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Procrastination: Why Smart Students Fail

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By Craig Gilman
Faculty, American Military University

As an instructor with American Military University who teaches a college orientation course specifically designed to ease new or returning students into the habits of success in the classroom, I am often teaching servicemembers who have not been in school for awhile. Many come to the classroom with a long history of achievement in their communities and commands, yet not all survive this introductory 100-level course. Why?

A common misunderstanding is that these students lack good time-management skills. In fact, servicemembers I teach are adults that, in addition to serving in the military, are often also successful spouses, parents, and members of their communities. They have no problem at all planning for and working hard toward the accomplishment of a wide variety of difficult tasks. Something much more prevents their success in the classroom: procrastination.

Merriam-Webster defines procrastinate as “to be slow or late about doing something that should be done: to delay doing something until a later time because you do not want to do it, because you are lazy, etc.” Lazy. Really? I suspect the editors were a bit lazy themselves.

People who suffer from procrastination typically are not lazy and do not lack time-management skills. It is much more deeply rooted than that. In the case of otherwise capable students, it is often the fear of failure that leads to anxiety that causes them to avoid taking the next step. Avoidance = procrastination.

If you lack confidence in your writing skills or are a bit intimidated by writing to an audience, much less a grading professor, you may decide to avoid registering for that required composition course. If it has been years since you solved an algebraic equation, you might decide to take that required math class “next semester” and substitute a course in a subject you are more confident in. If an upcoming assignment happens to require the use of new skills or is perceived to be time-consuming, you might decide to wait until the weekend “to have more time” and attempt it in a concentrated effort at the last moment. This psychological coping mechanism, avoiding uncomfortable and challenging situations, is the root cause of procrastination.

Anxieties, worries, and fears associated with fear of failure are the real challenges to academic achievement. Telling a struggling student to simply try harder or use better time management will be futile if the root cause of student failure happens to be anxiety about such challenges. However, procrastination is conquerable.

How to Conquer Fear

The first step is recognition. Procrastination is real. Begin by realizing that you are not alone. Everyone suffers from procrastination to some degree at different times in their lives. Realize you are avoiding what you perceive to be a challenge unnecessarily and that it might not be. How many times have you started a long-delayed project, only to look back and realize you were perfectly capable all along? Be honest with yourself about the real reasons for your delaying tactics and face them one-by-one. Some concrete tactics to keep in mind are:

  • List your delay tactics, and then list strategies you can use to overcome them.
  • Begin the task sooner, rather than later.
  • Find optimistic reasons for why you will succeed.
  • Reflect on past successes.
  • Have realistic expectations.
  • Create a comfortable, distraction-free study space.
  • Involve a support system and allow it to hold you accountable.
  • Let your command know you are in school.
  • Pick a role model and seek mentorship.
  • Plan out your schedule.
  • Don’t expect perfection!
  • Implement a reward system for yourself, and reward through small, incremental steps.

Finally, do some research and educate yourself about the causes of procrastination and how to conquer it. A good resource designed for students to understand procrastination is provided by the Academic Skills Center of California Polytechnic State University. The more you understand procrastination, the easier it will become for you to empower yourself to succeed, both in and out of the classroom. Keep your eyes on the prize!

About the Author

Craig Gilman is currently an education coordinator and online adjunct faculty member with American Military University (AMU). He is a veteran who served in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer. Prior to joining AMU, Craig taught secondary social studies as a public school teacher in Virginia, international school in Seoul, Korea, and public middle school in Tokyo, Japan. Craig often presents on the attributes of online education at local, state, and national conferences. Craig has a B.S. in Business Administration from West Virginia University and both an M.A. in International Relations and an M.S. in Education from Old Dominion University.

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