Tackling Procrastination and Perfectionism in the Lead Up to the HSC

Procrastination and perfectionism are study behaviours known to be related to increased academic stress. Students who experience high levels of academic stress are then more likely to have poorer exam performance, mental wellbeing, mood, sleep, confidence, motivation, and even physical health. It’s important to notice and tackle unhelpful study behaviours before they become a big problem during the HSC.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is delaying an important task. You might notice that you are procrastinating when there is schoolwork you need to complete, but instead you are doing everything to avoid it (like scrolling the internet, watching Netflix, hanging out with friends, or cleaning your room).

Procrastination is ultimately an unhelpful study behaviour, because although it reduces your stress levels in the short term, there will be negative consequences later (like running out of time to do a good job, or pulling an “all-nighter” and feeling really stressed).

 What usually drives procrastination is our thoughts, which may not be realistic:

  • “I’ve got plenty of time – I can do it later”
  • “It won’t take too long – I can do it the night before”
  • “I’m not feeling productive right now – I’ll feel like doing it later”
  • “I work better under pressure”

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is setting extremely high standards, and then feeling upset when your work is not perfect. Some signs that you might be a perfectionist include spending too much time on a task, rewriting and getting stuck on sentences, obsessing over minor details, checking and re-checking your work for mistakes over and over.

Having high standards can work for some people, but being a perfectionist becomes a problem when you’re always putting yourself down, failing to acknowledge your successes, or spending hours on assignments that are only worth 5%.

Unhelpful thoughts such as these are what usually drive perfectionism:

  • “If it’s not perfect, I won’t be happy with myself”
  • “I always have to do my best – It has to be perfect”
  • “A mark less than 90% is not good enough – It’s a failure”
  • “I can’t do this – I’m going to fail”

How can I tackle procrastination and perfectionism?

If you notice yourself engaging in procrastination or perfectionism, try using some of the following strategies:

  • Challenge your thoughts: When you notice unhelpful thoughts popping up like the ones listed above, ask yourself some questions such as:
    • “What exactly do I think will happen?”
    • “What are the facts?”
    • “What happened last time?”
    • “What else might happen?”
    • “What evidence is there that this thought is not 100% true”
    • “What happens to my friends? What would they say?”
  • Study grazing: Set a timer to study for only 10 minutes, then have a 10 minute break, and repeat. This helps to get you started.
  • Use other people: Study with a friend or sibling if this helps to motivate you.
  • Write drafts: Take the pressure off yourself and write a rough draft, reminding yourself that it is not meant to be perfect.
  • Set realistic time frames: Assign more time to assessments that are worth more (e.g. 25%) and relatively less time to tasks that aren’t worth as much (e.g. 5%).
  • Break tasks down and make a list: Break down a big assessment into smaller parts (e.g. do some background research, write some dot points, do a draft of the introduction, etc.). When you put these smaller tasks on a list and start ticking them off, you will feel less overwhelmed.
  • Reward yourself: Think about some rewards that you can use to motivate yourself to do some work. For example, after 1-hour of studying you will watch your favourite TV show.
  • Come back to the task later: If you’re having a lot of trouble concentrating on a particular assessment, give yourself a break and work on something else for a while. Come back to it when you’re in a different frame of mind.
  • Set a time to study: Use a calendar or phone reminders to schedule in some time to study. Make sure you also schedule in time to take care of yourself!

When should I seek extra support?

If stress is becoming severe and is beginning to impact your mood, your ability to engage in your daily activities and you feel as though you are not coping with it well, it is important to let someone know. You can talk to the school counsellor, your parents, a GP or one of our psychologists here at RWA Psychology – Family Matters.

Wuthrich, V. M., Jagiello, T., & Azzi, V. (2020). Academic Stress in the Final Years of School: A Systematic Literature Review. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 1-30.

Wuthrich, V.M. & Lowe, C.M. (2017). Study Without Stress Workbook 2nd Edition. Sydney: Centre for Emotional Health, Macquarie University.

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