Top 10 reasons to procrastinate

Two young women talking and holding coffee cups

Nothing is so fatiguing,” famous 19th century philosopher William James explains, “as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” This fatigue James speaks of haunts writing students every academic term, and procrastination is often the cause of it! What follows is a list of common reasons people procrastinate along with some ideas to help you think your way out of them:

1. I have too much laundry, too many dishes, and too much shopping to do today. I’ll get to the paper tomorrow.

Remedy: Remember why you’re in college/going to school in the first place; it’s probably not to learn about dishes or laundry. It’s to learn to write, read, and build other competencies so that you can perform them professionally! While dishes in the sink may be stressing you out or clothes may be festering in the hamper, they can wait until you get a draft of your paper written. As a college student, assignments—not cleaning toilets—should be your priority.

2. The topic I’ve been assigned/chosen stumps me, and everything I think of sounds silly.

Remedy: Talk it out. That’s right! Have an actual conversation with yourself or perhaps a generous friend or family member who doesn’t mind listening to you speak your ideas aloud. Often when you can articulate what you want to “say” in your paper, then you can jump-start the process of putting the ideas into written sentences. If you find yourself talking out your ideas with a friend or family member at any point, it can be useful to get a pen and paper so that you can start writing out ideas as they come up in the conversation. Or, you can use your iPhone to record the conversations and play back later as you begin to write.

3. My friends/family/significant other want(s) to go out tonight, and I really want to go too. Putting off the paper one more night won’t hurt.

Remedy: While you’re out on the town, set your own deadline ahead of the assignment due date and tell your friends about it. Like with anything else, if you set a personal goal and tell others about it, thus making them your co-conspirators, the desire to complete the assignment by the deadline grows greatly. Nobody wants to run the risk of looking bad in front of his/her pals. In some cases, your friends may even remind you of your aspiration and push you toward it. Also, having a draft completed ahead of the deadline gives you a minute to catch your breath, have others look at what you’ve written and relax a bit before your paper actually needs to be polished and turned in. Having that head-space can allow you to make critical revisions. Then, once you get the draft completed, you can go out and celebrate!

4. I don’t understand the assignment and the teacher isn’t available to explain it to me.

Remedy: Do some research. If the ideas aren’t freely flowing, perhaps it’s because you haven’t yet explored the many issues involved in your topic. Reading through some additional resources may help you think of different angles to address in your draft. Also, consider seeking the advice of a tutor. You can certainly avail yourself of Pearson’s Online Writing Center—that’s what we’re here for! There are also other resources available; if your school has a writing center on campus, consider making an appointment. The tutors there are often trained and skilled in explaining and interpreting assignment details that you might be confused about. It’s likely that most of them have experienced similar frustrations.

5. I can’t come up with a good way of introducing my topic; I don’t have a good first line.

Remedy: Forget about a glamorous hook, perfect punctuation, the exact right word or whatever it is that’s slowing you down. This is like thinking about what tie or necklace you will wear before you have your outfit selected. When you’re starting a draft, type up the general ideas–even if they look like rambling sentences. Once you have those ideas in place, you can then think about whether you’ve covered the main points of your topic, how you want those points ordered, and, finally, whether the sentences make sense and are written in appropriate grammar with appropriate punctuation. And, once you get some ideas started, you’ll open up some possibilities for an introduction to your draft.

6. I’m too tired to even think about writing or staring at a screen.

Remedy: Try setting a deadline: Give yourself a 20 minute segment of time to sit still and type up your ideas. These short term deadlines can be very motivating; they alleviate the feeling that you might be sitting in front of your laptop for hours (exhausted) trying to write a draft, and they force you to work in intervals that are more manageable. You can even reward yourself after you write for twenty minutes or complete your first page by standing up to stretch or eating a treat before getting back to your next task. If you start doing things in small blocks early enough, you’ll lay the groundwork for your project, and as the deadline nears, you’ll find you’re surprisingly close to being done with it long before you actually have to submit your work.

7. I can’t find the sources or material that I need to approach the topic the way I want to.

Remedy: Contact a friend who may be knowledgeable about your topic. Other people may also be great sources for information when you are trying to think through ideas to write about. You may think your problem is unique to you, but if you take the time to explain your situation to a knowledgeable friend, you’ll be surprised how quickly and easily they can come up with helpful ideas you wouldn’t have thought of or that wouldn’t have come up in your Google searches.

8. I’ve written a paragraph or two, but don’t know where to go from there. I’m stuck.

Remedy: Ask questions of your writing: What have you got down so far? What does the assignment ask? How does what you’ve said measure up? etc. The answer to those questions will often help you think about what content to include in your draft. Think about what your readers might want to know about your topic. Providing yourself with a number of “prompt” questions that you can then answer will help you move past the initial paragraph or two of your writing.

9. The dog/kid/iguana is sick; I have to take him to the doctor or the vet.

Remedy: Emergencies come along. You’ll have to address them, but these won’t get you off the hook in terms of completing college assignments. Take your work with you when you visit the doctor or the vet, and as you’re waiting to see the doctor, pull out your materials—do research, jot down ideas, and take notes. In extraordinary situations, consider asking for an extension. Many instructors are somewhat flexible when it comes to deadlines. If you approach them well ahead of time and offer a legitimate excuse you can usually garner more time, even if it is only a day or two.

10. I typically write all my papers the night before; I don’t start until then, so I’m not actually procrastinating.

Remedy: While there is the odd Mozart out there who can rattle off a near perfect composition the first time around, chances are that’s not you! Almost nobody gets it right the first time. Even if you feel as though you do, pick one paper this term and set a goal to start ahead of time. Remember that writing is a process; use revision and drafting strategies like writing a rough draft and putting it away for a day before looking at it again to see if there are ways you can improve.


About the Authors
Allison Warner

Allison Warner

Allison Brovey Warner is a Lead Tutor with Smarthinking where she tutors writing students, trains and evaluates writing tutors, and develops tutor resources. She holds a B.A. in English from Penn State, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Maryland. She enjoys teaching and learning in both onsite and online environments.




Mike Filipowski

Mike Filipowski

Michael Filipowski has worked as an English teacher and tutor for the 12 years, and he’s spent the past six of those with Pearson. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Idaho. When he’s not working, reading or writing, he loves to spend time outdoors hiking and riding his bike.