging in procrastination in such a way that it’s actually impacting, negatively impacting your academic functioning then it’s problematic.

For the second part of your question, why is it sometimes we can stop and sometimes we can’t? one of my first observations has been that students often limit their focus on changing their procrastination by changing the behaviors they engage in. For example, they’ll take away their sources of distraction that you were talking about earlier. Or they choose environments they can associate with productivity. Well that works if distraction is the source of putting off effort. But if their difficulty in approach to task has to do with some kind of internal dilemma, then they need to become more curious about their internal state. What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What am I saying to myself right now as I’m trying to put off this task? Or while I’m trying to procrastinate. Think about it. if procrastination is a conscious decision, by the time we engage in the procrastination behavior we’ve already made that decision. We’ve already finished that process and we’re already engaging in behaviors. So, that’s like the end of the chain. Right?

And more often than not, we need to sort of move up the decision chain before we can stop it.

Host:  It does sound like from what you’re saying there’s different decisional points or steps involved in that decision to procrastinate. Tell us about that and while you’re doing that excuse and legitimate reason include those in there as what we’re doing when we procrastinate.

Dr. Khodadoust:  As I said before, procrastinational behaviors are really sort of at the end of a chain. So, here’s the order. Procrastination actually starts with our expectations about ourselves. It then interacts with the nature of the task we’re facing and then there’s feelings that get invoked and these two aspects interact and if the interaction produces anxiety, then it sets us up to make the excuse and that’s the decisional point. When we excuse our abandonment of the task and choose to engage in procrastination behavior, more often than not, catching yourself in the excuse and challenging it is enough to redirect you back into the planned activity. The question about what’s an excuse and what’s a legitimate reason – most excuses, actually all excuses have some grain of truth. For example, I can say that I’m really tired and that’s true who am I to say I’m not tired. And then the decision that comes after that grain of truth I’m really tired, I’m better off waiting until I’m rested. So, here we see there’s a negative truth and we tie it into the excuse to procrastinate. It’s an unhelpful conclusion from that nugget, right. You can test it. How may times have you been tired and still managed to finish what you started? Or still managed to make a dent in something before you gave up?

If there are times that you’ve managed to be able to do the task despite that grain of truth, then it’s most likely an excuse. So, then you catch yourself in that excuse and you can say okay, yes, I’m tired but maybe I can still make a small start right now so that I can point myself downward the next time that I look at this task. Here’s another grain of truth. I’m not inspired or I’m not sure how to start. And a lot of times, we can turn that into an excuse because that’s the negative truth. But we can turn it into an excuse by saying I’m better off waiting until I’m more sure or inspired. And that’s the excuse part because how many times has inspiration just hit you? More often than not, when you start something, you become more and more clear about what you need to do, or you become increasingly inspired. While you can acknowledge the grain of truth, I’m not inspired, or I don’t know how to begin; then you can also come up with a more helpful conclusion. Well let me put something down and see if inspiration comes. Or let me start something and then I can run it by my adviser or my professor.

Host:  This is absolutely fascinating. You describe it so well. It can be a really complicated topic, but people don’t tend to think of it that way. So, wrap it up for us. What would you like us to know about conscious procrastination and some strategies for MIT students that they can use to really reduce that from happening and really let our motivation work for us.

Dr. Khodadoust:  There are a lot of wonderful tips and strategies out on the web on how to address the behaviors associated with procrastination. So, I’m not going to take up any time talking about that. What I really sort of want to focus more on is this realization if students would just be a little bit more gently curious with themselves. Because procrastination is a little bit more complicated. It is a decisional point. So, instead of looking at it from the outside and looking at it at the outcome, be a little bit more curious about what role does this play for me. How do I feel when I’m sitting down to do work and I’m feeling too anxious to start? Or what am I saying to myself? And what shifts for me when I am actually able to sit down and work? Is there a permission I give to myself at a few hours before the deadline that I don’t give myself before that? I’ll give you an example. If I’m having a really hard time working on a paper, and it takes waiting until only two hours before the deadline before I can actually get going, I want to start being very curious about what I say to myself, the point that I get to actually start working. And some students have recalled saying things like just put some words on paper. You just need something to turn in. And that’s really important to pay attention to because maybe the expectation you had before was too high and it brought up your anxiety too much and you couldn’t engage in it. And it took have less time to give yourself permission to reduce your expectation. Which is what you needed to start.

So, if you know that, then maybe you could experiment with starting the project with lower expectations. Let me just start off by just putting some words on paper. And experimenting and see how that feels.

Host:  Great information. Something that not only for MIT students but we all could use right now. Thank you so much for a fascinating episode of Conversations with MIT Medical Doctor. Thank you so much for joining us. And that concludes this episode of Conversations with MIT Medical. Please visit our website at for more information and to get connected with one of our providers. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast and all the other MIT Medical podcasts. Share this show with your friends and family on social media because I think they will find it as fascinating as I did and we can all learn from the experts at MIT Medical. I’m Melanie Cole.