Time Management and Procrastination

Addressing time management and procrastination includes good self-care. Photo by Sandis Helvigs.

Many students struggle with managing their time well and avoiding procrastination, but the rewards of even small changes in these areas can be worth it! There are a number of strategies that can help that are described in the following sections. However, before examining some of these more specific techniques, it can be helpful to start with some basic self-care. Are you getting at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep? If not, it will be much harder to stay organized and focused. Are you eating regularly and (mostly) healthy things? Do you have adequate nutrition, including protein, in your diet? Are you avoiding overuse of caffeine? Are you avoiding use or abuse of alcohol or other drugs? If your diet isn't healthy, this will have an impact on how well you can manage your time and attention. Take some small (or big!) steps to get better sleep, eat well, and increase your level of exercise as one way to pave the way for better time management and focus. (See other sections of our Self-Help Library for more detailed info on self-care.)

Time Management

Different time management strategies work for different people. Take a realstic look at your own patterns. What is causing time management to be a struggle? Is it that you just haven't tried to make a plan for everything you need to do? Is it because of trying to study in a distracting environment? Is it because you get overwhelmed and shut down when don't take regular study breaks? Some of the following tips can be helpful, depending on the reasons your current ways of managing your time aren't working.

  • Get a planner, whether it’s electronic or paper. Use it to first schedule your exams and assignments, then go back and fill in time for studying, eating, sleeping, socializing, and relaxing. Stick to the plan as much as possible. Set alarms if you tend to forget to look at your planner.
  • Be realistic about when and where you’re most productive: Some people feel most productive in the morning, and others, later in the day. For some, they need to be in a quiet place to get things done. For others, some background noise, like      music, helps. Note that some “background noise” like TV or music with distracting lyrics can take away your focus. Turn off your chat, and silence (and put away) your phone.
  • Study with friends if that keeps you more on track, or study alone if friends are too distracting.
  • Prioritize your tasks! If you tend to miss deadlines and have trouble finishing important things, start with the tasks that are most important and due soonest, then work on less-important stuff or things that have a longer deadline. If, instead, you have trouble getting started, begin with easier tasks, then move on to harder ones once your brained is “warmed up.”
  • Set realistic day-to-day goals. Work on one thing at a time and follow it through to completion. Break larger tasks (such as writing a research paper) into smaller ones, and tackle one part at a time.
  • Be honest with yourself about how you spend your time, and look at ways of cutting back on time-wasters. If you spend hours on line before starting your homework, try to stick to a plan of starting your homework first, then using online time as a reward for finishing tasks.
  • Break up blocks of study time with short breaks to limit fatigue. If you study solidly for a couple hours, make sure you give yourself 15 to 20 minutes before you start up again. Get away from the computer or books to stretch or take a short walk, or eat an energy-building protein-rich snack like yogurt or almonds.
  • Studies show that rewards are usually more motivating than punishment. Use this to your advantage by giving yourself a reward when you finish a task; for example, allow yourself to watch a favorite 30-minute TV show as a study break or give yourself some positive feedback. Self-criticism (a form of punishment) is usually not super effective for motivation, so work on recognizing and limiting these sorts of thoughts. Yeah, not easy, but good to work on.
  • Work on thinking more positively overall. Challenge the negative thoughts that creep into your mind and cause you unnecessary stress. Put more focus on what is going well and things for which you feel grateful. That doesn't mean denying or repressing unpleasant thoughts or feelings, but you also don't have to dwell on them. It's a process of learning this new way of thinking if negative thoughts are part of a longstanding pattern.
  • Consider asking a supportive friend or relative to be your “study coach”—agree to text or email the person a list of what you accomplished each day, or form a study group to keep each other on track. Research shows that being accountable to someone else can help keep you more focused.
  • Ask for help from classmates, TAs, professors, advisors, or a counselor as soon as you feel you need it—don’t wait until things are completely messed up!
  • Try this 16-minute online Student Success Time Management Workshop.
  • "There's an app for that!" Several apps were selected by laptopmag.com to be useful for college students, but you can find more through your own online research.


