Procrastinating on Schoolwork Impacts Your Mental Health, Just FYI

In college, wellness is often characterized as balancing academics with friends, jobs, and extracurriculars. Academics and the pressure to earn good grades is a prominent source of stress for college students. But does balancing schoolwork, managing time, and alleviating stress always mean getting work done ahead of time or taking the full allotted time to complete an assignment?

I personally like to wait before starting any given assignment because I tend to overthink and stress about an assignment being absolutely perfect, and I would take forever on an assignment if given the chance. It’s not ideal for a balanced lifestyle, and working on something for longer doesn’t necessarily equate to productivity or time maximization. It’s like how doing a 15 minute HIIT workout is more impactful than an hour of low-intensity cardio. When I procrastinate, it’s not out of laziness, but rather, a desire to be efficient.

Spending only as much time as I need to on school work has also opened up room in my schedule to take on leadership roles in clubs, internship opportunities, and on-campus jobs. When I don’t devote all of my time to my academics, I develop an identity and a sense of worth that’s not completely based on grades, which has done wonders for my mental health. Having a well-rounded schedule in which schoolwork is a priority and not the priority has felt like a  more fulfilling college experience to me, which is more valuable than reviewing those flashcards for the hundredth time. The time crunch may also foster eustress – beneficial, motivational stress – that can allow for creativity, productivity, and a flow of ideas.

College students say they work better under pressure.

Julia, a sophomore at the University of Montevallo, shares similar reasoning. As a procrastinator like myself, she says that, “To be honest, procrastinating actually works way better for me. When I start doing things in advance, it feels like the work doesn’t stop plowing in. I get burnt out easily. I work better under pressure.”

Tiyra, a senior at Regent University, also agrees: “I know this is going to sound nuts, but I think I make better use of my time when I procrastinate. I do the things I enjoy when I want to enjoy them and get my assignments done in the proper amount of time instead of dragging it out for days or weeks. It can get super intense, but I like the adrenaline rush and living on that line.”

Additionally, the Harvard Extension School of Professional Development also cites a study in which procrastinators’ ideas were found to be 28% more creative than the ideas of those who did not procrastinate. So procrastination might not work for a more fact-based assignment like a big research project or studying for an exam, but it might be effective for writing an analytical essay.

Another pro to procrastination? Working on assignments in the order in which they are due often means focusing on a couple of things at a time. Quickly moving from assignment to assignment offers variety in my workload and, while not scientifically proven, in my experience, this has prevented burnout. But naturally, procrastination is not going to work for everyone and there are instances in which it can be taken too far.

Procrastination can lead to anxiety

While procrastination might, ironically enough, alleviate some students’ anxiety around schoolwork, procrastination might also lead to, or be caused by, increased levels of anxiety. “If I procrastinate or am struggling with assignments it affects my mental health by making me feel trapped and anxious,” Amanda explains. That eustress that often fuels procrastination can all-too-quickly turn into distress and panic.

Of course, finishing an assignment in a hurry may also negatively impact your grades – from not catching small mistakes, or from not putting in the time to really develop your ideas. Staying up late to finish an assignment also leads to fatigue and sleep deprivation.

Fairley, a senior at University North Carolina Wilmington, prefers not to procrastinate. Like myself, she also takes measures to avoid stressing out over her schoolwork being absolutely impeccable. But to combat this, she takes an opposite approach and likes to get her assignments done ASAP. “I am the type of person that likes to get stuff done early,” Fairley explains. “I have the mindset of getting things out of the way so I don't have to think about it again. If I don't do that, I stress over it being perfect and that leads me to getting no work done at all. Planning in advance helps me not worry about what I'm doing.”

There’s a difference between casual procrastination, in which you pick and choose what you procrastinate on, and chronic procrastination. Chronic procrastination, distress about academics, or lack of motivation might be symptomatic of something greater, such as anxiety, depression, OCD, or low self-esteem.  If you struggle with managing schoolwork to the point where it impedes upon your grades and interpersonal relationships, you might want to visit your school counselor or the academic resource center.

Figuring out how to tackle your academic endeavors is a balancing act, and people on both extremes of the time management spectrum – those who get their work done a week in advance, and those who might write an entire essay the night before it is due – have a lot to learn from each other and their respective strategies. Here are my tips for getting your schoolwork done in an efficient and timely fashion, without it becoming the core focus of your life.

1. Schedule putting something off

Now, this might sound counterintuitive, but this strategy works great for me and helps me shift my focus to a single assignment without forgetting about everything else. On my to-do list, I like to not only write out what my upcoming assignments are, but when I plan on completing them. I try to stagger my workload, which helps me focus on each individual assignment, but that often means I’ll get a late start on a homework assignment or problem set. I like to put off lower-stakes, less weighted assignments in favor of focusing on bigger essays or projects, but I make a note of this and set a reminder on my phone so I don’t forget to do the smaller assignments entirely. This is also an effective way of triaging your schoolwork if you get easily overwhelmed by a large workload.

2. Find other ways to be productive if you can't focus on schoolwork

Everyone has a different time of day during which they are the most productive. In my case, I’m somewhat of a night owl; I tend to focus on schoolwork best in the evening. But sometimes, my classes won’t start until later in the day or I’ll have a gap between obligations in the mid-morning or afternoon. I know I won’t get any work done during those times, so I’ll procrastinate, but productively. I’ll use that down time during the day to schedule meetings, shifts at my job, or other extracurricular obligations, so I can still hustle, even if not on schoolwork.

3. Just start!

Sometimes, I procrastinate because I psych myself out. I’ll overthink the assignment and become so overwhelmed by it that I become paralyzed. Getting started is often more difficult than actually doing it, so I use a couple of strategies. I like to remind myself that the only way to write a good essay is to write a bad essay first. That is, bang out a rough draft or outline first, and then come back to it in a day to build upon, refine, and edit my ideas (or more realistically, I’ll revisit it in an hour, because I might not have another day). Your best work might not happen on the first attempt, but you’ll never get there if you don’t start.

On a similar note, if I’m not feeling particularly enthralled with any of my assignments, I’ll sit down in a quiet space with the intention of just answering some emails or taking care of other business. It almost always turns into me starting that reading I’ve been avoiding or jotting down some initial ideas for that big essay. College assignments are tough, obvi, so I like to ease myself into it.

Everyone has different styles of working and managing their time, and sometimes figuring this out takes a while. For me, my method of tackling assignments varies from class to class. The one thing to remember, though, is to prioritize self-care no matter if you start your assignment the week before it’s due, or the day before.