Do you find yourself procrastinating all the time? If so, you’re not alone: About 20% of adults claim to be chronic procrastinators, based on research by Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, Chicago, and others. Some studies suggest the rate among college students may be as high as 70%. Even though procrastination is common, it can really get in the way of academic and future career success and can make you feel bad about yourself.

Sometimes procrastination is the direct result of poor time management. If so, the tips given in the "Time Management" section should help. Other times, procrastination is caused by poor self-care (e.g., not enough sleep, poor diet, no exercise). Although it's not easy to change one's sleep, eating, and exercise habits, trying to do so can have a big impact on procrastination. Procrastination can also be the result of emotional and psychological factors, such as stress, depression, low self-esteem, and poor impulse control. When there are emotional and psychological components to procrastination, there are strategies to help. For example, if feeling anxious, frustrated, insecure, or irritated when thinking about a task you need to complete leads to your avoiding facing it by doing something else that temporarily soothes the negative feelings, a technique called "mood repair" may help. Following are four elements of this approach:

  1. “Emotional Time Travel”: This is the most important part of mood repair. If you are rebelling against the feeling of having to work, try projecting yourself mentally into the future. Imagine the good feelings you will have if you stop procrastinating and finish a project (or the bad feelings if you don’t finish, although focusing mostly on the good feelings is most helpful). Really allow yourself to experience, through your imagination, good future feelings as a motivator to change your procrastination pattern. Take some deep breaths while trying this. It's also important to practice acknowledging and paying attention to any "negative" emotions you are experiencing but not getting too caught up in them, so you can practice the "emotional time travel" strategy. (Mindfulness techniques can help with this.)
  2. Just Getting Started: If a fear of failure is preventing you from doing a task, just get started. Tell yourself you don’t have to finish the whole project now, and it doesn't have to be perfect. Just do the first one or two steps (e.g., write an outline for a paper, do the first two in a set of five math problems, read the first 5 pages of an assigned chapter), or set a manageable timeframe, like working for 40 minutes or one hour. Sometimes it helps to plan a small reward for finishing a step (e.g., watching one episode of your favorite TV show, Skyping a friend from home, taking a 30-minute nap). Just make sure the reward isn't so long that it prevents you from getting back to work in a reasonable amount of time. Note that if you are having trouble understanding the task (and thus there is a real possibility of failure), you should also try to get help from Learning Support Services, your professor or TA, or a classmate.
  3. Addressing Unhelpful Thoughts: If you are feeling guilty about procrastinating, stop beating yourself up. Replace the self-critical thoughts with something more helpful. This does not mean pretending you don't have the thoughts and feelings—it just means you aren't dwelling on or adding to them. It also does not mean allowing yourself to perpetuate the pattern of procrastination by making excuses. Some examples of thoughts that could be more helpful than self-criticism or excuses are, “OK, I didn't do as well as I hoped, but I did make some progress,” "I am upset I didn't do any work today; what can I learn from what didn't go well so I can try not to repeat it tomorrow?" "I realize I'm feeling distracted and stuck, so I will go for a walk and then try again to start my assignment," "I feel frustrated with myself, but I can forgive myself for falling short and try harder next time." Different "helpful thoughts" work for different people, so try to imagine what you would find to be realistic, helpful, and motivating, then practice using those thoughts when you have unhelpful thoughts.
  4. Doing Easy Things First: If you are feeling a lot of dread about one task in particular on your to-do list, start with something else, preferably the task you feel most like doing. The momentum you gain will help you start the tougher task later.

"Procrastination" section adapted from “To Stop Procrastinating, Look to Science of Mood Repair” by Sue Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal on line, accessed January 9, 2014 at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303933104579306664120892036.